Changing London

City churches: Exploring Wren’s post-Great Fire masterpieces

The City of London’s churches are fascinating places to while away some time, whether you are there to participate in a service or merely take stock of the surroundings that tell us so much about the history of our great capital. In the fourth of my new six-part series, I discover some of the masterpieces that Sir Christopher Wren built after the Great Fire of London.

Tucked away from the busy traffic on Queen Victoria Street, St Benet’s has been holding services in the Welsh language for more than a century which makes it unique amongst the City of London’s surviving churches. But that’s not the only reason why it’s well worth a visit: it is also considered one of the least altered of the new masterpieces that Sir Christopher Wren (or one of his associates!) built after the Great Fire of 1666.

St Benet’s church

Of the 51 parish churches that the great architect and his team built, 24 remain – as well as six towers. But given the Blitz and other factors, many of these have been altered over the years. St Benet’s, which was first recorded in the 12th century, is rare in the fact that it has been largely unaltered since Wren (or perhaps his assistant Robert Hooke) re-built it between 1678 to 1684. It claims to be one of four City churches to have escaped Blitz damage.

With a simple exterior of red and blue chequered brickwork and Portland, it lies just a short distance from St Paul’s cathedral and once stood by a quay where materials were unloaded for building Wren’s masterpiece. The interior, which is almost square and therefore designed to allow as many of the congregation as possible to view the pulpit, contains many fascinating 17th century features. These include a Flemish oak communion table and probably the only example of a font and accompanying baptism bench in the City. Galleries held up by Corinthian columns and unusually for a Wren church, the ceiling is flat rather than curved or domed. Windows are plain, rather than stained glass.

Inigo Jones, who designed Banqueting Hall which once lay at the heart of the old vast Whitehall Palace and other important buildings, was buried in the pre Great Fire church in 1652 and is remembered through a monument in the present St Benet’s. Henry Fielding, the author of Tom Jones, married his wife’s maid here in 1747. And is referred to in Shakespeare’s play, Twelfth Night.

But we are actually extremely lucky that St Benet’s is still standing. It was one of 19 churches earmarked for demolition in 1877, however was spared from the list by Queen Victoria. Her Majesty consequently granted the right to hold Welsh services here in perpetuity and Sunday congregations have gathered here ever since (if you can’t speak the language there are full English translations in the order of the service).

Inside St Benet’s church

Enthusiastic volunteers from the Friends of City Churches open the building every Thursday for visits. But sadly the structure is looking like it is urgent need of maintenance, with walls showing signs of crumbling in places. Many of the City’s churches are linked to livery companies, but St Benet’s is not. And, when combined with only attracting small congregations on a weekly basis, it means it doesn’t have pots of cash to spend.

Wren’s churches

When the Great Fire struck in 1666, some four fifths of buildings were destroyed, including 85 out of the 107 parish churches. While radical plans were made for re-building the City – some of which were on display at the fascinating Museum of London special exhibition last year – it was in the end decided to re-build on the same gridlines as before, to avoid landowners needing to be compensated.

Wren was tasked with re-building the churches, benefitting from one third of coal tax proceeds for St Paul’s and another third of the levy for parish ones (although he himself only drew a salary for working on the former). But although the architect had a hand in designing the 51 churches, it is hard to believe that he could get heavily involved in the detail of each. As with St Benet’s, there is therefore suspicion that he supervised his associates at the individual sites, which allowed for variation in building styles.

The new churches borrowed heavily on ideas from abroad, particularly Holland: Wren was keen to ensure they looked Protestant and avoided all the clutter of the pre-Reformation, Catholic churches. And he spent just as much time designing the interior as he did the exterior, with considerable thought given to features such as galleries, pulpits, organs and fonts. Given the number of churches built, it is astonishing that most of the work was completed by the 1680s (although work to build towers continued after then).

Re-building Wren’s masterpieces

Few of Wren’s church have been unaltered: St Benet’s is rare in this respect. The Blitz was particularly devastating for religious buildings in the City and considerable re-building work was required in its aftermath.

St Mary-le-Bow, which stands next to an attractive courtyard off Cheapside where office workers often sit and eat their lunch or visit the flower stall, has a fairly typical history amongst many City’s churches. First recorded in the 11th century, perhaps on the site of an earlier Saxon church, it was destroyed by the Great Fire and re-built by Wren. But it was badly damaged again during the Blitz and didn’t re-open until 1964.

St Mary-le-Bow

It was known as the Cockneys’ church, because it was said that true Cockneys must be born “within the sounds of Bow bells”. These dated back to medieval times when they were rung daily at 9pm, since at least 1363, to mark the start of the curfew and the end of apprentices day. The bells also featured in the nursery rhyme Oranges and Lemons.

St Mary’s was one of the first (and most expensive) churches to be re-built by Wren after the Great Fire. His 68-metre baroque bell tower, made out of Portland stone and crowned by the City symbol of a dragon, was almost as ambitious as what he created at St Paul’s. But only this structure and the outer walls remain – the rest was destroyed by the Blitz and although architect Laurence King consulted Wren’s designs, it has a modern feel inside. The almost square space, which colourful glass from John Hayward, is frequently used by visiting speakers and for recitals.

Inside St Mary-le-Bow

If possible, it’s definitely worth taking a look in the arched crypt, which is the earliest example that can be found in London and is where the Archbishop of Canterbury’s ecclesiastical Court of Arches has been held since medieval times. One part of this underground space is occupied by Cafe Below, which serves meals through the day.

Many would agree that King did a good job renovating St Mary’s, but while not all Wren churches were re-built after the Blitz we should celebrate the fact that so many are still standing. Some 24 of the religious houses that the architect and his associates built are there to be visited.

Next week: the City churches where only towers remain

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