Every church tells a story or two. The architecture, ornaments, sculpture and names on the gravestones, pews, floors of the nave, plaques and sarcophagi on display nurture seeds of knowledge – sketches of social history.
If the Brigadier General was interred inside the church yet his grandson was buried in the churchyard years later, maybe the family fell on hard times? Until the early 19th century only the notable (church benefactors, in fact), determined to be as close as possible to Christian piety, were buried inside the church. Not every body could be accommodated. Thereafter burial under the church floor was deemed insanitary; the smells were not that of incense! Hence, the origin of the term, according to the National Churches Trust, “stinking rich”. Good story?
Another enlightening church tale hails from the Church of St Michael and All Angels in Berwick, East Sussex. The church is resplendent with murals painted by Bloomsbury group members Duncan Grant, Vanessa Bell and Vanessa’s son, Quentin, who all lived at Charleston, a farmhouse nearby. This artistic achievement came about because during the Second World War bombs damaged some of the church’s decorative stained glass windows. Rather than replace the stained glass, the Bishop of Chichester commissioned these artists to cover the walls with biblical scenes; the Sussex landscape is evoked; the models come from the locality, even the breed of sheep. The clear glass filling the windows allows light to filter in, illuminating the murals; and this is certainly a marvel to behold.
A most interesting ecclesiastical page-turner in Central London is St Bride’s, Fleet Street. This illustrious church, a stunning edifice designed by Sir Christopher Wren, has quite a distinguishing feature. For St Bride’s is known as the journalists’ church. Many people working in the press, printers and journalists alike, used to worship here when their offices and print works were located nearby in Fleet Street and the streets branching off. For several hundred years, Fleet Street was the ‘avenue’ of the manufacturing industry of the word. Incidentally, there was one rector, Prebendary Arthur Taylor, who had, unusually for a rector, a deep knowledge of printing and publishing. This was because he was a secretary of the Bible Society, which sends the printed – and now digital – gospel all over the world in every language. He served St Bride’s from 1918 until 1951.
The church still has strong links with members of the industry, some of whom still come to worship there, venturing often from far away. It holds an annual journalists’ carol service for all those working in the media industry, and a Remembrance Day service for them as well, commemorating the ones who have lost their lives in the line of duty. Readers are people who work in the industry. Both services are extremely well attended. Arrive early!
In the church’s journalists’ chapel, there are portraits on the altar of journalists who have died in the course of their work. Information underneath each picture details who they are and how they lost their lives. There are so many portraits for display, so the church ‘alternates’ them. One of the portraits shown is of Daniel Pearl, The Wall Street Journal correspondent who was beheaded in Pakistan in 2002. His gruesome death shocked the world. Another face is that of The Sunday Times journalist Marie Colvin. In 2010, she gave an address during a service to commemorate war reporters who had died since 2000. Two years later Colvin herself was killed during the slaughter of Homs, a city under siege at the time by the Syrian government. Another portrait is that of Jamal Khashoggi, the prominent Saudi journalist who was killed inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. He was a contributor to the opinion page of The Washington Post. In the 1990s vigils were held for journalists John McCarthy and Terry Anderson, and Terry Waite, then the Archbishop of Canterbury’s international envoy, while they were being held as hostages in Lebanon.
The genesis of publishing in the church’s area began when the German immigrant Wynkyn de Worde, a pupil of William Caxton (known as the “first printer”), established a printing press near St Bride’s, in Shoe Lane, around 1500. Wynkyn is credited as being the first printer to use italic type. Another notable printer, Richard Pynson, who was born in France, also set up shop at the time, nearer to St Paul’s Cathedral, a short stroll away from St Bride’s. Pynson is credited with introducing Roman type to English printing. He was King’s Printer to King Henry VII and King Henry VIII. Both printers published works featuring a broad range of literary genres, such as romances, religious works, school textbooks and poetry. Other publishers and printers, following their lead, established themselves in the area. Some supplied texts for the legal world at the four Inns of Court nearby and catered for the fictional tastes of an increasing population of literate members of the public living in the City and its environs.
