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Centre of prayer for Christian unity
The pace of city living on any normal work day descends like a cloak, distracting attention from many of London's most interesting buildings. The church of St. Dunstan's in Fleet Street is one of those which fades into the background, its magnificent outline all but obscured by an endless stream of traffic.
To the casual onlooker, St. Dunstan's is just another grimy Victorian Gothic facade jumbled in with the architectures of other ages. The enormous and unusual clock which has become its best-known feature, hardly looks as though it belongs with the building at all.
Once a commanding presence at the entrance of the city's Square Mile, St. Dunstan's has almost shrunk from view, yet it still occupies a privileged position in history. For the name of St. Dunstan's is linked with some of the greatest names in world literature. Donne, Milton, Pepys and Walton were all firmly connected to the church while others such as Shakespeare and Jonson did their business and drank so close by that they were almost certainly visitors.
In more religious times, St. Dunstan's was famed as much for its preachers as its poets. One of these was William Tyndale (1494-1536), whose unauthorised translations of Bible texts ultimately formed the basis of all following versions. By the 17th century, preaching had become something of an art form and many of the best speakers came to St. Dunstan's, drawing massive crowds. A certain cleric, dubbed Dr. 'Silver-tongued' Bates, attracted so many listeners that the audience would pour out of the church doors and overflow into the street. Pepys records going twice in one day to hear Dr. Bates give his last sermon, having to push his way through the throng both times. In his diary for August 17, 1662, he complains that although he got into the gallery beside the pulpit, he: '... stood in a crowd and did exceedingly sweat all the while.'
To walk into St. Dunstan's, today, is a very different experience but one which is powerfully moving, nonetheless. For in entering the church, the visitor crosses the threshold into many cultures of Christianity - a fact immediately brought home by the strikingly beautiful Romanian icon screen which stands to the left of the main altar. Here, alone in the whole of the country, the traditions of the seven major churches of Christendom - that is the Old Catholics, the Assyrian Church of the East, the Romanian Orthodox Church, the Anglican Church, the Oriental churches, the Lutheran and Reformed Churches and the Holy Roman and Catholic Church - are honoured in four chapels and three shrines set around the octagonal walls.
This eclectic mixture of influences comes as something of a shock, since neither the outer nor inner architecture of the church gives any clue to its exotic contents. Quietly, though, the story of St. Dunstan's has changed. Designated as a centre of prayer for Christian Unity in 1960, it now plays a major role in fostering good relations with churches outside the Anglican communion.
Long before such religious divisions existed in England, though, St. Dunstan's stood at the heart of Fleet Street, a large and imposing structure that originally jutted out thirty feet into the road. Like most churches, St. Dunstan's started small but gradually sprawled over the centuries as chapels and other embellishments were added. The first official record of a church on the site dates to 1185 but it had probably already been in existence for a century by then as Dunstan, a tenth century Archbishop of Canterbury, was consecrated in 1070.
St. Dunstan was the patron saint of goldsmiths, jewellers and locksmiths and he was usually depicted standing at his anvil, a large pair of smith's tongs in hand, threatening to tweak the devil's nose. This was a popular image and was often used on pub signs in the city. A particularly famous example was the pub which stood opposite St. Dunstan's church until 1788. Starting life as 'The Devil and St. Duntan's', the tavern quickly became known as the 'Devil' and it was here that the Apollo Club - a dining club founded and frequented by a string of famous figures - held its meetings. Over the years, members of the club included William Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, Jonathan Swift, Oliver Goldsmith and Dr. Samuel Johnson amongst many others.
While the 'Devil' counted some of the finest literary talents amongst its customers, the church of St. Dunstan's claimed others in its clergy and congregation. The poet and divine, John Donne, was rector here from 1624 until his death in 1631, holding this office while also Dean of St. Paul's Cathedral. Here, too, the author Izaak Walton (1629-44), now best remembered for The Compleat Angler, sometimes called the Bible of fishermen, held the quaint posts of scavenger, questman (pigeon shooter) and sidesman. At that time, printing presses operated from church yards in and around Fleet Street and St. Dunstan's yard had its own collection. Naturally enough, Walton looked here for a publisher for his work and was successful. In 1667, John Milton also found a publisher here for his Paradise Lost. For this, the greatest poem of its kind in the language, Milton was paid five pounds down with five pounds to follow on each sale of 1,300 copies of the first three impressions.
