St Dunstan in the East
Most Londoners will know that through its long existence, the City of London has suffered great catastrophes. The most well known of these are the Great Fire of London of 1666 and the Blitz of 1940/41. Both of these events caused appalling damage to the City’s best loved architectural treasures, namely, the churches of the City of London.
The City of London currently contains 49 complete churches. But this is less than half the total number of churches within the square mile that existed pre the Great Fire. Some City churches have very ancient foundations. At least two, All Hallows’ by the Tower and St Brides have Roman remains in situ and visible in their crypts. The former claims to be the oldest of all the City churches with a foundation dating to 675! It’s quite likely that there were earlier churches, probably constructed from timber that don’t survive.
Any discussion of the City of London churches has to acknowledge the vast contribution made by London’s greatest architect, Sir Christopher Wren. Following the Great Fire, in addition to rebuilding St Paul’s Cathedral, Wren was responsible for overseeing the reconstruction of 50 Churches. By my reckoning some 31 of these architectural jewels survive either intact or with significant remains. A significant proportion of Wren churches were either destroyed or badly damaged during the Blitz. By no means all of these were rebuilt.
Each of the surviving churches has a rich history and each one could very easily have a very substantial blog dedicated to it. Even the names of the churches evoke images of an ancient and changing city. From the traditional St Clement to the geographic St Dunstan in the East; the famous St Mary le Bow to the unusual St Margaret Pattens; the similar sounding yet very different St Mary Aldermary and St Mary Aldermanbury through to the curious sounding examples of St Vedast Alias Foster and St Michael Paternoster Royal.
Most of the City Churches are open to the public and they all have something interesting to offer. St Mary Aldermary has a bustling and atmospheric cafe. Many churches have fascinating little details. The beautiful St Stephen Walbrook, a Wren Church with a dome said to have been the model for St Paul’s also has a magnificent altar created by the 20th Century master sculptor, Sir Henry Moore. Very reminiscent of an enormous Camembert cheese. Counterintuitively, it seems to fit perfectly into its 17th century surroundings. St Magnus the Martyr, located on the line of the old Medieval London Bridge, contains a spectacular model of the famous bridge complete with houses, shops, chapels and miniature figures bustling their way along what was the the only river crossing in London until the 17th Century.
The City Churches whether complete or in a ruinous state are there for everyone to enjoy. Some of the ruined churches are now havens of peace and tranquility where city workers can be found enjoying their lunches on warm spring and summer days. I particularly love St Dunstan’s in the East. The shell of the roofless nave survives and where once there were pews, choir stalls, an altar and a pulpit can be found the most exquisite garden. You can genuinely sit in the body of the old church, close your eyes and take yourself to a place that seems to be a very long way away from the hurly burly of London’s frenetic business district.
Each of the churches has its own story, and each is absolutely fascinating. The next time you’re in the City and you near one of these glorious architectural jewels, go in and have a look. I guarantee you’ll be fascinated, inspired and your life will have been just a little bit enriched.
St Stephen Walbrook
Copyright, Richard Ing 2019
Photography, Richard Ing 2019