A double treat, a church that is not only designed by Christopher Wren but also open to the public. This church is beautiful. Finding it completely empty but utterly perfect, I respectfully paced the marble floor feeling honoured and lonely in equal measure. For this church should be full of music and prayer, and I just didn’t feel big enough to do it justice.
I imagine it was called St Andrew’s because of the saint’s association with fishing (the site dating back to the 10th century, it originally stood on the banks of the buried river Fleet), but the care of children seems to be an overriding theme. The final resting place of Thomas Coram, a 18th century philanthropist who founded a school and hospital for children in the parish, is reached by passing between a pair of blue-coated paupers stood on either side of the entrance (blue coats symbolised poverty as it was the cheapest dye at the time). Gilded cherubs gaze down at every pew from Wren’s barrel vaulted ceiling, and much of the church furnishings – including the organ casing (designed by the hospital patron Handel), the pulpit and the font, were taken from the foundling hospital’s chapel after it disbanded in 1955.
There is also a monument to local surgeon William Marsden, who in the early 19th century found a young girl suffering from hypothermia on the steps of the church. No hospital would receive her and she ended up dying in his arms two days later. This event so affected him that he founded the what has now become the Royal Free Hospital “to which the only passport should be poverty and disease”. It was good to think of all the London lives the plight of that poor girl saved as a consequence. With it’s focus on poor and abandoned children I could sense the presence of the likes of the Artful Dodger and friends running about the churchyard and inspiring local writer Charles Dickens, being so close to the fictional site of Fagan’s den in Saffron Hill, as he imagined his villain Bill Sykes eying the church tower in Oliver Twist.
Just as the steps of the church were pivotal to the health of the local poor, the baptismal font was also a hinge in some interesting plot turns. It was here, during a baptism in the 17th century a rector was held with a pistol against his head by roundheads for his use of the banned Book of Common Prayer; he managed to disarm the soldiers by stating ‘I am doing my duty. Now do yours.’ Here too the three godparents witnessed the baptism of James Somerset, an African enslaved to customs officer Charles Stewart.
When Somerset escaped and a year later, Stewart captured him and had him put in irons set to go back to the colonies. But his godparents stepped in to have him fairly trialled which found that no laws existed recognising slavery in England therefore he was free to go. Unfortunately this was more to do with legal framework than human rights and so benefited him more than the 15,000 other slaves in England at that time, and the judge was narrow in his ruling having been recently firebombed for upholding the rights of persecuted catholics. However it was an important and much publicised victory and precedent that encouraged the growing emancipation movement. It was also the place that Benjamin Disraeli was baptised, aged 12, after his father fell into dispute with the local synagogue. He is still the only British Prime Minister to have been of Jewish birth.
St Andrew’s is one the City’s five guild churches which follows the modern Catholic tradition. I’ve no personal preferences about denominations but I’m glad this one is catholic because it sits above the bones of St Swithun Wells, one of the four Martyrs of England and Wales who was hanged outside his house on Grays Inn for his refusal to denounce his faith under the rule of Elizabeth I. A country gent and school teacher, Wells was well known for providing a safe house and assistance to persecuted priests. He must be one of the few saints who called his tormenters’ mother a cow just before meeting his maker, although he did apologise, and should only really be remembered for his penultimate last words, which he made to a friend in a crowd as he climbed the scaffold: “Goodbye my dear. Goodbye to our nice hunting companies. Now I have something much more important to do.” There is an extraordinarily atmosphere of benevolence in this church, which makes me think that St Swithun Wells has indeed been hard at work from his unmarked grave, setting the tone for the moments of grace that it has inspired over the years.
This was my third day running in a row, a record for me, so I am taking a day off to do other things, depending on the levels of cabin fever and the wind.
St Andrew’s church, Holborn