St.Mary-le-Bow church, Cheapside

Cheapside in 1750, dominated on the right side by the elegant tower and steeple of St. Mary-le-Bow church, designed by Christopher Wren. It was topped by an eight-foot-long dragon-vane, the symbol of the City.

The term ‘cockney’ has long been associated with Londoners. Since the 17th century it has been used to describe those born within the sound of ‘Bow Bells’, that is the bells of St. Mary-le-Bow church in Cheapside. Legend has it that the bells persuaded Dick Whittington to turn back to London. St. Mary-le-Bow, is one of the oldest and most important churches in the City of London.

When William of Normandy conquered England in 1066 he never forcibly subdued London but merely negotiated a treaty with its Saxon citizens. In the following years he found other ways in which to impose his supremacy on the people of the city, in the form of castles and religious institutions in the Norman style. In the east he erected the White Tower of the Tower of London; in the west the vast new St. Paul’s Cathedral; and to the south was Bermondsey Abbey. In the very middle of the city, on its main street of Westcheap (now Cheapside) he commissioned a great new church that towered over its surrounding buildings. In its earliest times St. Mary-le-Bow church was therefore most likely considered by Londoners to be a sign of oppression by a conquering Norman baron.

The Norman building – which may have replaced an earlier Saxon church – was built in around 1080 by William’s Archbishop of Canterbury, Lanfranc, and quite possibly designed by Gandulf, who was also responsible for the Tower of London. It was constructed from the same Caen stone as the Tower, which can still be seen below the main church. What is now effectively the crypt was in those times an undercroft, a lower level. The church stood so much higher than its neighbouring buildings because it was built above the undercroft, and worshippers ascended from ground level via stairs into the main nave.

The Norman church, of which no image above the crypt remains, was dedicated to Sancta Maria de Arcubus (St. Mary of the Arches). The arches in question, which can still be seen in the three-aisled crypt, were a feature of the original Norman building, a relatively new introduction to architecture in England at that time. The name evolved into St.Mary-le-Bow in English, in the same way as the district of East London became known as Bow after the arches of the bridge over the river Lea.

The Tudor historian John Stow wrote that “for divers accidents happening there, [St. Mary] hath been made more famous than any other parish church of the whole city or suburbs”. Stow recorded:

in the year 1090, and the 3rd of William Rufus, by tempest of wind, the roof of the church…was overturned, wherewith some persons were slain, and four of the rafters, of twenty-six feet in length, with such violence were pitched in the ground of the high street, that scantily four feet of them remained above ground, which were fain to be cut even with the ground, because they could not be cut out, for the city of London was not then paved, and a marsh ground.

The building was destroyed in 1196 and had to be replaced after a revolt took place against King Richard. According to Stow:

William Fitz Osbert, a seditious tailor, took the steeple…and fortified it with munitions and victuals, but it was assaulted, and William with his accomplices were taken, though not without bloodshed, for he was forced by fire and smoke to forsake the church; and then, by the judges condemned, he was by the heels drawn to the Elms of Smithfield, and there hanged with nine of his fellows…Such was the end of this deceiver, a man of an evil life, a secret murderer, a filthy fornicator, a polluter of concubines…

The tower of that new building collapsed in 1271 and was replaced, although not completed until 1512.

Despite being in the centre of London St. Mary-le-Bow remained in the diocese of Canterbury from the time of its foundation by Archbishop Lanfranc until 1850. The church gave its name to the Court of Arches, at which ecclesiastic law cases for the southern province of the English Protestant Church are heard and the election of bishops confirmed. The court is still convened at St. Mary-le-Bow, as it has for much of the time since around 1250. The church remains the City headquarters of the Archbishop of Canterbury and he continues to visit several times each year.

The Tudor tower survived the Great Fire of 1666 but required shoring up. It was subsequently demolished when Christopher Wren replaced the old structure with the present design. He based the new building on the Basilica of Maxentius in Rome, which he never actually saw with his own eyes, and the entrances on the Hôtel de Conti in Paris. The tower and its magnificent steeple, at 68 metres high, was his second-tallest structure after St. Paul’s and became known as ‘the Cheapside pillar’. Predecessors had stood back from the street but Wren brought it forward to stand on Cheapside, separated from the main body of the church by a vestibule. The modest west front was probably the work of one of Wren’s colleagues, such as Robert Hooke. He had little interest in the crypt, which he believed to be Roman, and left the only access by a trapdoor and ladder. The total cost of the work was £15,421, by far the highest rebuilding cost of any of the City churches, indicating its importance. The spire was repaired by the architect George Gwilt in 1820 and the upper part rebuilt.

Wren’s building was almost entirely destroyed by bombing in 1941. It was only rebuilt in 1964 after a long campaign to save it, and in part with funds from overseas. The construction was undertaken by Lawrence King, with decorative work in the crypt and upper church, including the glass and organ case, by John Hayward.

In past centuries, when buildings were much smaller, the sound of St. Mary’s ‘Great Bell of Bow’ carried over long distances and could be heard for many miles around. In modern times it is barely audible at the ends of Cheapside. From at least 1363 until 1876 it was rung at nine o’clock every evening to signal the end of the working day for apprentices. The ringing of Bow Bell was also the signal for other churches around the city to ring the curfew, when the city gates closed.

‘Born within the sound of Bow Bell’ was used to define all Londoners as cockneys until the 19th century when the term became more restricted to those in East London. The legend is that Dick Whittington heard Bow Bells from Highgate and was persuaded to return to the city, becoming “thrice mayor of London”. The bell also features in the nursery rhyme Oranges & Lemons:

When will you pay me? say the bells of Old Bailey.
When I grow rich, say the bells of Shoreditch.
When will that be? say the bells of Stepney.
I do not know says the Great Bell of Bow.

Since the 18th century the church bells have been cast at Whitechapel Bell Foundry and from 1881 the bell-tower has contained a peal of twelve. Following destruction in the Second World War the present bells were cast in 1956. These each contain a Biblical inscription, the first letters of which make up ‘D Whittington’.

Sources include: R.G. Ellen ‘A London Steeplechase’; Gerald Cobb ‘The Old Churches of London’ (1942, 1948); John Stow ‘A Survey of London’ (1598); John Betjeman ‘The City of London Churches’; Lisa Jardine ‘On A Grander Scale’; Walter Thornbury ‘Old and New London’ (1897).

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