There’s several stories behind the rather odd name given to this narrow street which runs between Houndsditch and Leadenhall Street in the City of London – now famous for the gherkin-shaped skyscraper located within it.

St-Mary-AxeIt’s generally agreed that street’s name comes – at least partly – from a former church which it has been suggested once stood where the building known as Fitzwilliam House now stands.

Known as the Church of St Mary Axe (although its full name was apparently the somewhat longer Church of St Mary, St Ursula and her 11,000 Virgins), the medieval building was apparently demolished in the 1560s and the parish united with that of St Andrew Undershaft (this church still sits on the corner of St Mary Axe and Leadenhall Street).

The reasons for the church to be so named remain a matter of speculation. The most interesting version (and the one that would explain the church’s longer name) has it that the name was given due to an axe that was once on display in the church.

The axe had apparently come from Europe where legend says it was one of three axes used by the Huns (some say the three included Atilla himself) to slaughter 11,000 handmaidens who had been travelling in Europe with St Ursula. St Ursula herself was fatally shot with arrows by the Huns’ leader.

How and why the axe came to be on display in this particular church remains something of a mystery but so well did the church become identified with the gruesome relic that it became known as the church of St Mary Axe.

Another version we’ve come across states that the church took on the name because its patrons were the the Skinners’ Company who used such axes. Yet another suggests that the street was named after the church of St Mary and that of a nearby tavern which operated under a sign bearing the image of an axe (but it’s possible the tavern had such a sign because of its proximity to the church in the first place).

These days, as well as being the location of St Andrew Undershaft (now part of the parish of St Helen’s Bishopsgate) and the building known as the Gherkin (it’s official name is 30 St Mary Axe), St Mary Axe is also the place where, on 10th April, 1992, an IRA bomb exploded outside the Baltic Exchange, killing three people.

PICTURE: The Gherkin with St Andrew Undershaft in the foreground.

Contrary to what some may, St Katharine Cree is not named after a person of that name (or at least not entirely). St Katherine, certainly, but the addition of ‘Cree’ is simply a medieval corruption of ‘Christ Church’.

The name Christ Church, abbreviated to Cree, was applied to this church because it was the prior of the Augustinian Priory of the Holy Trinity in Aldgate, also known as Christ Church, who founded St Katharine Cree in 1280 for the use of the area’s parishioners (apparently their use of the priory church was causing problems).

The current building dates from 1630 (although the tower dates from 1504), making it the only surviving Jacobean church in London.

It  was consecrated by William Laud, then Bishop of London (and later beheaded for, among other things, his support of King Charles I). He is commemorated in one of the church’s chapels.

Unlike so many other of London’s churches, St Katharine Cree was not destroyed in the Great Fire of London and only suffered minor damage in the Blitz. But structural problems meant it did need substantial restoration in the 1960s.

Inside, is a mid 17th century font and stained glass dating from the same era which depicts a Catherine wheel (St Katherine/Catherine is said to have died strapped to a spiked wheel when martyred during the time of the Roman Empire.).

There is also a rose window which was modelled on that of old St Paul’s Cathedral (before it was destroyed by the Great Fire). Parts of the organ, which was restored in the early Noughties, date from the 17th century and the original was played by none other than George Frideric Handel and Henry Purcell. The six bells were restored in 2009 following an appeal.

Among those buried at St Katharine Cree are Sir Nicholas Throckmorton, a 16th century diplomat (his monument is inside), and the artist Hans Holbein the Younger (his grave is also claimed by St Andrew Undershaft).

The church today has no parish but is the Guild Church to Finance, Commerce and Industry (its rector is that of St Olave Hart Street). Among its annual events is the Lion Sermon given in October, a tradition that dates back to 1643 and owes its origins to the former Lord Mayor of London, Sir John Gayer, who decided to finance the sermon after he survived an encounter with a lion in Syria.

WHERE: Leadenhall Street, London (nearest Tube stations are Aldgate and Tower Hill); WHEN: See website for service timesCOST: Free; WEBSITE: www.sanctuaryinthecity.net/St-Katharine-Cree.html.