Friday, 3 March 2017

St Helen's, Bishopsgate: history in stone

After last week’s depressing post about publishing I'm returning this week to history.

One of the things I really like about living in London is the continuity you can feel with the past. Some buildings are pickled in aspic by the heritage industry, but the best adapt and change, their architecture reflecting the social changes since they were built.

Last year, purely by chance, I stumbled upon St Helen’s in Bishopsgate, a church set in a little pedestrianised square a few yards and a thousand years from the modern City.

St Helen's traces its history back to the twelfth century when it was a small parish church. About 1210 a nunnery was established nearby and the nun’s church was built alongside the existing building. St Helen’s therefore has two naves, the southern nave being that of the old parish church with a northern nave alongside where the “Nun’s Quire” was.

There were changes in the building which I don’t think there is any detail of, but the essential shape remained. There was a line of arches and a screen between the Nun’s Quire and the parish church and the arches were replaced around 1480. They still stand.

The Nun’s Quire. The original parish church is on the right, the other side of the arches

The nunnery stood until 1538 when it fell victim to Henry VIII's Reformation. The screen that had separated the nun’s quire from the parish church was removed so the building became as we see it today. The result is a church that has the shape of an old Saxon church, albeit with a south transept added on around 1250, rather than the cruciform shape that we associate with most traditional churches.

The layout of the church reflects the changes in worship over hundreds of years. The pulpit (1615 or thereabouts) is on the side wall of the church (you can just make it out on the right of the picture) with the chairs facing it so that everyone can see and hear. It’s a more inclusive approach to worship than that which we see in later churches where the rows of pews are arranged in lines across the nave, with the great and the good seated nearer the preacher and the poor huddled at the back, a safe distance away.

In Victorian times the church was rearranged in what we now think of as a more conventional way and the floor was lowered, so that the congregation was suitably subservient to the preacher. Windows were filled with dark stained glass, giving the gloomy air we tend to associate with churches.

In 1992 and 1993 the church was badly damaged by two IRA bombs. All the windows were blown out and the roof was lifted. The enormous damage meant that substantial rebuilding was required. The Rector and churchwardens at this time represented a more evangelical branch of Anglicanism and they wanted the church returned to its medieval layout. The heavy stained glass was replaced by windows which admitted much more light and the floor was raised to its medieval level. The reredos, which had been added in the 19th century to separate the altar from the masses, was moved to a purely decorative function against the east wall. (You can just catch a glimpse of it hidden by the second column in the photo above.) Instead of celebrating communion at an altar where the vicar stands separated from his flock, they have reintroduced the idea of celebrating at a table, moved into the body of the church when the last supper is celebrated. Unfortunately I have no photograph of the table which is tucked away in the south transept when it is not in use. Although the evangelical tone of the services would be well served by a table from IKEA the communion table is 17th-century.

The changes from a small parish church where Catholics practised their faith, to a larger well-lit parish church in the Anglican tradition, to a gloomy Victorian place of worship and now back to a more medieval layout, albeit with modern lighting and an excellent public address system, provides a physical reminder of the way in which Christian worship has changed over almost a thousand years. The church is full of memorials, fragments of ancient glass, architectural details and sword rests which reflect the changes along the way. There is a font from about 1632 which is no longer used as the current congregation prefer total immersion and have built a small pool to facilitate this.

Finally, here is a photo of a brass plate from the 15th century defaced in 1644 because it called on worshippers to pray for the dead – contrary to the biblical teaching that those who died believing in God go immediately to be with him. St Helen's provides a reminder in stone and metal work of the way in which London and the churches of London have changed through the centuries. If you are ever near Bishopsgate, I do recommend a visit.

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The third and final book about John Williamson (don't worry, you don't have to read the other two if you don't want to) Back Home is set in London. My characters are a godless lot and churches don't feature, but the streets where the story is set are still there and I walked them often. I’ve travelled to Argentina and to Borneo to research the background for my books, but I'm lucky to live in a city where there is so much history so much closer to hand.


  1. What a fascinating article! Thank you!

  2. You're welcome! I'm glad you enjoyed it.

  3. A splendid article. I used to drop in on occasion when I did some work nearby in recent years. There were regular lunchtime concerts. It's not so much a hidden gem than an easily-overlooked one. Thanks for posting Tom.