Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The London of Sebastian St. Cyr: St. Helen's, Bishopsgate

As longtime readers of the Sebastian St. Cyr series know, Jamie Knox's tavern, the Black Devil, backs onto the churchyard of St. Helen's, Bishopsgate. 

St. Helen's still exists today, having come through both the Great Fire and the Blitz. In fact, it is the largest surviving church in the City of London. Built in the 13th century as part of a priory of Benedictine nuns, it contains twin naves once separated by a wall (the northern nave was for the nuns, with the adjoining nave for parishioners). After the Dissolution, the central wall was torn down and the other priory buildings repurposed rather than destroyed. It wasn't until 1799 that most of the other old monastic buildings disappeared.
Unfortunately, the church was badly damaged by IRA bombs in the 1990, when many of its famous interior monuments were lost and its huge medieval stained glass window shattered. It has since been repaired, but you can compare the above image of the interior with an old photograph, below.
Interestingly, St. Helen's was also the parish church of William Shakespeare when he lived in the area. Today, the old church is overshadowed by the looming modern skyscrapers around it. But a tiny part of its ancient churchyard remains.


Anonymous said...

C- those are great snaps. I am always awed when I see things so old among the so new.
In NYC we don't have many really old buildings left but what we do have is usually a church. I used to work downtown and St Paul's Chapel and Trinity Church were favorite spots to visit. Especially the old cemeteries with gravestones from the 1700's. The links below have some similar shots. For anybody with an interest in history both of these churches are worth a visit if you ever come to NYC. Best, Ali



Barbara Butler McCoy said...

I always feel rooted, I think, when I come across tiny pieces of antiquity amid this modern muddle. I would find it difficult to wander around the parts of London frequented by either Sebastian or Shakespeare without wondering what it would feel like to be there myself. Cool post, thank you. (Oh, did you see that Mt. St. Helens is steaming?!)

paz said...

Love the pics!
I agree with Ali about the juxtaposition of old and new, when it works (though sometimes it doesn't at all).

I also thought they did a lovely job with the reconstruction. I actually tend to prefer Romanesque architecture to its Gothic counterpart. St. Helen's columns and arches are clearly Gothic, but the white walls and the dark wood remind me of the earlier style: simple and elegant.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing!!! Love seeing the things that are still around today. It helps clear up the pictures in my mind as I imagine Sebastian's story. Sabena

cs harris said...

Ali, those were interesting; thank you.

Barbara, I hadn't seen that, but I just Googled it. Incredible to realize it's been 34 years since the big blow. I still have a little mason jar filled with ash.

Paz, it does look lovely.

Sabena, since I work off old prints and always think of it in that period, it was a shock to me to see it with the Gherkin and Pinnacle towering over it.

hwueste said...

I did not pay attention to the Gherkin hovering in the background.
In terms of the London skyline, I agree with Prince Charles when he chastized the city zoning and planning for obscuring the majesty of Christopher Wren's genius by not limiting building heights or moving skyscrapers to other less historical areas. It's too bad they didn't pay respect to the beauty of the past. Thanks for the old pictures. It helps so much being able to see the places and the world Sebastian would actually have lived in. What fun!!! Holly

Lynne said...

I love stories about the old buildings in London, particularly the churches. It's heartbreaking to think that the monuments were destroyed but wonderful to see that the beautiful hammer-beams survive. I'm with Barbara in that the bits of antiquity are such a pleasure amid all those (awful)modern high-rises. London has still got so many of the wonderful old buildings tucked here and there. Thanks for sharing, Candy. And I can outdo your jar of ash. Every time I dig a deep hole in the garden I can turn some of it up. Yuk!!

Suzanne said...

Wow, St Helens is so beautiful. It is a pity it is surrounded by glass monstrosities. But then I guess the surroundings wouldn't have been attractive in Sebastian's day either. Thanks for sharing this with us. I love these little trips into old London.

Gosh Lynne, I didn't realise you were so close to Mt St Helens. In the Asia Pacific region there has been lots of terrifying pictures on the news of the volcano erupting at the moment in Japan. I wonder if there is a connection?
I suppose we will be getting whales beaching themselves soon. It usually seems to happen when there is an earthquake or volcanic eruption going on. My great aunt Myrtle used to say it makes their radar go on the fritz and they run into land.

Charles Gramlich said...

such history over there. We have very little like it here.

JustWingingIt said...

I always love these posts with pictures of Sebastian's London shown side-by-side with modern day London. I'm such a visual person and it really helps me to picture what Sebastian and Hero would've seen as they moved about their world. The church is lovely, though even with the rebuilding it still looks odd to see modern chairs in it.


cs harris said...

