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London`s churches & cathedrals. Introduction. (part one)
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London`s churches & cathedrals. Introduction. (part one)London has grown so considerably in the past century and a half, that it is all but impossible to think of its limited compass when Queen Victoria succeeded to the throne. It seems bizarre to think of Greenwich as a detached town, or of Kilburn as a rural hamlet on the Edgware Road. It is a fact that London was a markedly smaller city in the comparatively recent past. Maps of London published as late as the 18th and early 19th centuries were routinely stated as covering London, Westminster and Southwark, as if no other areas mattered. London was equated with what we now call 'the City', the financial quarter lying east of the centre. This was the original London, the Londinium of Roman times, and also the walled city of medieval times. To the west of the walled city, a vigorous trading settlement called Lundenwic grew up in the 7th and 8th centuries, which St Bede the Venerable called 'the mart of many nations coming by land and sea'. But the Vikings came in the 9th century and the Londoners retreated within the walls.



London`s churches & cathedrals. Introduction. (part one)

Sir Ninian Comper's chancel screen at St Cyprian's, Clarence Gate is a fine Edwardian version of a 15th-century style.


Westminster, the suburb further upstream, derived its eminence from its abbey and from its royal palace. The abbey was founded at an unknown date, but probably no later than the reign of King Offa (757-796). It was King Edward the Confessor's establishing a palace nearby and his rebuilding of the abbey as a coronation and royal burial church in the 11th century that confirmed Westminster's importance. Westminster Abbey certainly has the greatest historical resonance of any church in London. The other ancient suburb was Southwark, south of London Bridge. This was a mediaeval town in its own right and had an ancient minster church, which became Southwark Cathedral in the early 20th century. It was in fact the first suburb, for it came into existence as a result of the river crossing in Roman times.
Mediaeval London had a stupendous number of parish churches.


London`s churches & cathedrals. Introduction. (part one)

The interior of the Church of St Mary Abbots, Kensington.


There are known to have been at least 110 built in the one square mile of the City alone. Of these, 86 were burnt in the Great Fire of 1666. The riches that were destroyed in terms of buildings, furnishings and monuments are incalculable. The fabrics and contents of two surviving mediaeval churches - St Helen's, Bishopsgate, and St Bartholomew the Great, Smithfield - give an instructive glimpse of the losses in 1666. Only seven mediaeval churches survive in the City, plus a few stray towers. Outside the City, mediaeval survivors are equally rare. Westminster Abbey and Southwark Cathedral are immensely important exceptions, but they were both monastic. Parish churches of mediaeval date are very few. The only mediaeval Anglican parish church in central London outside the City is St Margaret's, Westminster, which is a representative of the last architectural style of the Middle Ages. The much-restored St Etheldreda's at Holborn Circus, together with the chapel of Lambeth Palace and the undercroft of St Stephen's chapel in the Palace of Westminster, are all survivors of two-storey mediaeval private and institutional chapels. The chapel at Lambeth is Early English, while St Etheldreda's and St Stephen's are early Decorated. Beyond these buildings in central London, the church tourist has to go as far as St Dunstan's, Stepney, to see a complete mediaeval church. The Great Fire and the pressure to rebuild older churches in Georgian and Victorian times made London unusual in having so few mediaeval churches and conversely in having so notable a concentration of churches of the first importance built from the 17th to the 19th centuries. The contrast with counties such as Norfolk and Somerset is therefore considerable.


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