Holy! Holy! Holy!

Edward the Confessor left a memorial more enduring than his family’s fortunes; he retired to a palace, and established a monastery, in Westminster.

There had been a church there since the second century, but London antiquarians have suggested that there was once a pagan shrine to Apollo on the same site. Certainly a Roman sarcophagus, and a section of floor mosaic, have been found in the immediate vicinity. It was an area of great importance, in any case, since Westminster—or more particularly Thorney Island upon which Parliament and the abbey now rest—marked the spot where the road from Dover was united with Watling Street which proceeded northward. At low tide it was possible to cross the river here, and to ride along the great Roman ways. Yet topography is not simply a matter of road alignments. Tothill Fields beside Westminster was part of a ritualised area of power and worship; a document of 785 describes it as “that terrible place which is known as Westminster,” “terrible,” in this context, meaning sacred or holy terror.

It is not inappropriate, therefore, that the founding of Westminster Abbey is enwrapped in dreams and visions. The night before the hallowing of the first Saxon church here, in the seventh century, St. Peter himself appeared to a fisherman and was ferried across the river from Lambeth; the venerable figure crossed the threshold of the new church and all at once it was illuminated by a light brighter than a thousand candles. So began the history of the church of St. Peter. Edward the Confessor was in turn granted a dream, or vision, which persuaded him to build a great abbey. It became the repository of sand from Mount Sinai and earth from Calvary, a beam from the holy manger of Jesus and pieces of his cross, blood from Christ’s side and milk from the Virgin Mary, a finger from St. Paul and hair from St. Peter. Almost a thousand years later, in this place, William Blake was granted a vision of monks chanting and proceeding down the central aisle. A century before the poet’s sighting, Edward the Confessor also reappeared: a chorister came upon the broken coffin of the venerable king and drew from it a skull. So the sainted king had turned into a death’s head. It is perhaps an appropriate story for an abbey which has become London’s city of the dead, where the generations of kings and leaders and poets lie in silent communion as a token of that great mystery where past and present are mingled together. It is the mystery, and history, of London.

West Smithfield, after the foundation of St. Bartholomew-the-Great in the early twelfth century, witnessed as many miracles as any similar plot in Rome or Jerusalem. Edward the Confessor, in a prophetic dream, was informed that Smithfield had already been chosen by God as a place for his worship; Edward journeyed there the next morning and foretold that the ground should be a witness to God. In the same period three men from Greece came on pilgrimage to London, for already it had the renown of a sacred city; they approached Smithfield and, falling prostrate upon the ground, prophesied that there would be constructed a temple which “shall reach from the rising of the sun to the going down thereof.”

“The Book of the Foundation” of that great church of St. Bartholomew, from which these words are taken, was written in the twelfth century; it has much material for contemplation, but it also contains evidence relating to the piety of London and of Londoners. The founder of the church, Rahere, was on a journey in Italy when in a dream he was taken up by a beast with four feet and two wings to a “high place” where St. Bartholomew appeared to him and addressed him: “I, by the will and command of all the High Trinity, and with the common favour and counsel of the court of heaven, have chosen a spot in the suburb of London at Smithfield.” Rahere was to erect there a tabernacle of the Lamb. So he journeyed to the city where, in conversation with “some barons of London,” it was explained that “the place divinely shown to him was contained within the king’s market, on which it was lawful neither for the princes themselves nor for the wardens of their own authority to encroach to any extent whatever.” So Rahere sought an audience of Henry I in order to explain his divine mission to the city; the king graciously gave Rahere title to the spot which was at that time “a very small cemetery.”

Rahere then “made himself a fool” in order to recruit assistants in the great work of building. He “won to himself bands of children and servants, and by their help he easily began to collect together stones.” These stones came from many parts of London, and in that sense the narrative of construction is a true representation of the fact that St. Bartholomew’s was a collective work and vision of the city; it became, in literal form, its microcosm.