Holly, I so agree.

Lynne, still?! How many inches of the ash did you get?

Suzanne, oh, dear; I didn't know that about whales.

Charles, and we here in New Orleans have more than most!

Veronica, those chairs are odd. I wonder why they use them rather than pews?

Lynne said...

Candy, the amount of ash varied all over eastern Washington. I think Spokane got about 3-5 inches. My house (Mom and Dad's before I inherited it) probably had 4 in. Dad's solution was to turn it under in the garden. Not a bad idea since most geologists believe we're on an old volcano, hence the very rich soil. But it takes a long time to break down and on occasion I have found it in my ground. What doesn't decompose turns to cement-like chunks. Don't ask me why - I barely passed geology class.

Suzanne said...

Candy, the scientific community say they don't know why whales beach themselves, but Aunty Myrtle noticed a pattern of them doing it at the same time of activity under the earth's surface and told us all about it. I have looked out for the pattern ever since and it seems to happen so often I wonder if she got it right.

Lynne, I am not sure if it will break down. West of Melbourne we have a few volcanoes which have been extinct for millions of years, yet there are still solid volcanic rocks all over the ground. They are so plentiful farmers have made fences out of them. And the soil there is rubbish.

Susan J. said...

What an interesting post. How sad that the church survived the dissolution and the blitz, only to be damaged by the IRA. It's nice to picture places mentioned in the Sebastian books. The church in our village of Willoughby dates from the 13th century, I believe. I used to live almost next door to a 13th century church, when we had an old cottage in the village of Uffington, near Stamford in Lincolnshire. It had a tomb with an stone effigy of a medieval knight in armour. I liked to walk through the churchyard to get to my house, it was so peaceful and full of old gravestones. We used to hear the bells ringing from our house, one of them dated from the 17th century and I wondered how many generations of people had listened to that bell before me!

Lynne said...

Susan, when you lived in Uffington could you see the Uffington White Horse? I just read an article about all the chalk horses, in Discover Britain magazine, and the Uffington Horse was pictured. I think all the old churches in England are wonderful, with so much history connected to them - they all seem to have a story, just like St. Helen's, Bishopsgate.
Suzanne, We actually live in a "bread basket" region with soil that grows the best wheat and lentils in the US. According to my old Geology Prof. some of the ash solidifies into rock and some breaks down, not unlike lava, and becomes rich soil. Like I said...if I'd really paid attention in class years ago I might remember the reason.

Susan J. said...

Lynne: The Uffington you speak of is in another area, I think it's Wiltshire or near there. Uffington is actually a Saxon name and it means Uffa's place, meaning that the local Lord in the Saxon times gave his name (Uffa) to it. This was Uffington in Lincolnshire, near the beautiful town of Stamford, which Sir Walter Scott and Daniel Defoe described as having one of the most attractive aspects of any town in England as you enter it. The countryside is not dramatic but that area has some of the most wonderful stone built buildings in the country. My cottage was stone built, with exposed stone in our sitting room and was listed as early 18th century.

hwueste said...

Candice, this is such a cool blog. I learn so much from you all of your friends who have lived in and experienced worlds that I know little or nothing about. From whale patterns, volcano ash, British history and architecture, my true love, you each enrich my life and I thank you for that. Holly

cs harris said...

Lynne, I know my mother was very glad to leave the ash behind in 92.

Susan, that all sounds so lovely. Sigh. I envy you.

Holly, thank you.

Lynne said...

Thanks for the clarification - I didn't know there were two Uffingtons. The area around yours sounds lovely, particularly the older buildings. Lucky you!

Susan J. said...

I think I may have found the answer to your queries about the modern chairs in St Helens. My husband found details on the restoration in a book that he has called ' England's Thousand Best Churches' by Simon Jenkins. It states that the restoration was by the neo-classical architect, Quinlan Terry. He produced an interior suited, as the book states, to the new evangelical preaching style of the then incumbent. This involved replacing the seating with modern chairs in a semicircle facing the pulpit. This and the other changes apparently provoked protest from conservationists but churches do not, it seems, have to conform to historic buildings laws! I had no idea about this, it seems dreadful to me, surely our churches were spoiled enough by the Victorians, they should be protected nowadays at least, from any further tasteless changes.

cs harris said...

Susan, that is interesting. Thanks. I know it's still a powerful center for evangelicalism. I had no idea that churches weren't required to respect any restoration standards.Scary when one considers that they were some of the few substantial or surviving buildings of their periods, and erected by their entire community.

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