Vic Keegan’s Lost London 30: Elizabeth I at St Dunstan-in-the-West

by Victor Keegan

It is worth coming to St Dunstan-in-the-West, a mini museum of a church on Fleet Street, just to see the statue of Elizabeth I, though there is plenty more to enjoy. The statue is the only one in London of Elizabeth that was carved during her reign (in around 1586). She is also the only kept woman among London statues, as Millicent Fawcett, the suffragette, left £700 in her will for her upkeep, currently managed by the Society for the Protection of Ancient buildings.

Elizabeth looks perfectly serene and queen-like, but she was never intended to be there. She used to grace the west side of Ludgate, one of the official entrances to the City of London, which was situated around the corner on Ludgate Hill. When Ludgate was demolished in 1760 to widen the street, Elizabeth was removed to St Dunstan along with several other ghostly statues, which can be seen in the entrance beneath her.

They are King Lud and his sons, who would frighten any unsuspecting burglars daring to enter the church at night. If you believe Geoffrey of Monmouth’s history – and most people don’t – Lud was the pre-Roman founder of London and buried at Ludgate.

But who needs him when there are the spirits of real celebrities at hand? This was where John Donne preached, where Samuel Pepys worshipped and where Izaac Walton published his classic The Compleat Angler. It is also where Lord Baltimore, who founded the US state of Maryland (though didn’t’ actually go there), was buried in 1632. 

St Dunstan also has a celebrity clock, built in 1671 for an earlier version of the church. It was the first public clock in London to have a minute hand. In 1828, when the original church was demolished, it was saved and eventually returned to its present position in 1935, where it still chimes helped by two figures either side of a pair of bells. 

The church managed to escape the 1666 Great Fire of London thanks to the Dean of Westminster rousing 40 slumbering Westminster School boys in the middle of the night to throw buckets of water over it. It is still very much a functioning church and, unusually, is shared by the Anglican community and the Romanian Orthodox church in London. An altar screen inside was brought from a monastery in Bucharest in 1966.

Vic Keegan is a former leader writer for the Guardian. All previous instalments of his Lost London series are gathered here. A £50 pledge to the On London crowdfunding campaign entitles you to join Vic on a wander round some Lost London sites and a gift of a handsome On London notebook. Please help this website grow! Thank you.

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