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St. Giles High Street, WC2
The name of St. Giles was always associated with lepers and the first building to be erected on the site of the present church was a hospital for sufferers of the disease. The hospital was founded in 1101 by Queen Matilda who was not only the wife of Henry I, but the granddaughter of King Duncan I of Scotland - the same Duncan whose gristly murder by Macbeth was later immortalised by Shakespeare.
Being a leper house, St. Giles was built in the fields which surrounded old London. Today, of course, only the name of the location survives but it serves to differentiate the church from others dedicated to the Saint in the city.
At the outset, St. Giles was no more than a chapel attached to the leper's hospital and it was the custom for prisoners passing the chapel door on their way to execution at Tyburn to be given a 'parting cup' of a bowl of ale as an act of charity. The custom continued long after the chapel became a parish church in 1547.
Thanks to its connections with lepers, prisoners and other social outcasts, the parish of St Giles gained a bad reputation. This was made a great deal worse when the Great Plague of 1665 started within its boundaries. More than 3,000 people died of plague in St. Giles alone, although there were fewer than 2,000 houses in the parish at that time. Samuel Pepys recorded the start of the outbreak in his diary on June 7, 1665: 'This day much against my will I did in Drury Lane see two or three houses marked with a red cross upon the doors, and 'Lord have mercy upon us' writ there, which was a sad sight to me being the first of the kind that to my remembrance I ever saw.'
But the plague was only one of the horrors to which St. Giles stood witness during its long and often sad history. In 1417 Sir John Oldcastle, the Lollard leader was hung and burnt for treason and heresy not far from the gate. His crime: wanting an English translation of the Bible. Oldcastle was considered a martyr by John Foxe, the Puritan divine, and others.
The church has associations with other religious witch hunts, too. Between 1678 and 1681 no less than 12 Catholics martyrs were buried in St. Giles after Titus Oates claimed that he had discovered a 'Popish Plot' to murder Charles II and restore Catholicism as the state religion. Those executed included the Blessed Oliver Plunket, Archbishop of Armagh, though his body was later exhumed.
Through these events and down the turbulent centuries, St. Giles-in-the-Fields nonetheless continued to serve the community much like any other parish church and many notable births, marriages and deaths are recorded in its registers. John Milton's daughter, Mary, was baptised here in 1647; the actor David Garrick married Eva Maria Violetti here in 1786; Frances Kemble, the actress also married here in 1786. Lord Byron's daughter, Allegra, and two of Shelley's children were all baptised together at a ceremony in the church in 1818 and the architect John Soane was buried here in 1837.
Of the monuments and memorials to be found at St. Giles, two of the most interesting are to the poets Andrew Marvell and George Chapman. Marvell, whose works have been compared to those of Milton, was buried here in 1678. According to the antiquary John Aubrey (1626-97) his grave is: 'under ye pewes in ye south aisle of St Giles' Church.' The tomb of George Chapman, who died in1634, is in the churchyard but the tombstone has been removed for safekeeping to the left of the altar at the front of the church. A noted scholar, Chapman was the translator of Homer's 'Iliad' and of Hesiod's 'Works and Days'.
Of particular interest to American visitors is a plaque at the back of the church, in memory of Cecilius Calvert, second Lord Baltimore, who is buried here. Baltimore (1606-1675) was the first proprietor of Maryland, having been granted a charter from Charles I. The plaque records that Baltimore's brother, Leonard Calvert, sailed from England with 200 colonists in two ships called the 'Ark 'and the 'Dove'.The ships arrived at the Potomac River on 25th March 1634.
In 1671, John Ogilby, the cartographer, wrote of the colony: 'Every person who repaireth thither intending to become an inhabitant finds himself secure as well as in the quiet enjoyment of property as of his conscience.'
The church of St. Giles that we see today opened 1734 and apart from some alterations to the interior, the building has hardly changed. One of the first preachers in the church was John Wesley, who had a chapel in nearby West Street. The top portion of the pulpit from that chapel now stands in the north aisle. Wesley and his brother Charles used it for over 40 years.
St. Giles-in-the-Fields is normally open Monday to Friday 10am - 4pm. Weekday service: Wednesday 1pm. Sunday Services 8am, 11am, 12noon & 6.30pm.
There is no entrance charge.
Tottenham Court Road (Central and Northern 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.