St.Giles without Cripplegate

St.Giles Cripplegate

What links a late medieval parish church, the author of `Paradise Lost` and a 20th century American composer? For an answer, read on.

The City of London, that is to say the area known by Londoners as`the square mile`, as opposed to the sprawling metropolis of Greater London which surrounds it, is old, by western standards very old. The Romans arrived in Britain in 43AD, marching westward alongthe River Thames, crossed from at the first fordable point, establishing the city of Londinium on the north bank of the River. Nearby they built the first London Bridge, but that is another story. Today the City is at the heart of UK financial services, banks, investment houses, insurance companies and the Stock Exchange lie within the square mile, which ironically for such an old city, has some of the Country`s newest and most striking buildings. More surprising to the ground level pedestrian, are the number of churches, grouped in so small an area. Medieval London boasted well over 100, not including St.Pauls Cathedral and various monastic institutions. Some church buildings do indeed date back over 700 years, many others were destroyed by the great fire that consumed the City in September 1666, destroying over 13000 houses, 89 parish churches along with the cavernous Gothic bulk of St.Paul`s Cathedral itself. Under the oversight of one of England`s greatest minds, the polymath Christopher Wren, mathematician, astronomer, scientific pioneer and self taught architect, 51 of those church buildings were rebuilt, plus St.Paul`s Cathedral, rising phoenix like from the ashes of it`s medieval predecessor.

One church that escaped the fire of 1666, lay to the north of the City, just outside the old Roman city wall, which stood until 1760. It occupied an area now known as the Barbican, a reference to the fortifications that once defended the City gate in that area and was dedicated to St Giles, patron saint of cripples. According to legend, St.Giles injured himself saving a hind from the arrows of huntsmen. To this day above the entry porch is the image of a hind. St.Giles was founded in the late 11th century, though much of what remains dates from the 1540s, rebuilt inthe reign of Henry VIII. The designation `without Cripplegate`, literally meaning outside the Cripplegate, refers to it`s close proximity to one of the gates through the wall surrounding London. Strange as it may seem, Cripplegate is probably a corruption of the Anglo-Saxon word `cruplegate`, meaning a covered entry way, though no doubt there were plenty of cripples begging for alms there throughout the medieval period. Having survived the conflagration of 1666, it was gutted by another great fire, that which occurred on 29th December 1940 at the height of the Luftwaffe`s onslaught on London. The surrounding district, by then given over to warehousing and industry, was utterly devastated. Over the next 30 years it was rebuilt in a style heavily influenced by Le Corbusier, much needed housing and also an arts centre comprising theatres, a concert hall and a conservatoire. St Giles itself was restored in 1960 and is a rare example in London of late medieval architecture, looking somewhat surreal midst it`s brutalist surroundings. Interesting for that alone,however few churches can claim links to so many individuals who`s influence on the political and cultural life of early modern England, indeed on western thought to this day, was so profound.

In 1474 John More married Agnes Graunger at St.Giles. Before Agnes died in 1479, they were to have four children, including Thomas, future chancellor to Henry VIII and and author of Utopia. Sir Thomas More ( a man for all seasons) whom, following his rise to the highest echelons of power, was beheaded at the Tower of London in 1535, having failed to acknowledge his royal master as Supreme Head of the Church in England.

The reign of Queen Elizabeth 1st 1558–1603 witnessed the birth pangs of what was to become the British Empire. An era of maritime exploration, often creating friction with Spain and led by an array of adventurers such as Francis Drake, Walter Raleigh and Martin Frobisher. The last, was one of Sir Francis Drake`s commanders at the time of a threatened Spanish invasion (The Spanish Armada) in 1588, for which he was knighted. Frobisher made several attempts to find a north west passage to India, via Canada. Since global warming was not then a factor, he failed, not before he sighted Baffin Island and named Frobisher Bay.

By the 16th century London had a population of around 100,000 sould. diverse and multifaceted, from royalty and aristocrats, to merchants, artisans, tradesmen, shopkeepers, beggars, thieves, prostitutes, spies and actors. Indeed the early modern City, provided fertile material for Elizabethan playwrights.

