Monday, 13 August 2012

St Ethelburga

This ancient city church squeezed between two large office buildings on the busy road of Bishopsgate has been in existence for over 800 years. It was probably founded sometime in the 13th century and was dedicated to the Saxon abbess of barking, St Ethelburga the virgin. Some of the building dates to the 1390's including the main doorway arch. Above the doorway the large window is from the fifteenth century. In the later medieval period the church constructed a porch with a shop to raise funds for the parish, pictured left ©. The shop projected out into the street and obstructed the facade of the church giving it from the street a picturesque appearance. The shop was demolished in the 1930's for a road widening scheme. The entrance doorway can be found in the museum of London which dates to the fifteenth centuryIn several older images the church the building is depicted as having a spire on top of the small tower. The spire must have been demolished or destroyed before 1775 when a bell turret was added with a seventeenth century weather vane on the top.

The church survived the great fire and so made up a large cluster of medieval buildings around Bishopsgate (most redeveloped in Victorian period apart from churches of St Helena and St Andrews). The church also luckily escaped much damage in the bombing of the Second World War making it only one of a handful to have avoided destruction of both events. 

Architectural Historian Pevsner uses the word 'humble' twice in his relatively small extract of the building in his guides. 'Humble' is however a very good description as it was indeed a very small church and smaller than most in the city. The church is a reminder of what many of the city medieval parish churches once looked like before the great fire which destroyed so many. The survival of the church is almost unique, most other surviving medieval churches are larger.  

The interior was rather insignificant being as humble as the exterior. Of note were the Flemish fifteenth stained glass window as well as other English seventeenth century glass work (Both Lost). The inside of the church consisting of only a south aisle and a nave giving it a shape of a small rectangle. The church like many was restored in the Victorian era, although with mostly only the addition of furnishings. 

However despite so much history, this humble piece of medieval London was ultimately destroyed in 1993 in a massive IRA bomb left ©. The bomb reduced much ancient structure to rumble, only the south arcade and east wall survived intact. The church had survived the great fire, the blitz and redevelopment only to be destroyed in the modern era. It being destroyed so recently makes one think how the protection of our ancient buildings is not guaranteed. The bomb also damaged the nearby church of St Helena Bishopsgate as well as devastating much of Bishopsgate.

The story would have stopped there if some people in the church had got their way. They proposed to clear the site and sell the land for redevelopment but the discovery that the south aisle and east window survived and a public outcry led to the rebuilding of the church. In 2002 the long reconstruction project came to an end and the church was reopened as a centre for peace and reconciliation. Of the 3 million pounds it cost to rebuild the Clothworkers company contributed 1.2 million to the project. The rest of the money was collected from a variety of sources from individual donations to the heritage lottery.  

It was incredible that the facade was rebuilt closely to the original when these days architects like making great distinctions between the old and the new, in one proposal one of these architects wanted to replace the facade with glass but was quickly dropped due to its insensitive nature. The building today offers a haven in the centre of the busy and noisy commercial district, if not rebuilt the church would have only been replaced by characterless dull office block. It also helps to give a sense of the original scale of the street, where once the church was the tallest building it is now the smallest, the street being dominated by ever more high rise office blocks. left how the church looks today, a tribute to the determination of people to maintain the cities medieval heritage.

2 comments:

  1. Very nice story about St. Ethelburga.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thank-you for commenting, Yes it is a nice story, with the church rising like a phoenix from the ashes of a disaster.

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