See latest entry under peripheries for a few churches in Elephant and Castle
A visit to two churches in Shadwell added today.
The characteristic wait for a church to be open at the allotted time. Or the characteristic wait for a church to be open at all. But shall I wait? Shall I wait? Shall I be the accustomed church-goer looking at doors, listening to bells and foot-steps and gazing in at the light? Will the within be worth the while and the wait? And so it was today that I was waiting outside a church I had never been to, or indeed ever walked past. This was Dutch church in the City of London. I knew it existed as I had walked past the sign to the church. But the sign leads one down a labyrinthine set of alleyways conjuring their shapes in light and shadow as they curve round buildings.
The notice upon the church door says 7 Austin Friars, open Thursday 11-6. I was curious about seven – seven days of Creation, the seven virtues or vices? The seven days of the week and a friar for each? But why the seven friars? While the church originally belonged to the Augustinan order, which was founded in England in the 1260s, there is no reference to the 7 friars in the Wikipedia entry for the church. Although the entry does say that there were about 60 friars at the church, presumably in its pre-Reformation heyday. In the 16th century, the church’s neighbor was Thomas Cromwell, adviser to Henry VIII particularly in his marriage matters and who was instrumental in the be-heading of Anne Boleyn.
Cromwell had a very large house next door to the church with about fifty rooms. He was a neighbor to a community that at the time was under threat as were all monastic houses before the Reformation. My imaginative incursion makes me wonder if he had a low opinion of monks and friars and the seven amounts to the severe reduction in number of friars as commanded by the man next door! A truculent gesture from the awkward next door neighbour – a thought I cannot resist at a time when parallels have been made with the English Reformation and its power-houses seizing control and seeking to dominate alone out of papal Europe. This particular community was dissolved in 1538. But then Cromwell was also himself dissolved in 1540 as the hushed corridors of Henry’s houses became querulous and noisy in the end, heralding the demise of the power hiatus that Cromwell had created for himself. And by 1550 the church had been given over to ‘Germans and other strangers’ who were able to use the church for their services.
It was 10.25 am. It was hot and I was happy to wait. Outside the church a place to sit – a tilled spring- earth bed with sparsely planted plants, a pop up food tent with a man and a woman setting up the food to sell for the day – steaming vats and freshly cut salads. I sat down. I looked around and saw opposite the Balls Brothers cellar bar, an Austin Friars passageway and a statue on a building to the right, which I presumed was St. Augustine. Behind me was a ‘polite’ notice, requesting that the space be left clean and tidy. And that skating is not allowed. That would be nimble skating indeed, as there is hardly any space between flower-bed and bench where I sit and wait. Patiently. In the shade in planters by the benches the hostas wait too – waiting for some shade on a day that raged down sun. I sat and waited, and exercised patience reading and looking around me.
At 11am I pressed the buzzer to enter the church as requested. An intercom system let me in and I was taken upstairs to a magnificent space. I was not prepared for such a big space. I felt quite small all alone in this big space. It was quite dark. It was quite gloomy. It was as if they were not expecting me today.
I see the hymn board with nine hymn numbers listed. Were they all to be sung in one service, or were they rotated alternatively each week, so that the hard choice of which hymn did not have to be faced? Choice is a curse of our times. The bells started to peel. I went downstairs to the ‘Dutch Centre’ – where I read that King Edward VI granted a charter to the Protestant refugees from the Low Countries in the former Augustinian church that I was in so that they had somewhere to worship. Hence, the association between the Dutch and the Augustinians – who were like all orders then a Catholic order. In its later history, we see how the church provided a conduit between the Protestants and immigrants. Austin Friars became a house of welcome for foreigners in a turbulent time.
Another church I visited also testifies to the importance the Church has played in welcoming strangers and the poor. This is the church of St. Botolph without Bishopsgate, one of many churches dedicated to St. Botolph, although he is not that well-known as a saint. But he was the Anglo-Saxon patron saint for travelers and travelling. Sometimes these travelers are known as ‘wayfarers’. He died in 680 AD and is thought to have come from East Anglia, where you will also find many dedication St. Botolph churches. The ‘without’ in the name must refer to the fact that these Botolph churches were originally built outside the City walls. And even at the dissolution of monastic houses, the church was converted into the Bethlehem Hospital for Lunatics – so continuing the tradition of churches offering help and succor to those in peril and need. In 1413 a female hermit lived in the churchyard, living on a pension of 40s. It is hard not to make another parallel with our times, noting that while the Conservative manifesto rejoiced in their rejection of social division, unfairness and inequality, it is really only the Church that has provided a constant message and place for those in need.
St. Botolph’s church is also famous as being the baptismal place of John Keats.
There is a colourful plaque too as a dedication to those who have suffered from contaminated blood. Note too the alms box in the wall, so shiny and spruce that you can make out a reflection of me taking the photo of the box with my phone.
Then there is the stunning tiled and gold tesserae plaque, a memorial to those who fought and died in WW1, which is flanked by two angels with massive pleated wings stretched across the top of the plaque. One is holding what looks like a quill as if writing the inscription, the other holds a martyr’s palm.
Churches reap surprise upon surprise, all of which is made in the glory of imaginative, bold, sophisticated visual imagery which knows no limits. And the church space is always such an excellent space in which to convey memories, memorials, dedications, commemorations, inscriptions and make known to us the riches of people and their lives.
Look too at the cute little pedimented brick building outlined with white stone blocks and a rounded portal. This is the so-called church hall, with a pair of Coade figures of a boy and girl in niches on the façade. It is not really the church hall, as the building used to house a little school – the children in the niches a reference to ‘charity’ children. I walk up towards the hall passing a group of young men as I did so, taking a smoking break. They looked up, traced my foot-steps with their eyes, consternation as to why I would want to look at a building that I supposed they sat by every day at smoking hour. The facings of the church are crisp and clean and white and even the pathway around the building is inter-lined from paving with the white. And there in the church’s garden is a man preparing the soil. I recall the encounter between Jesus and Mary Magdalene – the ‘noli me tangere’ (John 20: 17)when Magdalen meets Christ after his resurrection and he can be shown holding a hoe or spade. John remarks that at first she mistook him for a gardener. Sadly, this gardener with his green cap on was oblivious to me. I could not cast myself into anything but a passer-by.
May 2017 – see new page
See new entry added on 4 May 2017 – under City of London
See under entry Art – Stanley Spencer for a recent post
See under the City of London (5) for new entry about some more City Church visits….