St Bride’s Church, on Fleet Street, has counted the likes of John Dryden, Izaak Walton, Samuel Pepys and John Milton among its parishioners. Known as The Phoenix of Fleet Street, because of the number of times it has risen from the ashes, it has a further nickname: The Cathedral of Fleet Street.
I learned so much about this gracious and welcoming building during our one-and-a-half hour tour that it’s hard to know where to begin – I could easily fill several blog posts with my newly-acquired knowledge. However, as I very much recommend visiting the St Bride’s and taking one of its tours, I am just going to share some selected highlights – in the hope that you, too, will pay this wonderful dwelling a visit.
Very few churches bear the name of St Bride, mainly because any that does has to be founded by the saint’s followers, not simply named after her. St Bride was the daughter of an Irish king and his servant; after Bride was born the king’s wife banished her from court. Bride spent most of her life at the Kildare Monastery, where she held a very senior role. She travelled widely, by chariot – although there is no record of her coming to England, meaning she is unlikely to have visited this particular location.
As well as her spiritual powers St Bride was reputed to be a brewer of excellent beer, hence her popularity in Fleet Street (so the joke goes). Those of you with long memories will recall that, for many years, Fleet Street was home to most of the UK’s national newspapers. Times have changed, and the media, for the most part, is based in other parts of London, but St Bride’s will forever be associated with journalism and the printing press.
During the years when John McCarthy and Terry Waite were in captivity, the church held all-night vigils for them, which many journalists attended. Somehow, word got back to the two captives in Beirut, who were greatly comforted by the knowledge that they were in the prayers of so many, and St Bride’s was one of the first places that John McCarthy visited after he was liberated and returned to the UK. Now, the church maintains a permanent Remembrance Altar for journalists tasked with bringing news out of war zones. Each year, it holds a Media Remembrance Sunday service for the families and friends of missing journalists which takes place the week after the official Remembrance Sunday. At each service, there is an address by a media representative – the late Marie Colvin was one such speaker, just a few months before she was killed.
St Bride’s connections to the media date back long before then, though. It was in her churchyard, in 1501, that William Caxton’s apprentice, Wynkyn de Worde, set up England’s first printing press. de Worde is buried here, and you will find a plaque commemorating the printer and his work inside the church.
What a rich and varied history this church has. The site of St Bride’s has been built upon since Roman times and there is evidence to prove that at least eight churches have existed upon this site. Arguably, the most famous is St Bride’s seventh incarnation, which was designed by Sir Christopher Wren following the Great Fire of London, during which the church had been burnt to the ground – an event chronicled by Samuel Pepys, who was christened here. Legend has it that a group of St Bride’s parishioners took Wren out for dinner at the Globe Tavern, where they persuaded the renowned architect, in his role as Surveyor General and Principal Architect for rebuilding the City, of the importance of St Bride’s to London. Nine years later, just as the rebuild of St Paul’s Cathedral commenced, St Bride’s reopened for worship, although without a spire – St Bride’s famous “wedding cake” spire was not completed until 1702.
Sadly, Wren’s church was destroyed in December 1940, following months of sustained bombing by the Luftwaffe, who on this particular night had been aiming for St Paul’s. Yet again, however, St Bride’s rose from the ashes, with a rebuild led by Godfrey Allen and based upon the exact footprint of Wren’s church.
We also know that King John held his court here, in the 13th century, and that the church had Tudor connections – in fact, it was Henry VIII’s parish church, as he owned Bridewell Palace, next door. Edward VI inherited Bridewell Palace following Henry’s death, but was persuaded to give it to the City of London Corporation, who used it, variously, as an orphanage, workhouse, prison, home for ‘ladies of disrepute’ and a homeless shelter.
Elegant and packed with history though the church is, entering inside its Crypt is like visiting a whole other world. Incredibly, the Crypt was only discovered after the WWII bombing – having been boarded up in 1856, following a horrendous cholera outbreak, it had been completely forgotten about. As our group was taken down there (entrance to the Crypt is only permitted through a guided tour), we fell silent, hardly able to believe our eyes. Inside the darkened Charnel House, you can actually see bones and skulls gleaming in the light, in the same place that they have lain for many hundreds of years. It is believed that over 7,000 human remains lie here.
As if that wasn’t astonishing enough, post-War, 200 skeletons were excavated from the Crypt and identified by their sex and age. Carefully stored inside the church (in an area which again is only accessible as part of the guided tour), these remains are now used by scientists and medical experts in their research into forensic and other forms of medical research.
Finally, we saw inside the church’s Medieval Chapel, also discovered after the WWII bombing, and which has been restored – beautifully – as a memorial to the staff of Associated Newspapers who lost their lives in the First and Second World Wars.
This is a building you could visit over and over again, each time discovering a new treasure or another fascinating fact. I intend to return soon, for one of the Church’s regular lunchtime concerts – and hope very much to see you there.