10 curiously named churches of London – 3. St Mary-le-Bow

December 7, 2011

We’ve already touched on the history of St Mary-le-Bow in our earlier series on Sir Christopher Wren but thought it was worth revisiting in a bit more detail. 

Another of Wren’s churches (after all, remember he designed more than 50 in the city), St Mary-le-Bow, on the corner of Cheapside and Bow Lane, has a history dating back at least to the Norman Conquest (although it is thought it may stand on the site of an earlier Saxon church) when it was constructed of Caen stone on the orders of Lanfranc, the new Archbishop of Canterbury, and was perhaps seen as a symbol of Norman oppression.

The name ‘le Bow’ is said to come from the Norman arches (it was apparently initially known as St Mary de Arcubus) which stand in what is now the crypt – this would have only been partially underground when built. From 1251, it hosted one of the church’s most important courts, which, thanks to its location, was known as the Court of the Arches. There is now a cafe in the crypt.

Like many other churches in the City, St Mary-le-Bow has been repeatedly repaired and rebuilt – following damage in a tornado in the late 11th century, the collapse of its tower in 1271, and, of course, the Great Fire of London in 1666 – Wren’s subsequent rebuilding included the construction of the fine great tower (pictured here against the backdrop of more modern City buildings, it was his second tallest structure after St Paul’s and was built to accommodate the Bow bells ). The church’s most recent remodelling was in 1964 after it was almost completely destroyed during bombing in May, 1941.

One of the church’s most important claims to fame is its bells. These included the city’s principal curfew bell, rung at 9pm each day since at least as far back as 1363. It is said that ‘true Londoners’ or ‘Cockneys’ must be born within hearing of the Bow bells and it was the pealing of the Bow bells (or what may have only been one bell at the time) which, of course, caused thrice-mayor Dick Whittington to turn back when leaving London. The church (in particular, its curfew bell) is also among a number of City churches mentioned in various versions of the rhyming song, Oranges and Lemons.

Features inside include a memorial to the first British Governor of New South Wales in Australia, Admiral Arthur Phillip, who was born nearby, and a bronze relief of St George and the Dragon given by Norway in commemoration of the work of the Norwegian Resistance during World War II. The churchyard outside contains a statue of Captain John Smith, founder of Virginia, and former parishioner.

For an indepth history of the church, you can’t go past the rather comprehensive St Mary-le-Bow: A History.

WHERE: Cheapside (nearest Tube station is St Paul’s). WHEN: 7.30am to 6pm Monday to Wednesday (closes 6.30pm Thursday and 4pm Friday and not usually open on weekends or bank holidays)COST: Free; WEBSITE: www.stmarylebow.co.uk.

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