St Bride’s Church on Fleet Street is a Christopher Wren church built after the Great Fire of London. It’s the journalists’ church, and the spire is the original inspiration for tiered wedding cakes. It is a City of London working parish church and welcomes visitors as a heritage attraction too.
While open most days, it took Open House London to remind me that this would be a good place to visit.
Not The First
This wasn’t the first church at this location or even the second. It’s the eighth!
The history goes back 2000 years as there may have been a Roman villa here that was used as a place of Christian Worship which could be why St Brigid, or her followers, founded a church here in the fifth century.
The crypt has a small museum, but you also see the remains of a Roman pavement dating back to around AD 180 and a range of Roman artifacts that were discovered on this site.
The first stone church was built here in the sixth century and survived for three centuries. The next building lasted until 1135 and was followed by its twelfth-century successor which had an impressive tower from which rang one of London’s four curfew bells.
Between the 11th and 13th centuries, the population of London increased significantly, from less than 15,000 to over 80,000. By the year 1200, the capital city was, in effect, Westminster, a small town upriver from the City of London, where the Royal Treasury was located, and financial records were stored.
St Bride’s was a significant building between the City of London and Westminster. In 1205, the Curia Regis, a council of landowners and ecclesiastics (in effect, a predecessor of today’s Parliament, charged with providing legislative advice to King John), was held in St Bride’s. And in 1207, King John held his Parliament at the church.
The wealthy bequeathed money to pay priests to pray for their souls. The less wealthy joined parish guilds which provided similar benefits. The Guild of St Bride was confirmed by Edward III in 1375, and 100 of its members still serve the church.
The crypt has on display the remains of the churches that stood on this site between the 11th and 15th centuries and examples of medieval floor tiles, roof tiles, stonework, glass, and other artifacts from the period. The Eagle Lectern that is still in use was rescued from the medieval church.
There is also a chapel in part of the medieval crypt. When Christopher Wren rebuilt the church centuries later, he skillfully constructed two heavy stone arches to support the weight of the wall above this chapel space. It was restored in 2002 as a memorial to the Harmsworth family and to the staff of Associated Newspapers who lost their lives during the First and Second World Wars.
The next St Bride’s Church (the sixth on the site) was built in the fifteenth century. It had seven altars and welcomed the pioneers of print.
In 1476, William Caxton, a merchant, businessman, and diplomat, brought to this country for the first time a printing press that used moveable type. He set it up on a site adjacent to Westminster Abbey. It is said that modern advertising began when Caxton wanted to sell a service book and produced a memorable poster.
After Caxton’s death around the year 1492, his press was acquired by his apprentice, the printer Wynkyn de Worde, who was dependent upon printing for his livelihood and needed to ensure its commercial viability.
At the time, the area around St Bride’s had become a haven for clergy, who were unable to afford the high cost of living in the very heart of the medieval city. Since the clergy possessed almost a monopoly of literacy in those days, alongside the lawyers who were also based in the area, they were the printers’ best customers. So Wynkyn de Worde followed the best commercial principles and moved his business to the customer base, setting up his printing press in the churchyard of St Bride’s in 1500.
Wynkyn de Worde was buried at St Bride’s in 1535, and a plaque commemorating his life can be seen in the church. St Bride’s is also proud to possess an original example of Wynkyn de Worde’s printing, dating from 1495.
By the 17th century, Fleet Street was attracting the great writers and diarists of the day. A trio of Johns – Milton, Dryden, and Evelyn, lived in the vicinity. Samuel Pepys was born in a house adjacent to St Bride’s and was baptized at the church along with his eight brothers and sisters. (You can see a blue plaque marking the house where he was born in Salisbury Court.) His mother had her own pew in the church, and his brother, Tom, was buried here.
St Bride’s long-standing connection with the colonies in America began when the parents of Virginia Dare, the first child born to English emigrants to North Carolina in 1585, were married at the church in 1584. Virginia, who was born in 1587, is commemorated with a bronze head of a little girl in the southwest corner of the church. (It’s actually a replacement as the original was stolen.) The head, made by Clare Waterhouse in 1999, is formed of the features of different pupils from Bridewell Charity School, established in the 16th century in the nearby Bridewell Palace (built by Henry VIII).
The parents of Edward Winslow (1595–1655), who is famous as one of the leaders of the Mayflower expedition in 1620, were also married at St Bride’s. (His parents were Magdalen Oliver and Edward Winslow senior.) Edward Winslow was himself apprentice to a Fleet Street printer with strong Puritan sympathies, John Beale, before breaking his contract and leaving for Leiden to join a community of other like-minded Protestants. He would have known St Bride’s well. Winslow was to be elected three times as governor of Plymouth, Massachusetts.
In 1957, Her Majesty the Queen unveiled a newly carved reredos as a memorial to Winslow and the Pilgrim Fathers. In 2006, a direct descendant of Edward Winslow (also Edward, and known as Ted) came from Maryland, USA, to marry his bride, Jennifer, at St Bride’s.