In 1702, Elizabeth Mallet, writing as a ‘him’, in Fleet Street, published London’s first daily newspaper, the Daily Courant. Within 100 years, there were 278 newspapers, journals and periodicals published in London, most of which were published in the region of Fleet Street. The exodus of the press from Fleet Street began in the 1980s, ending in 2005, with the departure of Reuters news agency. The offices of the major newspapers are no longer in one area. The Daily Telegraph is located near Victoria station; the Evening Standard is in Kensington. The Times is at London Bridge. Lawyers, accountants, the financial services industries, notably Goldman Sachs, have taken up the vacant property space.
If you walk along Fleet Street you will see several architecturally impressive buildings originally built to house the press. The Daily Telegraph Art Deco building, with its colonnade façade, bronze balconies and window frames and Egyptian ornamentation is especially impressive. Also of note is the building that was once home to the Press Association and Reuters. Edwin Lutyens, who is considered one of the greatest English architects of the 20th century, designed it. Among his many remarkable achievements is the Cenotaph in Whitehall. The ‘futuristic’ elegant black glass and chrome structure, designed by Ellis and Clarke with Sir Owen Williams for the Daily Express, is quite striking.
St Bride’s is the eighth church on the site of a series of reincarnations dating from the 6th to the 17th century. It is accepted that St Bridget (c. 451 – 525), a sixth century Irish saint from Kildare, founded the first Christian church. The skeleton of a woman who had been given a Christian burial has been found on site. Churches bearing the name of St Bridget are often found near wells, and St Bride’s well is known to have some religious significance.
In medieval times St Bride’s area was associated with several parochial guilds. Parish guilds were dedicated to supporting the worshipping life of a church. Members paid a fee and often gave property to the guilds. These guilds ensured that its members had proper funerals. Some guilds provided charitable services, such as schools or hospitals, for their members and the wider community.
The Guild of St Bride’s, established in 1375 and confirmed by a writ issued by King Edward III, is the oldest guild associated with the church. It still survives today. Members, numbering one hundred, represent a cross section of interests and activities in the region of Fleet Street. They are distinguished at services and during opening hours by their livery gown of russet cloth, trimmed with black, and the medallion they wear around their necks. Each year the Guild funds a bursary of £3000 for a one year postgraduate MA in Newspaper Journalism at City University in London.
Notable historic parishioners have included the parents of Virginia Dare who in 1587 was the first English child to be born in colonial America. The parents of one of the leaders of the Pilgrim Fathers, Edward Winslow, were married at St Bride’s. Other remarkable parishioners were poets John Dryden, John Milton and Richard Lovelace, diarist Samuel Pepys and novelist Samuel Richardson, and the French physicist Denis Papin, who, in 1679, invented the first pressure cooker! The Edwardian novelist Anthony Hope, wrote his world famous novel, The Prisoner of Zenda, while living at the rectory; his father was the vicar at the time. Hope’s novel has been adapted for stage, screen, radio and television.
Today’s incarnation is quite breath taking for its simple, dignified beauty. It is a measure and reflection of the genius of Wren, the architect of St Paul’s Cathedral, who was commissioned to design a new church on the site after the Great Fire of 1666. This church, alas, was again destroyed when it was bombed during the Blitz on the 29 December 1940. All that remained were the steeple and the exterior walls.
The archaeological excavations that followed after the destruction confirmed the existence of a series of churches on this site. One can view many of the remains in the Crypt Museum below stairs. There we see sections of the foundation walls that formed parts of the churches of the past, Roman coins, kitchen pottery and oyster shells – the Romans relished oysters – medieval window glass and floor tiles, gravestones, 16th century clay tobacco pipes, and an iron coffin, among other items.
Iron coffins were in use during the early 19th century. Their advantage was that, unlike wooden coffins, their lids could be secured tightly. This made it difficult for ‘body snatchers’ to steal the bodies for medical research. The fresher the body, the better, the snatchers reckoned! But, alas, iron coffins did not disintegrate as fast as wooden ones, so churches charged more for them if they were used as burial caskets, as they had to wait longer for burial space to be freed. As a consequence, iron coffins had a short commercial life.