Fleet Street and much of London would have been a massive building site as Milton's epic work rolled from the presses, since the Great Fire had devastated the city only the year before. St. Dunstan's was one of the few buildings to escape the blaze, saved by a sudden change of wind which drove the flames up nearby Chancery Lane. The wind was seen as an act of God and, as a token of thanks, the church's parishioners commissioned a large, elaborate clock. An impressive, if strange piece, the clock features an Ionic temple containing two club-wielding giants who, for all their obvious strength, use great restraint in striking a pair of bells every 15 minutes. A notable sight to this day, the clock became a talking point from the moment it was installed in 1671. It is mentioned in Goldsmith's Vicar of Wakefield, Dickens' Barnaby Rudge and Scott's Fortunes of Nigel. Cowper also referred to it in his Table-Talk.
Another rare antiquity to be found outside St. Dunstan's is the statue of Elizabeth I which stands in an alcove over the vestry door. The statue, which dates to 1586, is the only one of the queen to remain in the city. It originally stood on the old Ludgate, which was one of the main gates into London. Before its demolition in 1760, the Ludgate also featured statues of the legendary pre-Roman King Lud and his two sons. These statues can also be seen at St. Dunstan's but are only found by walking to the right of the church and peering into the vestry porch. Here, looking very time-worn and abandoned, the figures huddle behind a small iron railing.
As well as these having its share of unique monuments on the outside, St. Dunstan's keeps others of equal interest inside the body of the church. There is a bust of John Donne on the east side of the porch. Izaac Walton is remembered in both a plaque on the main entrance and a stained-glass window which was installed in 1895. Although the window is now obscured by the icon screen, it is willingly shown to visitors by the priest on duty. There are also a number of noteworthy memorial stones. This sad little epitaph mourns the passing, in 1679, of one Alexander Layton, a famous swordsman of the day:
'His thrusts like lightning flew, more skilful Death
Parried 'em all, and beat him out of breath.'
Another praises a certain Hobson Judkin, a solicitor so honest that his clients paid for a special stone to be erected following his demise in 1812. A third eulogy remembers the faithful service of Sir Richard Hoare, a former Lord Mayor. The verse cryptically refers to an: 'alarming Crisis' in which he 'discharged the great Trust reposed in him with Honour and Integrity.. ' This is a reference to the crisis caused when news that Charles Edward Stuart, otherwise Bonnie Prince Charlie, and his army had beaten government forces at Prestonpans (1745) and were pressing South. Panic broke out in London as the rumour spread that King George II was preparing to flee the city. Sir Richard, evidently, kept the situation under control until more troops could be mustered and sent to turn back the advancing Scots. Evidence of Sir Richard's readiness for action can now be seen in the form of an impressive sword rest, dated 1745, which stands beside the seat reserved for the Lord Mayor in the front right-hand pew of the church
These and many other mementoes that help give a glimpse into St. Dunstan's historic past can be easily seen, yet more are hidden from view. The church records are not on show but these contain a wealth of detail, especially for those tracing the trail of America's founding fathers. Perhaps the most exciting are the references to ancestors of the country's first president, George Washington. The entries record the baptism of two of the children of Lawrence Washington junior: a daughter, Anne in 1621 and a son, Lawrence in 1622. Another son, also called Lawrence, had been buried here in 1617. The name Lawrence was obviously important to the family and it was handed down the generations. George Washington's half-brother later inherited the name.
A name which was to become a landmark on the American map also features in St. Dunstan's registers. It is that of Thomas West, Baron de la Warre, who married Cecilia, daughter of Sir Thomas Shirley here in 1596. Both the proprietor of the Virginia Company and Virginia's first governor, de la Warre's became immortalised in giving his surname to Delaware Bay, river and state.
Another connection to America's first colonists is found through George Calvert, the first Lord Baltimore, who was buried in St. Dunstan's in 1632. Baltimore promoted the charter for the foundation of Maryland and Charles II finally granted it to his son, Cecil. Cecil became the first proprietor of Maryland and installed his brother, Leonard as first governor. Both are remembered in the church of St. Giles-in-the-Fields, where Cecil was later buried.
* A tablet in memory of Daniel Brown of Connecticut, who was the first Anglican clergyman ordained for America in 1723 is set into the North West alcove of the church
St. Dunstan-in-the-West is open for worship every day. There is no charge to view the church but donations towards its upkeep are welcome.
Blackfriars or Temple (District 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.