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Holborn Viaduct, EC1
The sight of St. Sepulchre's must have chilled the souls of passers-by for several centuries, for it stood opposite the infamous Newgate prison and its bell marked the time of impending executions.
This connection between the church and the prison gave rise to other customs, too. While some of the condemned were executed within the jail, others were hauled off to Tyburn and every death cart would stop outside St. Sepulchre's while the prisoners were presented with a nosegay.
For almost 140 years, though, there was a rather more ghoulish tradition. As the result of a bequest made to St. Sepulchre's in 1605, a bellman was employed to go through a tunnel which connected the church to Newgate on the night before any execution. After giving 'twelve solemn towles with double strokes' on his handbell, he would recite:
"All you that in the condemned hold do lie,
Prepare you, for tomorrow you shall die;
Watch all and pray, the hour is drawing near
That you before the Almighty must appear;
Examine well yourselves, in time repent,
That you may not to eternal flames be sent:
And when St. Sepulchre's bell tomorrow tolls,
The Lord above have mercy on your souls.
Past twelve o'clock!"
These customs died out and Newgate was finally demolished in 1902 to make way for the Old Bailey but the handbell - which can only have added to the desperate misery of the jail's inhabitants - can still be seen in a case on one of the pillars in the church.
Despite these gloomy associations, St. Sepulchre's is an awe-inspiring church with an interior that has all the majestic beauty of a cathedral. None of this would be guessed from the outside, though, since several restorations have robbed the 15th century walls and tower of their original shape. The entrance porch with its remarkable fan tracery roof has fortunately escaped alteration and is the first real clue to the church's historic past.
Founded in 1137, St. Sepulchre's was formerly dedicated to St. Edmund. It's position just outside the north-west gate of the city not only made it a useful starting point for crusaders, it also mirrored that of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. These associations led to the church's rededication during the 15th century.
So the Church of the Holy Sepulchre without Newgate, to give it its full title, became firmly established as an important city church. Although the Great Fire of London left the building a shell, the church was quickly rebuilt on its original foundations and some of the mediaeval masonry survived. One interesting relic from the old church is a stone basin or piscina which is set into the West wall at the point where the rood screen would have separated the nave and chancel. The scorch marks on the stone are scars from the blaze.
Ironically, the Great Fire stopped suddenly only a few yards away from St. Sepulchre's and it is worth turning into Giltspur Street to see the curious monument that was put up to mark the spot. High on the wall of the modern office block which now occupies the site at Pye Corner is the golden figure of a fat boy. The boy is supposed to personify gluttony, the deadly sin that was said to have brought God's vengeance on the city.
Also in Giltspur Street is the old parish watch-house which was built in the eighteenth century to guard the graveyard against body-snatching racketeers who would steal corpses and sell them on to the doctors at St. Bartholomew's Hospital, just across the road.
Under pressure from an expanding city, most of St. Sepulchre's graveyard eventually disappeared but a number of famous people are buried in the church.
One of the best known, especially to Americans, is Captain John Smith, the Elizabethan adventurer who rose to became governor of Virginia. Smith, who worshiped in the church and received communion here before starting out on his many voyages, was a larger-than-life hero who managed to walk unscathed through a string of hair-raising escapades.
Something of the flavour of the man is captured in the poetic eulogy which was engraved on his tomb and is now reproduced on a copper memorial plate near the site of his grave. It begins:
'Here lyes one conquered that hath conquered kings'.
In an age when the ravages of disease and the risks of war often meant a short, if glorious, life, Smith survived to the then ripe old age of 51. He spent his final years in the house next to the church on Snow Hill.
The legend of John Smith is an integral part of American history and the importance of his contribution to the success of the original colonies is beautifully commemorated in a modern window given by his American biographer, Bradford Smith. A statue to John Smith can be found outside the the church of St Mary le Bow.
Unfortunately, religious persecution was as much a feature of sixteenth century England as adventure and people of all persuasions suffered for their faith. The first in a long line of Protestant martyrs to go to the stake in the reign of Queen Mary was John Rogers, the vicar of St. Sepulchre's. Rogers had not only published a version of the first Bible in English - a dangerous move, even if the monarch had been a Protestant - he also held controversial views about the nature of the Eucharist. He was executed at Smithfield in 1555 and his remains were brought back to his church for burial.
In more recent times, St. Sepulchre's has built up a close relationship with music and musicians. This stems from its links with Sir Henry Woods, the much-loved founder and conductor of the annual Proms concerts, whose ashes are also interred in the church. Sir Henry (1869-1944) was baptised in Sepulchre's and learned to play the organ here. As a tribute to his life and incredible influence on British music, the former chapel of St. Stephen Harding was rededicated the Musicians' Chapel when Sir Henry died. In a touching memorial, the laurel wreath which is placed around the bust of Sir Henry in the Albert Hall at the start of every Proms season comes back to rest above his tombstone until the next year.
St. Sepulchre's is open on Wednesdays between noon and 3pm or at other times by special arrangement. There is no charge but donations towards the church's upkeep are welcome.
For enquiries tel: 0171-248-1660.
Chancery Lane or St. Paul's (Central Line)
Copyright © Jan Collie 2002
Published by permission of the author.
All rights reserved. No reproduction, copy or transmission of this publication may be made without written permission.