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History Overview

The Great Fire

By Elizabethan times Cheapside had become home to silk merchants, linen drapers and hosiers. Various famous public monuments stood in the street - the 'Standard' was just outside Bow Church, and the Great Cross and 'Conduit' also stood in Cheapside. The Cross stood at the corner of Cheapside and Wood Street. It had been set up in 1290 as one of a chain of monuments marking the progress of the late Queen Eleanor’s body from Lincoln to Westminster. It was re-edified in 1441 and regilt between 1552 and 1554, but by 1600 it had become broken and defaced. It was finally removed in 1643 as a result of Puritan zeal. Stowe’s plan of London in 1600 actually shows two Conduits: one at the junction of Cheapside and Poultry and one at the west end of Cheapside near Old Change. The latter was fed by the Tyburn stream.

The medieval church of St Mary-le-Bow was completely destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666. Its successor was built by Wren between 1670 and 1683. At almost £15,645 it was the most expensive but also the most important Wren church after St Paul’s Cathedral. The new steeple stretched to two-hundred-and-thirty-nine-and-a-half feet above street level. It seems that the parish had undertaken some restoration work before Wren got involved in June 1670, as it had paid £340 to Thomas Cartwright, mason, and £300 to William Cleere, joiner, in the period 1668-9 to begin some repairs and rebuilding. But what that work involved remains unknown. Wren’s tower incorporated a small balcony (Hermitage Day reports that some parishioners specifically asked Wren to incorporate this structure to commemorate the site where the king had watched City entertainments in Cheapside) and the new steeple terminated in a dragon vane nine feet long. The steeple was apparently built in white stone in order to show off the darker dome of St Paul’s, and the curved steeple of St Mary-le-Bow provides a deliberate contrast to the straight lines of nearby St Lawrence Jewry and St Vedast alias Foster. The tower holds a huge projecting clock and is set forward of the church onto street level: a vestibule connects the nave and the tower.

The foundations of the new church used some Roman stones found eighteen feet below ground level during Wren’s excavations. These stones marked a Roman causeway or road which had run east-west through Roman Londinium. The round arches of the crypt were partly built of Roman brick but the crypt itself is not Roman but 11th-century. The crypt seems to have stood at least partly above ground when it was first constructed (it contains windows to admit the light), and a bog or running water was found beneath the crypt both in Wren’s time and again during early twentieth-century excavations.

For Wren to build an essentially square church required the purchase of some land at the south-west corner of the site. Also some other land which stood to the south of the church, on which a school and a vestry had previously stood (both also destroyed in the Fire), had to be appropriated to the new building. By an Order in Council dated 28th June 1670 St Mary’s was allocated £3,500, estimated (in fact wildly underestimated) as half the cost of rebuilding, to start re-construction. The Commissioners also ordered the remains of the old tower to be pulled down as it constituted a public danger. The land where the current tower stands was still owned (600 years later) by the Dean and Chapter of Canterbury. It had been leased by them to a Mr Bartholomew Layton and the sum of £1,300 was paid by the City Commissioners to Layton on 24th May 1671 to buy him out of his lease.

Wren’s new church was modelled on the Roman Basilica of Maxentius and Constantine with Corinthian columns, a tunnel-vaulted ceiling, and clerestory windows. But it is less than a third the size of the Basilica and the aisles are considerably narrower. There is also no apse in the church and the lighting of the nave comes entirely from the clerestory windows. The church itself was of brick construction with a dressing of Portland stone. The roof is an elliptical barrel-vault and the side aisles each have a transverse, plain, arched cross-vault. Elizabeth and Wayland Young have written (in their London’s Churches (1986)) that:

The Roman Doric doorways are held to the tower in a splash of rustication and secured there by lolling cherubs and heavy fruit. Ionic pilasters enrich the bell stage and above this rises and falls the lantern, a fountain of stone as lively and bright as water. The surmounting obelisk is a quiet gushing over of the central jet of masonry and the scroll brackets at each corner of the tower jump as high as would water dropping from the balcony of flying buttresses. And on the ping-pong ball which the jet holds suspended is a flying dragon.