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.
It’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.