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St Mary-le-Bow
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Cheapside was the City's main street and market-place ('cheap' or 'chipping' in a place-name refers to a market) and a scene of mediaeval riots. Wren acknowledged its importance by designing for it his grandest steeple. St Mary-le-Bow cost more to rebuild than any other parish church after the Great Fire, and almost half of the money was spent on the steeple. It is a proud structure, 70 metres (230 feet) high and surmounted by a dragon vane 2.7 metres (9 feet) long, which dominates the modern office blocks just as much as it presided over the houses and shops of Restoration London. It stands north of the body of the church, to which it is connected by a vestibule, not merely because it was thereby given a more prominent position, but also because Wren could place better foundations there. George Gwilt the younger restored it and partly rebuilt it in the early 19th century; the dark Aberdeen granite columns below the obelisk are his. It was restored again by Laurence King after wartime bombing. The 12 bells, which the tower holds, the famous 'Bow Bells', are said to define as Cockneys those born within their sound. One of the bells is the Great Bell of Bow, the tenor bell that is the successor of a curfew bell in the Middle Ages. It weighs nearly 2,134 kilograms (42 hundredweight). The peal was last recast in 1956, by the Whitechapel Bell Foundry. The bells are significant not just to Cockneys, but also because the BBC used a recording of them during broadcasts to occupied Europe in the Second World War. As a result, St Mary's has a Norwegian chapel, with a bronze relief by Ре, to recall the hope of liberation that Bow Bells brought to wartime Norway.

St Mary-le-Bow

Laurence King designed a worthy new interior for St Mary's in 1956-64, within Wren's walls.


Wren's church was built in 1671-80. The present church was the work of Laurence King in 1956-64, reusing Wren's walls and steeple. It was a very worthy restoration in Classical style, but it is a distinctive work that differs from a Wren interior. Underneath it there is an 11th-century crypt, which has survived all the surface disasters, the arches or 'bows' of whose vault gave the church its surname and which also named the Church of England's principal court, the Court of Arches. The court has met here over many centuries because it is the court of the Province of Canterbury, and St Mary's belonged to the Archbishop of Canterbury from early in the Middle Ages; it was described as his main 'peculiar' in London, meaning that it came directly under his jurisdiction and not that of the local bishop, the Bishop of London. Peculiars were once common, for they represented important sources of income. Today, ironically, St Mary's has a bishop's chair in the sanctuary - intended for the Bishop of London. The body of the church is built in red brick, with Portland stone dressings. The west side now looks onto a small paved square, which centres on a statue of Captain John Smith (died 1631), the founder of Jamestown in Virginia, USA. The nave elevation on this side is surmounted by a pediment that has curved attachments to the aisles. The west doorway in the centre has its own segmented pediment with large brackets.

St Mary-le-Bow

The steeple was Wren's grandest, rising to 70 metres (230 feet), and still presides over Cheapside as it towered over the City of King Charles II.


The barrel-vaulted interior is only three bays long, but it is wide, and because the aisles are so narrow, it seems very spacious. The arcades are supported on square piers, to which Corinthian demi-columns with gilded capitals are attached. There are small chapels at the east ends of the aisles, enclosed with fine iron screens by Grundy Arnatt Ltd: the Norwegian chapel is on the north side, and the Blessed Sacrament chapel on the south. The latter is graced by a tall sacrament house, over which presides a 'pelican in her piety', symbolic of the Eucharist: an excellent modern work, no doubt prompted by the steeple. The bishop's chair now stands north of the sanctuary, but it was intended to stand against the east wall, as in ancient times. What appears to be the reredos was meant to be a screen of honour for the chair and not a normal altarpiece; a bishop's mitre and the arms of the Bishop of London surmount it. The architecture, however, gives further prominence to the east end, for there are two attached Corinthian columns - as high as those of the arcades - which support block entablatures and, above them, tall pedestals and urns. They give dignity to the focus of the interior. The sanctuary is raised on a step and above it hangs a huge rood, designed by John Hayward and carved at Oberammergau. The stained glass is also by Hayward. It adds to the colour of the church, but it is jagged in design and difficult to follow. Christ in Majesty is in the centre. On the left, the Virgin Mary holds a model of Bow Church surrounded by other City steeples. In the south-west corner, there are two items of Australian interest. One is a bronze bust of Admiral Arthur Philip (died 1814), who led the first settlement at Sydney in 1788; the other is a banner of the Order of Australia, placed here in 1990.


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