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The Printers' Church
The churchyard of St. Bride's is now best known to office workers who come to share their lunchtime snacks with grubby but appealing city sparrows. Just a few steps from the noise and bustle of Fleet Street, the churchyard is dark and surprisingly silent. Yet for centuries, it was the hub of the publishing industry and generations of British writers from Shakespeare to Dickens knew it intimately.
St. Bride's connection with the print trade dates back exactly 500 years. William Caxton's assistant, Wynkyn de Worde, brought England's first moveable-type press to the churchyard in 1501. Churchyards then were like little villages - an environment in themselves, complete with taverns, inns, dwelling houses and the premises of various commercial services of the day. It proved the perfect spot for de Worde's new business, especially since his best customers were the clergy, the most literate group of the time. Soon. though, playwrights, poets and pamphleteers were also racing to the publisher and rival presses quickly set up in competition in the churchyards nearby.
The press swiftly became a force to be reckoned with and, thanks to de Worde, Fleet Street was its centre. Great writers flocked to live in the surrounding streets just to be close to their publishers. Dryden and Milton lodged within a few hundred yards of St. Bride's, as did the poet Lovelace, who was buried at the church. The famous diarist, Pepys, was born in nearby Axe Lane and was baptised in the church. His contemporary, Evelyn, lived a short distance away in Fetter Lane, which was in the same parish.
As its literary links flourished, Fleet Street became a meeting place for intellectuals. Samuel Johnson, Boswell, Goldsmith, Burke and Pope were familiar figures around St. Bride's as were two of the eighteenth century's most popular artists, Joshua Reynolds and William Hogarth.
The church of St. Bride's has stood on the same plot of London soil for 1500 years. Named in honour of St. Bridget of Kildare, Ireland, the first known stone building was erected on the site in the sixth century, probably by a community of local Celts. By Norman times, St. Bride's had become a prominent city church. The Curia Regis met here in 1205 and King John held a parliament here in 1210. (The Curia Regis or King's Court was the supreme central judicial body of England. Set up by William the Conqueror, it ceased to function in 1268.)
No fewer than eight buildings dedicated to St. Bride have occupied this position over the centuries, the latest a restoration of Sir Christopher Wren's church of 1675. Itself a reconstruction following the Great Fire of London, Wren's church was destroyed again in the Blitz. All that remains of his work today is the magnificent steeple and, on the interior, the minstrel's gallery incorporated into its base.
The steeple, though, has endured as a landmark not only in London but nation-wide. The whole idea of the multi-layered wedding cake began when an enterprising Fleet Street baker set out to copy Wren's tower in confectionary. He started a fashion which has continued for almost three hundred years.
But this is only one of the steeple's claims to fame. Originally the tallest of Wren's church spires, it stood a lofty 234 feet until lightening struck in 1764. This unfortunate incident not only reduced the structure by eight feet but sparked off a row of spectacular proportions between King George III and the American scientist and philosopher, Benjamin Franklin. Renowned for his experiments with electricity, Franklin was called in to advise the King on the question of lightening rods. Franklin recommended conductors with pointed ends but the King argued in favour of blunt ones. Political pamphleteers had a field day with the resulting controversy, delighting in references to 'good, blunt, honest King George' and 'those sharp-witted colonists.'
St. Bride's had, in fact, figured strongly in the history of those same colonists for some two hundred years by then. The parents of Virginia Dare, the first child born to English emigrants to North Carolina in 1587, were married at the church. The event is commemorated in a touching bust of a little girl, which is made all the more poignant for the fact that Virginia was fated to disappear along with other members of Raleigh's Lost Colony. The bust can be found by the font.
One of the most striking features of modern-day St. Bride's also owes its inspiration to the church's American links. The great free-standing canopied oak reredos which enshrines the church altar is a memorial to the Pilgrim Fathers. This connection was made thirty-three years after Virginia Dare's birth when Edward Winslow (1595 - 1655) became one of the leaders of the Mayflower expedition. Winslow, who was elected Governor of Plymouth, Massachusetts three times, served as a boy apprentice in Fleet Street and would have known St. Bride's well. His parents were also married there.
In the same timescale, St. Bride's parish was busily helping to populate yet another English colony. One hundred girls and boys from the Bridewell Hospital orphanage were sent to Virginia in 1619. The project was so successful that the governor requested a hundred more. All the youngsters received grants of land on coming of age.
As well as contributing to the historical heritage of the American nation, St. Bride's has had considerable significance at home too. After wartime bombing reduced the church to a shell, archaeologists found a Roman pavement and the remains of a Roman house while excavating the crypt. The foundations of each previous church on the site were also discovered, providing invaluable information.
The dig revealed more gristly finds, of course. Although the burial sections had long been sealed up, the crypt contained thousands of human remains, many of which would have belonged to victims of the Great Plague of 1665 and the cholera epidemic of 1854.
Today, though, St. Bride's crypt is anything but forbidding. Visitors can now explore the undercroft and see the ancient foundations and Roman remains as well as other interesting finds, such as a lockable iron coffin which was used in an attempt to frustrate body snatchers during the eighteenth century.
As the Printers' Church, St. Bride's would not be true to its tradition without a tribute to the trade. An exhibition chronicling the church's close association with the press is on permanent display in the crypt.
* Materials on all aspects of books and printing plus many archives and artefacts can be found close by at the St. Bride Printing Library, Bride Lane. It is open Monday to Friday, 9.30 a.m. - 5.30 p.m.
* Note: The original bust of Virginia Dare, mentioned above, was, tragically, stolen from St. Bride's. A replacement has since been gifted to the church.
St. Bride's is a normal working church and is open for worship every day. No charge is made to either the church or the crypt museum but donations are welcome.
Blackfriars (District & Circle lines)
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.