The story of St Bride’s Church is interlaced into the fabric of London. Entering its doors is to step into 2,000 years of history, which began with the Romans. A Roman pavement can be seen to this day on display in the much-restored crypts of the church.
St Brides can claim with some justification to be one of the oldest sites of worship in Britain. Shortly after the Roman invasion of 43 AD they erected a building on the site and remains of mosaic suggest it was a temple. In the early 6th century the Irish abbess St Bride or possibly her followers built a small stone church.
The Great Plague is believed to have first struck the docklands of London in April 1665, and by 6th June the parish of St Bride’s was officially notified of an outbreak within its boundaries. The parish suffered terribly because of the large number of manual workers.
The court of Charles II, together with lawyers, merchants and doctors, fled the city, but the poor could not. St Bride’s vicar, the Revd Richard Peirson, remained to witness the devastation to his parish community, including the deaths of his churchwardens.
Searchers of the Dead, usually old women, were paid to go out and inspect a corpse to determine cause of death. They were often bribed not to diagnose bubonic plague, as the entire household of a victim had to be locked in for 40 days, which normally resulted in all their deaths.
After a summer of drought, the Great Fire of London began on Sunday 2nd September 1666, and very soon the worried residents of the parish were watching in growing alarm before being put to flight two days later as the advancing flames leapt the narrow alleyways.
St Bride’s was equipped with its own fire engine, but had failed to keep the machine maintained. Soldiers destroyed houses about Fleet Bridge in the vain hope that the Fleet River might stop the advance of the flames. But the relentless east wind drove the fire on: one onlooker described how it ‘rushed like a torrent down Ludgate Hill.’ It took nearly ten years for St Bride’s to re-appear from the ashes under the direction of Christopher Wren.
There is a romantic story attached to the steeple of St Brides. The story goes that an apprentice baker named William Rich fell in love with his master’s daughter. When he became a master baker in his own right, he asked for the young woman’s hand in marriage, which her father granted.
Rich wanted to create a very special wedding cake to celebrate the marriage, which was to take place at St Brides’ church. Casting about for inspiration, he looked up and saw the tiered steeple of the church. The steeple prompted him to create a wedding cake in tiers, each tier smaller than the last. From that romantic inspiration came the traditional tiered wedding cake design used so often today.
The Blitz began in the early autumn of 1940, as the Germans sought to bomb Britain’s cities into submission. Two days before this grim year ended, St Bride’s luck ran out. On the night of Sunday 29th December, the Luftwaffe targeted the City of London in a concentrated incendiary raid. They started some 1400 fires; eight of Wren’s churches were destroyed. St Bride’s was one of them. Much of the interior was lost. Remarkably, Wren’s steeple survived.
The church, locked after Evensong, suffered incendiary hits which pierced the roof, and the seasoned timbers proved perfect tinder. They rescued some treasures from the flames, including the medieval gospel lectern which had survived the Great Fire of 1666. But most was destroyed. The famous bells melted and fell, but the steeple, despite having flames pouring from it, prevailed. A testament to Wren’s design.
Up Ludgate Hill, the Times reported, ‘the dome of St Paul’s seemed to ride the sea of fire like a great ship lifting above the smoke and flames the inviolable ensign of the golden cross.’
But all that lay ahead for St Bride’s were years of ruined desolation until the war ended and the church’s administrators were able to address the question that had faced their predecessors in 1666: How do we rebuild both the church and its congregation?
During work to clear the site for rebuilding, they found remains of Roman mosaic in the cellars. More surprising, perhaps, was the discovery of thousands of skeletons, interred in the crypts after the Great Plague of 1665 and the cholera epidemic of 1854. Well over 7000 skeletons were found.
Due to its location in Fleet Street, it has a long association with journalists and newspapers. The church is a distinctive sight on London’s skyline and is clearly visible from a number of locations. Standing 226 feet high, it is the second tallest of all Wren’s churches, with only St Paul’s itself having a higher pinnacle.
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