Downstairs, you will also see a restored and redesigned 14th century medieval crypt chapel, which now serves as a war memorial chapel for those who worked with Associated Newspapers and lost their lives during the the two World Wars. The Harmsworth family, a newspaper dynasty, generously funded the refurbishment. There is a plaque on the south wall revealing the names of the 58 fallen inscribed in glass. The walls, ceiling and altar are for the most part chalk white and the lighting is subdued; the chapel has a very serene air.
If you attend the fascinating tour on Tuesday afternoons – the guide I met was extremely well informed and enthusiastic – you can also visit the charnel house (not otherwise open to the public), which contains some 7000 skeletal bones. When they were removed from the cemetery during the Middle Ages – to make room for more burials – they were arranged according to type, skulls with skulls, etc., and laid out in a checkerboard pattern. Also on view are numbered cardboard boxes containing the skeletal remains of 227 people buried between the late 17th to the mid 19th centuries, whose coffins, with identifying plates, were discovered during the excavations. The fact that the coffins were buried within the church confirms that the people were of a middle to upper middle social class. Students of dentistry, medicine and forensic science come to St Bride’s to study the bones in order to find out more about the health of a stratum of people who lived in the past. A pitted skull, for example, may indicate death from venereal disease. The distorted ribs of the women are the result of wearing tight corsets. Jelena Bekvalac, the curator of osteology at the Museum of London, is leading the research.
The present restoration, completed in 1957, is considered more akin to Wren’s original designs that what transpired in 1675. Godfrey Allen, the architect, “produced a faithful re creation” according to St Bride’s. As one discovers Wren’s churches, it is apparent that although each church has its own individual characteristics architecturally, and distinctive embellishments, paintings and sculpture, there are architectural characteristics distinguishing Wren’s style. Symmetry and Wren’s love of natural light is apparent at St Bride’s; we bask in his favoured clear glass windows with round tops. This is a sharp contrast to the stained glass windows of Gothic – or neo-Gothic – churches. The black and white marble flooring is also a distinctive Wren feature. Typically Wren, the Portland stone work is ‘clean’ and the ceilings are white washed with gilding; and there is a tower in the west end with an elaborate spire atop. St Bride’s spire is a series of octagons, with open arches, diminishing in size. As the church is not easily visible from the street, the art historian and former museum director David Piper has described it as being “like a hollyhock that escapes from the pressure of the undergrowth”.
The shape of the spire is the reason why the church is referred to as the “wedding cake church”. During the late 18th century, a pastry chef, Mr Rich, who lived in Fleet Street, modelled his wedding cakes on the tiered spire.
The collegiate arrangement of the stalls (with the choir sitting in the middle of the arrangement) gives the church quite an intimate aura. (St Bride’s is renowned for its professional choir and music.)
Above the east window are ‘illusionist’ mural paintings by Glyn Jones, designed to give the flat east wall the appearance of an apse, which is extremely effective. In front of the ‘apse’ is an exquisitely carved oak reredos – a screen – that is a copy of one in the Chapel Royal at Hampton Court Palace, in Richmond.
Whether you worship in a church, a mosque or a synagogue or even if God is not your thing, visiting St Bride’s is an enriching experience. We explore the past in a beautiful setting, learning about what we did not know there was to learn about. Our spirits will be lifted not only for a few hours. Good stories await you.
Please visit http://www.stbrides.com for information about services, events, opening hours and tours.
After you visit St Brides, venture westwards down Fleet Street and explore Dr. Johnson’s House, an enchanting 300-year-old house in Gough Square. Johnson compiled A Dictionary of the English Language, which to this day is considered an outstanding achievement. For further information, see http://www.drjohnsonshouse.org/
The images of the interior of the church are courtesy of St. Bride’s church.
This article first appeared in the American Hour blog, January 2019. http://www.theamericanhour.com/?blog=.