In and Out of London Or, the Half-holidays of a Town Clerk

Loftie, W. J.





THE City is very pleasant on Sunday morning. In all its aspects it differs from the same place during the week. It is empty, except of foot-passengers: it is comparatively clean, even in wet weather; it is free from smoke; the ringing of the church bells drowns all other sounds. The visitor who keeps his eyes open is surprised at the long views he obtains through streets which he is accustomed to see crowded with vehicles and thick with dust or fog. The day of rest is a real Sabbath in the City. You miss the hurrying throng and the anxious faces. Great warehouses, with their archways and porticoes, are deserted; the ordinary signs of life are wanting-no children play along the gutters or sit on the doorsteps, as in other parts of the Metropolis; no doors are open, no carriages are passing; the people walk in the roadway, and everybody seems to be going to church. Such an impression is of course much modified by a little experience of Sunday in London; after a time we find that all the people do not go to a place of worship;


that some of the churches are almost empty, others not half full; and that as the afternoon wanes many sights are to be seen, many sounds to be heard, sadly at variance with the promise of the morning.

A pilgrimage from the western districts of the metropolis is very different now from what it was when the church we are about to visit was in its glory. Four centuries ago St. Helen's, Bishopsgate, was one of the wealthiest of the religious houses with which London so much abounded. The Prioress owned land in several quarters of the City: Crosby-place was rented from her in the reign of Edward IV.; she let a house in Lombard-street to Queen Isabella. At the dissolution her income was equal to ten thousand a year in modern reckoning. Yet this was only one of many similar institutions; the City and suburbs on all sides were full of them; but within the walls they were most frequent. The City itself was then a place of habitation, and though the religious orders considered it unnecessary to seek the protection of fortifications, and were to be found in and Fleet-street as well as at Walbrook and Newgate, with the laity it was not so. Almost all the Londoners lived within the walls. The merchant princes dwelt where they laboured. Cheapside, where now.on Sunday morning the long processions of charity children in quaint antiquated costume seem to represent, at once, the coming race, and that long past, was then as resonant as Drury-lane is now. The churches, in which the


beadle and the parish pensioners are often the only worshippers, had then their full complement of lords and ladies, knights, aldermen, soldiers, merchants, tradesmen, and poor; where we now pass on our way through crowded streets, teeming with life, old and young, until we reach what is the comparative quiet of the City itself, then we should have journeyed through pleasant villages, surrounded by gardens; and in coming perhaps from the far brook side at St. Mary-le-bourne, should have passed successively through St. Giles in the Fields, with its tall Gothic church, the bare common in front of Lincoln's Inn, the cluster of high-peaked roofs and vine-clad gables about the entrance of the City precincts at Holborn Bars, and descending the hill, between Ely House, with its rich gardens, and the suburban church of St. Andrew, on the right bank of the Fleet, should have enjoyed a view of castles, palaces, monasteries, towers, churches, and spires, such as can now be called up only by the liveliest imagination, assisted by an occasional dip into one of Pugin's romances on copper.

But though the view is now nothing in one sense to what it was, it is very imposing and very beautiful still. The Viaduct and the railways, the vast markets, the tall warehouses, have a double interest, which mere modern buildings, without the associations which cling so close about such a situation, never excite. But endeavouring as we pass to


recall the older glories, we go, by the Grey Friars Monastery, its low comfortless buildings in strange contrast to the vast and magnificent church, where so many royal and noble persons lie buried; by the sanctuary and collegiate church at St. Martin's-leGrand; by the Austin Friars gate, and so through Walbrook and a labyrinth of passages to the fashionable quarter which lay just within the Bishop's-gate; and then passing through an archway on the right, a little beyond the chief entrance to Crosby-place, find ourselves in what was once an extensive laid out with all the art of medieval gardening, and bounded on the north by the buildings then lately erected by Sir John, on the south by the Priory of St. Helen, and opposite the entrance by a fine church, which, in part at least, remains to tell us of the place as it once was. The little avenue leading to the west door, the double aisles, the chapels, the tombs, and what is better than all, a congregation rare in the city, seem to transport us in a moment miles away into the country, where the busy, heartless town has not yet corrupted the old customs, or destroyed the antiquated buildings.

This is Great St. Helen's. On the right a gable and oriel of Crosby-place remain to serve as a pattern by which all may be restored in our mind's eyes. On the left we have nothing but the back of a row of houses which occupy the site of the nuns' dwellings. These slope across the vacant space, so


as to come into collision with the church at the farther end; and there, where priory and chapel met, a crypt was still to be seen seventy years ago. Within the church, at that point, doorways still indicate the situation of the dormitories and of the refectory. The double nave and a chapel on the south are all that now represent the magnificent conventual church. The equals the other aisle in size, and both now constitute the parish church. But before the sixteenth century, one-half only admitted the ordinary worshippers, while a high screen divided the congregation from the sisters. If we enter, like the parishioners, by a


south porch, which has now little of its original character, but is interesting as an example of architectural vicissitude, we are at once struck by the peculiarities of the building. A clear space upwards of one hundred feet in length is occupied by the low seats of the congregation, and at the eastern end by the choir stalls, leading up to a railed platform, which serves as a chancel: a fine window some thirty feet in height, filled with glass, of which we need only say it is worthy of its situation, bounds the view in this direction.

