St.Mary-le-Bow church, Cheapside

The Norman crypt of St.Mary-le-Bow church

The term ‘cockney’ has long been associated with Londoners and since the 17th century 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.

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 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, as 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 was dedicated to Sancta Maria de Arcubus (St.Mary of the Arches). The arches in question, which can still be seen in the 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 1193 a revolt by the citizens of London against King Richard took place, led by William Fitz-Osbert. It was ruthlessly ended and Fitz-Osbert sought sanctuary in St.Mary-le-Bow. His enemies set fire to the building and he surrendered, was removed to the Tower and hanged with eight others at Smithfield.

Despite being in the centre of London, from the time of its foundation, St.Mary-le-Bow remained in the diocese of Canterbury 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 original main part of the Norman church suffered damage from a tornado in 1091 and was destroyed by fire in 1196 when it was replaced by a new building. The tower of that new building collapsed in 1271 and was replaced; it survived the Great Fire of 1666 but was anyway demolished when Christopher Wren replaced the old building with the present design. He based it on the Basilica of Maxentius in Rome, which he never actually saw with his own eyes. His original building was almost entirely destroyed in 1941 and only rebuilt in 1964 after a long campaign to save it, and in part with funds from overseas.

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’. Although barely audible at the ends of Cheapside these days, in past centuries, when buildings were much smaller, the ‘Great Bell of Bow’ carried over long distances and could be heard for many miles around. 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 it 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.”

With thanks to Olwen Maynard for help with fact-checking and proof-reading.