So the church rose, and many priests gathered to live “under regular rule” with the founder as prior. Beginning with its first foundation, when “a light sent from heaven gleamed over the church and remained over it for the space of an hour,” there were so many miraculous events within its walls that the chronicler declares that he will mention only those which he himself has witnessed. Wolmer, a cripple who supported himself “on two little stools he dragged behind him,” was carried to St. Bartholomew’s in a basket and, falling before the altar, was healed. A “certain woman of the parish of St. John” had her “enfeebled” limbs cured, and Wymonde that was dumb began to speak. Many of these miracles occurred on the day of the Feast of St. Bartholomew, so there was a continual awareness of sacred time in the city as well as sacred place. Miraculous cures were also performed in the “hospital of the church,” now St. Bartholomew’s Hospital. So St. Bartholomew’s is a temple of the holy spirit which has endured for almost nine hundred years.

When some citizens of London were on a long voyage to “the remote ends of the world,” they were threatened with shipwreck; but they comforted each other with the words: “what do we with little faith fear who have the good Bartholomew, the accomplisher of so many great marvels, set nigh to us in London? … He will not hide the bowels of his mercy from his fellow citizens.” In the oratory of the church was “an altar hallowed to the honour of the most blessed and perpetual Virgin Mary”; here the Virgin appeared to one lay brother and declared: “I will receive their prayers and vows and will grant them mercy and blessing for ever.”

That oratory survives still, but it is by no means an object of pilgrimage. St. Bartholomew’s Church is now largely ignored, set back from the circular road which connects the meat market to the hospital and which forms the perimeter of the old Bartholomew Fair. Yet Bartholomew himself might still be considered as one of the sacred guardians of the city and, even at the beginning of the twenty-first century, there are ten streets or roads which bear his name.

London was once a holy city, therefore, and of Smithfield we read: “Awful, therefore, is this place to him that understands, here is nothing else but the house of God and the gate of heaven to him that believes.” This invocation is echoed by other visionaries and mystics of London; here, in the very grimy and malodorous streets of the city, the “gate of heaven” can be opened.

There are in London many holy wells of healing, although most were long ago filled in or demolished. The ancient well of St. Clement lies beneath the Law Courts; Chad’s Well is buried beneath St. Chad’s Street. The well of Barnet was covered first by a workhouse and then by a hospital, so its air of healing was not thoroughly dispelled; in the same spirit the curiously named but efficacious Perilous Pond lay beside St. Luke’s Hospital in Old Street. A healing well that was guarded by monks, near Cripplegate, is still recalled by the name of Monkwell Street, while Black Mary’s Well has been transformed into the area still known as Bagnigge Wells beside Farringdon Road. The only ancient well still to be seen is the Clerk’s Well, now protected by a glass window a few yards north of Clerkenwell Green: here for many centuries were staged miracle plays as well as more secular bouts of wrestling and jousting. The holy well of Shoreditch—commemorated by Holy Well Row and Holy Well Lane—marks the site of one of the first English theatres, erected in 1576 by James Burbage, more than twenty years before the Globe. Sadler’s Well was also a pleasure garden and, later, a theatre. So the holy spirit of the wells, in a fashion appropriate to London, turned into theatre.

Hermits were often chosen to be the guardians of the wells, but their principal stewardship was of the gates and crossroads of the city. They collected the tolls, and dwelt in the very bastions of London Wall. In a sense, then, they were the protectors of London itself, professing by their vocation that this was a city of God as well as a city of men. This was the theory, at least, but it is clear that many were hermits by device rather than by profession; the author of Piers the Plowman, William Langland, condemned them as “Grete lobyes and longe that loth were to swynke” or impostors who were simply unwilling to work. In 1412, for example, William Blakeney was convicted at the Guildhall for going about “barefooted and with long hair, under the guise of sanctity.” Nevertheless the picture of London surrounded, as it were, with hermits who lived in their small stone oratories keeping vigils and reciting orisons is an arresting one.