The parish of St Bride’s also helped to populate another English colony in America during the 17th century. In 1619 one hundred girls and boys from the Bridewell Hospital orphanage, located next to the church, were sent to Virginia. The project proved so successful that the governor requested 100 more. All the young people received grants of land there, on their coming of age.
For a more recent sign of the close relationship, there is a plaque on one of the stalls given by the Overseas Press Club of America to commemorate American journalists who have given their lives while on duty beyond their own shores.
For another American connection, see the section on the church spire below.
During the Great Plague of 1665, the Court of Charles II plus lawyers, merchants, doctors, and many clergy fled the city in fear. But the poor had to stay, and 2,111 people died in St Bride’s parish (100,000 Londoners lost their lives – 20% of its population). The vicar of St Bride’s, Richard Peirson, chose to remain. At the height of the plague in September 1665, Peirson buried 636 people within a month – 43 of them on a single day. The dead included two of his Churchwardens.
Remarkably, Peirson survived the plague, and he was succeeded as vicar in August 1666 by Paul Boston. Literally, two weeks later, another landmark disaster occurred.
Great Fire of London
On 2 September 1666, fire broke out in the bakery of Thomas Farriner in Pudding Lane. Fanned by strong winds from the east, the fire spread rapidly. On 4 September 1666, the fire crossed the Fleet River (which today runs underground) and engulfed St Bride’s. All that could be saved from the fire was some fused bell metal – some of which can be seen in the crypt.
Vicar Paul Boston left £50 in his Will to the church, which purchased new communion vessels that are still in use today.
Sir Christopher Wren
The Great Fire of London destroyed 87 churches. Despite Wren’s conviction that only 39 were necessary to serve such a small area, St Bride’s was among the 51 to be rebuilt.
The £500 required as a deposit by Guildhall to launch the project was raised in a single month: a remarkable effort, given that most of the parishioners had lost homes and businesses in the disaster.
Joshua Marshall, the King’s Mason, was the main contractor. He was a parishioner and also worked with Wren on the Temple Bar and the Monument. One of his assistants was the young Nicholas Hawksmoor, who was to become a renowned architect himself.
Construction started in 1671 and progressed quickly as Wren had built a hostel for the workmen nearby on Fleet Street. The Old Bell Tavern is still there.
Built from Portland stone, the church cost, apart from the steeple, £11,430, making it the third most expensive of all of Wren’s churches. Wren built over the remains of the previous six churches, thus forming extensive crypts.
By 1674 the main structural work was complete, and a year later, the church finally reopened for worship on Sunday 19 December 1675. St Bride’s was one of the first post-fire churches ready for worship. And Fleet Street was one of the first main roads to be substantially restored.
Shortly after opening, galleries were added along the sides of the west walls.
Wedding Cake Spire
A model of Wren’s original plan for the steeple can be seen on the font inside the church. (The font is from St Helen’s, Bishopsgate.) It was a much shorter cupola design without the additional tiers. In the end, the 234 ft steeple – Wren’s tallest – was completed in 1703.
It was struck by lightning in 1764 and lost 8 feet of height, bringing it down to 226 ft. George III was upset about this, and one of the people he called upon to advise him was Benjamin Franklin. Unfortunately, Franklin and the monarch did not agree. The king insisted the new lightning conductor should have blunt ends, while Franklin thought pointed ends were more effective. This led to political pamphleteering about ‘good blunt, honest King George’ and ‘those sharp-witted colonists.’ It can’t have helped having two leading figures showing public political tempers so close to American Independence.
William Rich was an apprentice to a baker near Ludgate Circus. He fell in love with his master’s daughter. When he set up his own business at the end of his apprenticeship, he won her father’s approval for her hand in marriage. Rich wanted to create a spectacular cake for the wedding feast and took inspiration from the spire of St Bride’s church. He created a cake in layers and began the tradition of the tiered wedding cake. Until his death in 1811, he made a small fortune peddling cakes under its design. Both William and Susannah are buried at St Bride’s.
Newspapers and Publishers
The year before St Bride’s steeple was originally finished, the Daily Courant became the first regular daily newspaper to be produced in this country. It was published on 11 March 1702, by Elizabeth Mallet, from rooms above the White Hart pub in Fleet Street. A brass plaque to commemorate the 300th anniversary of this first edition was unveiled by the Prince of Wales at a special service in St Bride’s on 1 March 2002.
By 1709 there were eighteen different titles available in London each week. The Daily Universal Register (which was to become The Times) was first published in 1785, and The Observer became the world’s first Sunday newspaper in 1791. As numerous regional and provincial titles were founded, they set up London offices in and around St Bride’s, as did the first news agencies.
