Vic Keegan’s Lost London 247: The medieval spell of St Mary-le-Bow

Vic Keegan’s Lost London 247: The medieval spell of St Mary-le-Bow

If you wander around Cheapside guided by its street names you will be transported back to medieval London. Milk Street, Bread Street, Wood Street, Ironmonger Lane, Old Fish Street and Garlick Hill are all named after the trades that did business either side of Cheapside itself, although the traders had to sell their wares in that main City street as it was the legally designated trading area.

Some of them are shown on the 1561 Agas map above. Highlighted in yellow on “Chepefyde” are the last of the series of  Eleanor Crosses erected by Edward I in memory of his wife and, to the right of it, a smaller structure which was one of the conduits that brought fresh water to the locals. The big building highlighted is the church of St Mary-le-Bow which can trace its origins back to 1080, though after the 1666 Great Fire of London it was reconstructed by Christopher Wren.

If you want a genuinely ancient experience at the church, go downstairs where you can have a coffee and something to eat in a crypt largely unchanged since medieval days (photo below). It is one of the very few places in London where such gastronomic time travel can be done. The monks’ cellarium in Westminster Abbey is another.

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If the crypt seems to be lacking a couple of stones this could just possibly be because in 1912 two of them were removed and given to Trinity Church in New York, situated on the corner of Wall Street and Broadway. This was in recognition of William of Orange granting it the same privileges as St Mary-le-Bow.

The New York church had been designed by a British immigrant from Shaftesbury, Richard Upjohn, and until 1869 was the tallest building in the United States. Trinity Church confirmed to me that they had received the stones, but they don’t what has happened to them. Lost in time.

St Mary’s is, of course, famous more for its bells than for its stones, not least because of the unproven tale that Dick Whittington when leaving London turned back when he heard the sound of Bow bells and went on to become Lord Mayor. The bells also feature in the nursery rhyme Oranges and Lemons:

“I do not know,

Says the great bell at Bow.”

If you lived within the sound of Bow Bells you were, by tradition, defined as a cockney. How this went down with the rich goldsmiths and merchants who lived nearby is not obvious. Nor is the implication that entitlement to being called a Cockney could depend on which way the wind was blowing. However none of this has prevented the story being embedded in global folklore.

Less well known is the fact that Bow’s bells were also used as a curfew (from the old French “cuevrefeu” meaning “cover fire”) to tell householders to put their fires out as a precaution against a conflagration. The custom has long since died out at St Mary’s but to keep the tradition going a curfew, albeit electronic, is still sounded each evening at Gray’s Inn.

The church has Wren’s signature all over it, especially its tower. As David Crawford notes in his book The City of London, it contains all five of  the classical orders of columns (Tuscan, Doric, Ionic, Corinthian and Composite) and it apparently cost as much to build as the whole of the rest of the church. The tower is a monument in its own right and represents money well spent because only it and the walls of the church survived a World War II bomb.

The church is best accessed from Mansion House Underground station along Bow Lane, a road built to convey goods from the ancient port of Greenhithe to the Cheapside markets. As you walk up Bow Lane the spire of St Mary peeps out and then disappears in the grand manner of London’s unfolding townscape.

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Turn left before reaching the church and you enter its forecourt where there is an imposing statue (above) of Sir John Smith, a local parishioner who led a quite extraordinary life before playing a key role in establishing the first British outpost in America at Jamestown, Virginia in the early 1600s.

Smith was reputedly saved from the death penalty after a plea from the native American Pocahontas, who subsequently made a highly successful trip to London on behalf of the Virginia Company, though she tragically died at the very start of her return journey and was buried in Gravesend.

St Mary-le-Bow is a successful working church which also runs a project that takes young homeless people into safe flats and young ex-offenders – often ex-prisoners – into its office for training. This is run in association with the Pret a Manger Apprenticeship Scheme and often leads to permanent employment.

All previous instalments of Vic Keegan’s Lost London can be found here and a book containing many of them can be bought here. Follow Vic on Twitter and also as @LondonStreetWalker.

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Categories: Culture, Lost London

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