Giant sculpture of a scarab beetle

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

Samuel Palmer (1805-81), A Cornfield by Moonlight with the Evening Star

Kentish Town

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Twickenham bridge

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St Helen's Bishopsgate
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St Helen's BishopsgateSt Helen's is a precious survivor in the City from before the Great Fire and a survivor, too, of modern bomb outrages. It has the best collection of monuments of any parish church in the capital, earning it the label 'the Westminster Abbey of the City'. It is also unusual in its history and ground-plan, for it has two parallel naves, one of which belonged to the mediaeval Benedictine nunnery founded by William Fitzwilliam in the early 13th century. This is the only mediaeval monastic building left within the City's walls and the only one surviving from a nunnery. The nunnery was dedicated to St Helen and the Holy Cross, for St Helen, who was the mother of the first Christian Roman Emperor, Constantine the Great, was widely credited with finding the True Cross in the 4th century. The church stands in Great St Helen's, off Bishopsgate, largely surrounded by 19th- and 20th-century commercial buildings. They helped to shield its fabric from two IRA bomb blasts in 1992 and 1993, but the first of the bombs nevertheless caused great damage. The church was restored by Quinlan Terry and was considerably reordered. For a City church, St Helen's is fortunate to have a well-supported and successful ministry, which has carried it through its troubles. The visitor approaches a west front of two low, battlemented gables, representing the mediaeval nuns to the north and the parish to the south. A small bell-turret surmounts the centre. The west and north walls, plus the south transept, are 13th century. The windows, however, are from a later period: those at the west are 15th century. The north wall features blocked lancets, which may be seen from inside. The transept's exterior clearly reveals numerous alterations. On that side of the church, too, there is a doorway of 1633, which is inscribed Laus Deo/S. Helena.

St Helen's Bishopsgate

The church's oldest monument, to John de Oteswich and his wife, 14th century.

The interior consists of two naves of equal width, separated by four tall arches of about 1475, and two chancels that are divided by a lower 14th-century arch and then by another arch that dates from the late 15th century. There is no structural division or screenwork on either the north or south side. A screen of 1892-3 by J. L. Pearson, which formerly stood across the parochial chancel, has been moved to fill the arch into the south transept. This transept has an east chapel of the late 14th century; transept and chapel are now treated as one space.

St Helen's Bishopsgate

A view towards the south transept from the parochial choir, over the monument of Sir John Crosby and his wife.

Quinlan Terry's restoration included the raising of the internal floor. Previously, the entrance was down a flight of steps. A white-painted west gallery has been built across the west end and houses a finely cased organ (by Thomas Griffin, 1743) on the south side. An equally sumptuous doorcase of about 1635, which formerly stood at the main entrance, now stands against the south wall. A second such door-case is placed in the south transept.

St Helen's Bishopsgate

The south wall of the south transept, showing part of the arcade leading into the east chapel.

There is still a Victorian reredos under the parochial east window, but the focus of the church is the south wall, where the pulpit stands on a dais. The pulpit is a rich Jacobean example, with a tester. The communion table is kept under the east window, but it is moved to the south dais for services. Very little stained glass survived the bombs of 1992-3; what does remain is to be found in the north windows. The middle one depicts Shakespeare, who is recorded as having lived in the parish in 1597. There is also some heraldic glass in the east window on the north side, which was given by the Merchant Taylors' Company in 1996. On the north side of the central arcade there is a rare wooden sword-rest, dated 1665. The font, placed at the west end, was made in 1632.

St Helen's Bishopsgate

The inscription to Sir John Spencer, Lord Mayor (died 1609), at the west end of the parochial nave.

The most important monuments are at the east end. On the north side there is the tomb-chest of Sir Thomas Gresham (died 1579), founder of the Royal Exchange and of Gresham College and one of the most famous City worthies of all time. The tomb consists of a black marble base, a fluted chest with finely carved heraldry, and a black marble slab on top. Under the arcade to the south of Gresham's monument there is the railed memorial to Sir William Pickering (died 1574), Ambassador to Spain. On the east wall near the arcade is a small monument to Sir Andrew Judd (died 1558), Lord Mayor and founder of Tonbridge School, who went to 'Russia and Muscovy', according to the inscription. The south transept has two large table-tombs. The one on the north is of John de Oteswich and his wife, with effigies from the late 14th century; and the other is of Sir Julius Caesar Adelmare (died 1636), a judge, whose tomb-chest bears not an effigy but a legal document declaring that he was ready to pay the debt of Nature. Under the arch into the transept's aisle is Sir John Crosby's tomb. He was the owner of Crosby Hall, which once stood nearby but is now at Chelsea. He died in 1476. The railed monument under the nave arcade is to William Kirwin (died 1594), a mason, who declares that he has adorned London with buildings. Against the south wall, near the main entrance, Sir John Spencer (died 1609), Lord Mayor, has a substantial wall monument featuring three figures, two coffered arches, black obelisks, strapwork and heraldry.

St Helen's Bishopsgate

A view from the east end of the parochial choir towards the nuns' choir, seen through the monument to Sir William Pickering (died 1574).

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