The Holy Smoke Run 4

St Andrew Undershaft

“Undershaft” refers to the shaft, or Maypole, which was so tall it overshadowed medieval St Andrew church – hence the name. Shafts, poles… these words summon up other words I have often associated with the City (never more so than when I think of Rhys-Mogg), so it’s nice to find a reason to use them more innocently.

This proud and beloved church, which punctuates a cluster of iconic 21st century sky scrapers in the heart of the insurance district, is still dwarfed and invisible from even a close distance (in face, I ran past it twice) but once found is a vibrant contrast like a Maypole itself, admired steadily by workers peaking out of the sharp corners and bezier curves of the neighbouring Gherkin and Cheese Grater, vying for attention. Nearby in Leadenhall a replica of the original pole stands sadly against a wall, and as far as I know sees no action.

There is much debate about the origin of Maypoles, traditionally raised on the feast of Pentecost and decorated with flowers and garlands. While there are many recorded instances of people celebrating spring with other customs and rituals, I could find no reference to the English Maypole prior to the 14th century, but then there weren’t many records of anything in those days. The idea of children dancing around it and making lovely ribbon patterns was, like clan-based tartan, invented by the rose-spectacled tourist-hungry Victorians.

Earliest records of it seem to come a few centuries earlier from the Kingdom of Germany, at that time part of the Holy Roman Empire, which stretched from Rome all the way to the Baltic and was, as the name suggests, quite religious. Most historians appear to want to claim the Maypole for the pagans, and while it would be hard not to acknowledge it’s phallic symbolism and disassociate that from religion (as did the Puritans) I think that is just historians being inverted prudes. Pagans didn’t have the monopoly on hanky-panky.

Since no-one seems to know for sure, here’s my theory of it’s origin. In the old testament, that time of year was a celebration of the first harvest and a feast day, which meant people got the day off work. In the new testament, it is the celebration of the end of Easter and the day that the disciples received the Holy Spirit (which happened to coincide with the first harvest celebrations of the old testament), and the start of the Christian mission out into the world. It was also the day that people got baptised if they hadn’t been baptised at Easter, hence it’s alternative name, Whitsunday, in reference to people’s white baptismal garments.

Given Easter was such a big day in the church, the biggest in fact, the Passion of Christ (a reenactment of the crucifixion) or a form of it might have been enacted outside churches because there would have been too many people to fit inside. The cross might have been left up until pentecost and then used as the focal point for the inevitable party that the baptisms, holidays and thought of Holy Spirit inspired. Travellers seeing this spectacle may have thought the cross was there just for that purpose, like a Christmas tree is just for presents, and maybe even thought it a pole and not a cross. And so the tradition spread and mutated, centuries before ending up in Chaucer’s poem, “Chaunce of Dice”:

‘Right well aloft, and high ye beare your heade
The weather cocke, with flying, as ye would kill
When ye be stuffed, bet of wine then brede
Then looke ye, when your wombe doth fill
As ye would beare the great shaft of Cornehill
Lord, so merrily crowdeth then your croke
That all the streete may heare your body cloke.’

(Chaucer did mention St Andrew Undershaft in his writings, but this is about the even bigger Maypole down the road at Cornhill).

One thing there was no doubt about was that the Maypole attracted acts of public disorder and after the riots dubbed “Evil May Day” in 1517, when a hateful mob of apprentices violently protested and attacked foreigners (or “strangers” as they were known then) throughout the city, it was confiscated and eventually destroyed. Shakespeare wrote about the riots and it became the subject of his only surviving piece of handwriting in a moving speech written for the character of the City’s sheriff, Thomas More, in his unpublished play of the same name. It is a brilliant and powerful rebuke to the anti-immigration lobby, and sadly as pertinent today as it was then, and still used in campaigns for refugee rights. “This is the strangers’ case,” he wrote, “And this your mountanish inhumanity.” I highly recommend clicking through to Sir Ian McKellen’s excellent performance of it.

Dating back to the 11th century, St Andrew Undershaft is one of the few medieval churches that was spared the 1666 fire, Wren’s extensive rebuilds, and the Second World War bombing raids – although it did lose an ancient stain glass window in the 1992 Bishopsgate bomb. It’s generally closed to the public but kept busy with bible study groups and Sunday school by the neighbouring St Helens, the church you must contact to arrange to the visit St Andrew Undershaft.

Apparently there isn’t much in the church but it’s definitely one I would like to go back to when I can arrange a visit, not least to visit the tomb of John Stow, who was the first person to write a survey of the City of London (1598). His widow commissioned a statue of him poised writing, as he spent much of his life doing, with a hole for a real quill. The quill is replaced every three years in a ceremony “The Changing of the Quill” by the City’s mayor and is given as a prize to a school child for the best essay about London. Unfortunately last year’s winner was postponed until this April, and it seems the next one will be too.

Just me and the construction workers in the rain today, I am very much missing people and their ways. The only interaction I have had with strangers, apart from dodging them in an eternal game of pavement “it”, was trying to think what to say to a woman who was enraged by a dog owner who hadn’t picked up their dog poo. Grunt. Gross. Mmmmm. I know… it’s hard to pick out the words when you’re avoiding plosives.


  1. I walked past that church thousands of times but never went in. It sort of crouches back from the traffic and the drunk bankers at the horribly named bar across the road (the gibbet or something?) Such a lot of history!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t think it’s there any more possibly squashed out the way by the cheese grater? You can’t go in now unless you book an appointment which apparently takes a while, which is a shame would love to have a look around but won’t be for a while!


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