The author Samuel Richardson, who wrote and published Pamela, the first English novel, is buried at St Bride’s. His friend, Dr. Samuel Johnson, lived just north of Fleet Street and was part of a literary circle that included James Boswell, Joshua Reynolds, Oliver Goldsmith, and Alexander Pope. Alongside William Hogarth, William Wordsworth, and John Keats, they were often to be seen in the coffeehouses in and around St Bride’s.
There is a new plaque on display near the Great West Doors (installed in 2020). Denis Papin was a pioneering French scientist and inventor who revolutionized steam engineering. In 1675, his Protestant beliefs led him to flee France for England. Working with Robert Boyle, he famously invented a ‘digesteur,’ which was in effect a pressure cooker but, more significantly, was the precursor to the steam engine.
Little was known of Papin’s eventual fate until an entry in the St Bride’s burial register came to light, revealing that he was buried in the lower graveyard on 26 August 1713.
Jack The Ripper
Another new plaque in the base of the tower records the life of Mary Ann (‘Polly’) Nichols. She is tragically remembered today as the first-known victim of the Victorian serial killer, Jack the Ripper. Polly Nichols (née Walker) was born in the parish in 1864. She married William Nichols, a printer, in St Bride’s on 16 January 1864. They had five children together, and she was categorically never a prostitute. Her memorial at St Bride’s states: ‘Remember her life, not its end.’ It can be seen inside the west door, beneath the tower.
In 1854, London had a cholera epidemic, and 10,000 people died. Parliament stopped any further burials in the City of London. St Bride’s crypts were sealed, and they seemed to be forgotten.
Second World War
On 29 December 1940, the church was bombed, and all that remained were the outer walls and the steeple. It was the second time St Bride’s had been burned down. If you enter today via the Great West Doors, you can stand under Wren’s saucer dome in the base of the tower – the only internal stonework to have survived the fire.
By the early 1950s, services were again being held on the site, in the open air, in the former vestry, and some in the crypt chapel. It was thanks to the Rector, Cyril Armitage, that a restoration fund enabled rebuilding work to begin.
Walter Godfrey Allen, the architect in charge of St Bride’s restoration, was a successor of Wren in the Office of Surveyor of the Fabric of St Paul’s Cathedral. This gave him access to Wren’s original drawings and records.
The galleries that had been added shortly after Wren’s church had opened were not replaced. The windows have plain antique glass. The west end is completed by David McFall’s two imposing sculptures of St Bride and St Paul.
The most significant change is in the eastward view. The great free-standing canopied oak reredos, designed in the Corinthian order and embellished with eight flambeaux, is carved in the Grinling Gibbons style. It is based on the Chapel Royal, Hampton Court, and is easily mistaken for being much older. As is the church’s stone carving, which was, incredibly, all carved in situ. Each panel with a rose is different from the others.
Within the Nave, the highly polished monochrome marble flooring is black from Belgium and white from Italy.
The work to rebuild began in 1953, and it took 17 years from the disaster for the restoration to be completed. The rebuilding project made possible a series of highly significant excavations in the crypt led by the medieval archaeologist, Professor W.F. Grimes.
Seven sealed vaults or crypts were discovered, including two charnel houses with bones piled to the roof. Many of these bones were found grouped together in categories (thigh bone with thigh bone, etc.) and laid out in a distinctive chequerboard pattern. Some were the victims of the Great Plague of 1665 and the cholera epidemic of 1854.
Also in the crypt is a rare Victorian iron casket. It dates from the days of Burke and Hare – the ‘Body Snatchers.’ It promised ‘safety for the dead’ by deterring those who earned money by exhuming bodies. And you can see a bench from the Wren church in the crypt too.
Following its post-war reconstruction, the new St Bride’s was rededicated in the presence of the Queen and Prince Philip on 19 December 1957 – the anniversary of the opening of the original Wren church 282 years earlier. The trompe l’oeil behind the altar was painted by Glyn Jones for the rededication.
End of Fleet Street Newspapers
On 24 January 1986, 6,000 newspaper workers went on strike after the breakdown of negotiations with Rupert Murdoch’s News International, the parent company of Times Newspapers and News Group Newspapers. They were unaware that Murdoch had built a new-technology printing plant in Wapping, making their skills obsolete. When they went out on strike, he relocated his operation overnight.
Within months the printing dinosaur that was Fleet Street was dead. By 1989 all the national newspapers had decamped, as other proprietors followed Murdoch’s lead. Computers had consigned Wynkyn de Worde’s revolution to history.
Even with there no longer being any national newspapers left on Fleet Street, the church has retained its unique ministry to journalism and all aspects of the media.
The Journalists’ Altar was established in the northeast corner of the church during the time when John McCarthy was held hostage in Beirut for more than five years in the 1990s. (It was known as the Hostage Altar during those years.) It remains a particular focus of prayer for those in the profession who have died, many during the course of their work, as well as those who are missing or whose fate is unknown.
Candles are lit here for those who die in the course of duty, and journalists from all over the world are remembered.
Address: Fleet Street, London EC4Y 8AU
Official Website: www.stbrides.com