Whenever I visit London, I always try and walk between places. I’ve never had an urge to live there, and like (even when I’m there for work) to feel like a tourist. Walking helps that. Walking between Liverpool St and the British Library, I followed part of the London Wall and then rounded a corner to this church. It was open. Beguiled, I went inside.
The church in question is St Anne & St Agnes, a former church, now a music centre. Designed by Christopher Wren, preached in by John Wesley, with fascinating stories to tell.
There has been a church on the site since the twelfth century. The first reference is to ‘St Agnes near Alderychgate’. Other records name it as ‘St Anne-in-the-Willows’ (how lovely sounding), but by the fifteenth century the church is commonly known by its double dedication.
St Anne was the mother of Mary and so the grandmother of Jesus Christ. In some traditions, she too was a virgin when she gave birth! In the Western church there are very few references to her until the twelfth century (interesting!). However in the Eastern church she was a popular saint from the sixth century onwards. Her relics were brought from the Holy Land to Constantinople in the eighth century and were there as late as 1333. However during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, returning crusaders brought back relics of St Anne to many western churches. Her popularity reached its height in the fifteenth century, finds of pilgrim badges showing her teaching the Virgin to read are testimony to this:
Her emblem is a door and she has numerous patronages:
- unmarried women
- women in labour
- horseback riders
- cabinet makers
- the Mi’kmaq people of Cananda
- miners (her womb as a mine from which the jewels of Mary and Christ came)
- storm protection
St Agnes has chastity in common wit St Anne, however Agnes was a later virgin-martyr in Rome. Beautiful and religious, at the end of 12 or 13 she was condemned to death for her Christian beliefs (having been ratted on by spurned suitors). Dragged through the streets to a brothel (to be raped, of course), hair grew miraculously all over her body to stop the violation. Those who attempted to rape her were struck blind or dead. To put a stop to this, Roman authorities attempted to burn her at the stake, but the wood would not catch. Ultimately she was either beheaded, or her throat slit, and was buried in Rome.
St Agnes is usually shown holding a lamb and there are several finds associated with her. These mounts could have be fastened to different objects, including reliquaries and other devotional items:
St Agnes is the patron saint of:
- young women
- rape survivors
- engaged couples
Would St Agnes approve?
The church itself has been gutted by fire twice. Once in 1548 and then again in the Great Fire of London in 1666. After 1666, the church was rebuilt by Wren. Only some fourteenth century brick courses survive of the earlier church. This new church was built on an eastern square plan, which creates a wonderful feeling of space inside the building.
The church fittings have mostly come from other sites, as the second phase of destruction came in 1940.
During the Second World War, the church was bombed in the Blitz. This drawing from the Imperial War Museum collection gives an idea of the damage.
The artist, Dennis Flanders, was a well-known illustrator and draughtsman, who as well as working on War Office commissions, built models from aerial reconnaissance photographs at Welbeck Abbey, Nottinghamshire.
A worldwide appeal within the Lutheran church funded its reconstruction, which was made to provide a spiritual home for displaced Latvian and Estonian Lutherans. From its re-opening in 1966 to its deconsecration in 2013, the church was their. I couldn’t see anything connecting that community to the church – it would be really interesting for a casual visitor to learn more about.
The furnishings are lovely. I really enjoyed the carvings on the pulpit, which came from St Augustine, Watling Street. it was carved by Maine in 1687.
I loved the beautiful clear glass …
And opportunities to find eighteenth century gravestones are always much appreciated!
If you’d like to visit the church, it is now known as The Gresham Centre and I understand from the helpful guides that it’s open regularly.