By the late 16th century London`s first theatreland was beginning to evolve, the demands for both public performances and court entertainment guaranteed employment for actors and dramatists. Around the turn of the of the 16th and 17th centuries, Edmund Shakespeare, youngest sibling of William, arrived in London from Stratford upon Avon, to follow his famous older brother onto the stage. It appears he settled in the Parish of St. Giles and there fathered a child, Edward. Edward did not survive infancy and poor Edmund followed him to the grave in 1607, possibly a victim of bubonic plague. It is probable that William Shakespeare attended the baptism of his nephew at St.Giles, at any rate he was at this time living close by in an adjacent parish, where he wrote Macbeth, Anthony and Cleopatra and King Lear. It may also be that he encountered the organist of St.Giles, Thomas Morley, now regarded as one of the most important English composers of the time, an era when London itself was awash with writers, poets and musicians. Some Shakespeare scholars believe that Morley made the first ever musical setting of Shakespeare`s words, `It was a Lover and His Lass`, from `As you Like It`. By coincidence, in the nave of St.Giles is a memorial plaque commemorating the death of Margaret Lucy in 1634. She was Great-Grand Daughter of Sir Thomas Lucy, whom Shakespeare satirised as `Justice Shallow`in two of his plays.

Set beneath the organ gallery are busts of four notable former parishioners. Oliver Cromwell, who was married at St.Giles in 1620. As the political and military leader of the English Republic in the 1650s, he was granted the title of `Lord Protector`, a king in all but name. Cromwell was one of the signatories of King Charles I`s death warrant in 1649. Debate still rages over his legacy, was he a brutal anti-catholic bigot, or a man with sincerely held but tolerant beliefs, whose hand was forced by powerful rival factions? Similarly, constitutional questions from his era surrounding the legitimacy of a hereditary monarch and the limits of executive power as exercised by political leaders, are still argued over.

John Milton, author of Paradise Lost and Comus, de facto poet laureate to the English Republic. A Londoner by birth and upbringing, Milton was buried at St.Giles in 1674. A life size statue of him stands on the south side of the nave. In the 18th century his tomb was opened by a parish official, his body was seen to be in a remarkably good state of preservation. Not for long, several of his teeth, a rib and hand fulls of his hair were taken as souvenirs by inquisitive visitors, who paid the enterprising official for the privilege of viewing his remains!

The nave of St.Giles looking west, statue of Milton to the left

John Bunyan, the 17th century preacher and christian write, author of `Pilgrim`s Progress`, sometimes attended services at St.Giles and preached sermons in the Parish. Daniel Defoe 1660–1731, was probably born in the Parish of St.Giles. His real surname was Foe, he subsequently added the more distinguished sounding `De`. A colourful character he was at various times throughout his life a brick maker, diplomat, speculator and spy , as well as the author of up to 500 pamphlets, journals and what are now regarded as some of the earliest examples of the English novel, including Moll Flanders and Robinson Crusoe.

In 1961 the veteran American composer Bernard Herrmann relocated to London. Herrmann was famed for the scores he had written for the likes of Orson Welles, Francois Truffaut and Alfred Hitchcock. Music for films such as Vertigo, Citizen Kane, Farenheit 451 and Psycho. In London he continued his work as a composer and conductor particularly at recording sessions, as it turned out, St.Giles, noted for it`s fine acoustic , became a particular favourite. Here he recorded music for his last film commissions, `It`s Alive`, `Obsession` and Martin Scorsese`s `Taxi Driver`. Recording for Obsession took place in the Summer of 1975, just a few months before the Composer`s death in Hollywood. To achieve the effect needed to reflect the neurotic and overwrought mood of the film, Hermmann utilised St.Giles`s organ, alongside a full symphony orchestra and chorus. It is said that as he prepared to conduct the session, he whispered to the Film`s editor, `John Milton is buried at St.Giles about six feet from where I conduct, if I do a good job he`ll whisper to me.`



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Greg Laing

Greg Laing

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A freelance musician come tour guide, I`ve decided to pass my time during the Cov 19 lockdown by sharing some musings on London`s more obscure corners.