The figure of the hermit has another significance also; the stories of the city, throughout the centuries, have been filled with lonely and isolated people who feel their solitude more intensely within the busy life of the streets. They are what George Gissing called the anchorites of daily life, who return unhappy to their solitary rooms. The early city hermits may therefore be regarded as an apt symbol for the way of life of many Londoners. An extension of that hermitic spirit can be traced in the four churches of St. Botolph, which guarded four of the city’s gates; Botolph was a seventh-century Saxon hermit, who was especially associated with travellers. So the wanderer and the interior exile are seen as part of the same short pilgrimage among the streets of London.

But those streets can also be filled with prayer. There was in Marylebone, before the redevelopment of Lisson Grove, a Paradise Street approached by Grotto Passage; in the immediate vicinity were Vigil Place and Chapel Street. Perhaps here we have evidence of an ancient hermitage, or sacred spot, linking the city to eternity. In the immediate vicinity of St. Paul’s are to be found Pater Noster Row, Ave Maria Lane, Amen Court and Creed Lane: here we may usefully imagine a procession through various streets in which particular prayers or responses were chanted. So the old churches of London maintain their ancient presence and seem periodically to relive their histories.

That is why the area around St. Pancras Old Church, for example, still remains desolate and dreary. It has always been an isolated and somewhat mysterious place—“Walk not there too late,” counselled one Elizabethan topographer. It is the traditional terminus for murderers, suicides and those who were killed while fighting duels at Chalk Farm, but no true resting place: the corpses are continually being dug up and reburied. The last great removal occurred in 1863 when the railway lines of St. Pancras Station were laid through the site. The tombstones were placed against a great tree, the roots of which curl among them; from a distance it would seem that the headstones are indeed the fruit of that tree, ripe and ready to be gathered. Among these ancient memorials will be some to the Catholic dead; it was for them a holy place. St. Pancras is believed to be the first Christian church in England, established by Augustine himself, and is reported to contain the last bell which was able to toll during the Mass. Pancras has therefore been construed as Pangrace; a more likely derivation, associated with the saintly boy named Pancras, is Pan Crucis or Pan Cross—the monogram or symbol of Christ himself. So we have a Vatican historian, Maximilian Misson, asserting that “St. Pancras under Highgate, near London … is the Head and Mother of all Christian Churches.” Who could imagine the source of such power in the wasteland north of King’s Cross Station?

It has its bells, like the other London churches. The bells of St. Stephen, Rochester Row, were named “Blessing,” “Glory,” “Wisdom,” “Thanksgiving,” “Honour,” “Power,” “Might” and “Be Unto Our God For Ever and Ever Amen Alleluiah.”

We do not necessarily need the evidence of the famous nursery rhyme to realise that the bells were a familiar and friendly presence in the life of Londoners:

You owe me five farthings,

Say the bells of St. Martin’s.

When will you pay me,

Say the bells at Old Bailey.

In 1994 the Meteorological Office reported that, before the sound of motorcars entered the already crowded streets, the bells of St. Mary-le-Bow in Cheapside “would have been audible all over London.” In a true sense, then, every Londoner was a Cockney. Yet the East End may lay an especial claim to that honorific, perhaps, since the oldest business in that area is the Whitechapel Bell Foundry which was established in the fifteenth century. Citizens used to bet which parish could make its bells heard at the greatest distance and it was said that bell-ringing was a salutary way of keeping warm in winter. It was sometimes surmised that at the Last Judgement the angels would peal the bells of London, rather than sound their trumpets, in order to convince the citizens that the day of doom had truly arrived. The bells were part of the sound and texture of its life. When the protagonist of George Orwell’s 1984 recalls the famous song with its mention of St. Clement’s and St. Martin’s, Bow and Shoreditch, he seems to “hear the bells of a lost London that still existed somewhere or other, disguised and forgotten.” Some of the bells of that lost London can still be heard.

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