The north, or nuns' aisle, is two or three steps higher, and differs much in arrangement. Here are no pews, a few chairs only being required for the overflowings of a well-attended church; the floor is occupied by a series of tombs and monuments, of various ages and styles; and the wall, facing the noble arches of the nave, is a rare museum of archeological specimens, tablets, doorways, niches, and squints. I have already said that the domestic buildings of the priory stood beyond this wall. At the western extremity there is a charming little lancet window, filled with an admirable figure in modern glass; a little farther are two Perpendicular windows, with some remains of sixteenth-century glass. Eastward from these, the buildings of the priory abutted; and the wall is pierced by a series of hagioscopes, at different levels, according as the chamber, to which they admitted views of the holy table, was in an upper


or lower story. The largest opening is of a kind unique in England, but Burgos in Spain and St. Patrice at Rouen supply examples of a similar arrangement of window, tomb, reliquary, and hagioscope. The screen which divided the nuns' aisle from the church was removed at the Reformation; it can never have been a very formidable barrier, and except at high festivals, the sisters probably worshipped without leaving their own precincts.

We cannot help conjecturing what curious looks must often have wandered from the altar to scan the faces of the congregation, when some great prince or noble, attended by knights and squires, came to the church from a neighbouring palace. Here may have knelt in turn the conqueror of Agincourt, the King-maker, the half-imbecile Henry, the fierce and handsome Edward; and here, a little later perhaps, came the usurper Richard, from his house adjoining, and the delicate heiress of Warwick, his wife, to beseech St. Edmund and St. Helen for the healing of their dying boy. To the same church, in after years, when the nuns had disappeared and the saints were forgotten, came, living or dead, many whose names are still remembered. Did not Shakespeare live in Bishopsgate-street ? Did not Sidney's sister, Pembroke's mother, live in Crosby-place ? Sir John Crosby, and his wife, have their tomb on the south side of the chancel. Their effigies are


unusually fine, and almost unmutilated. On the north a still greater man, Sir Thomas Gresham, lies between the magnificent cenotaph of Sir William Pickering and the window of the priory. A window also commemorates the founder of the Exchange, while of Sir William Pickering we are told that

for learning, arts, and warfare, he was the pattern of his age.

Nor are the mural tablets less interesting. One, all glowing with colour and gold, is half- hidden by the Pickering monument; another, over the prioress' window, shows the camp at Tilbury, and the figure of Captain Martin Bond, with his orderlies and his war-horse; close above it again is the epitaph of his father,

The rival of Jason,

Flos mercatorum, quos terra Britanna creavit, Ecce sub hoc tumulo Gulielmus Bondus humatur.

[1]  Nearly opposite this tablet reposes Sir John Spencer, and adjoining it is the monument of Alderman Robinson,

the glasse of whose life held seventy yeeres and then ranne out;

but perhaps the strangest of all these quaint inscriptions is in the south chapel, behind the organ. Here the visitor will find almost as much to interest him as in the nuns' aisle. On the east, a beautifully moulded


arch, its supports covered with the remains of colour and gilding, marks the entrance to what was the A vestry-room now fills the space, but will be condemned when funds permit. In the south-west corner is a fine, but late brass of a lady in a mantle embroidered with rampant lions. The centre of the chapel is occupied by a large tomb of black marble, bearing on its surface a white carving inlaid to represent a parchment deed, with signature, and seal, and clause of attestation. On it, in text-hand, we read that Sir Julius Caesar, otherwise Dalmare, Master of the Rolls to King James, binds himself, when called upon, to pay the debt of nature.

But St. Helen's has well been called the Westminster Abbey of the City. Within reasonable limits it would be impossible to describe even half the objects of interest with which it abounds. We have only alluded to the best assembly of brasses in London, to the ancient glass which still lingers here and there, to the Elizabethan oak carvings which abound. We have not mentioned the panelled Stuart pulpit; the carefully restored pave ment,

semee of spread eagles;

the strange mortuary-chamber of Bancroft's degenerate son; the dole of loaves, spread on a white cloth upon the tomb of an unknown benefactor, as if to remind us by its pleasant odour, fresh from the baker's oven, of the glorious actions of the just, as set forth in Sherley's poem; the hearty service, the surpliced


choir, the orderly ritual. We return to the outer world again with a sigh. No sound from the vortex around it seems ever to penetrate to Great St. Helen's; it rests in the calm centre of the whirl. The citizen who is tired of the turmoil and bustle without, may here find a moment's peace, and be reminded of the quiet simplicity and the hallowing associations he is accustomed to seek only in some remote country village.

And so we return home, unexpectedly refreshed by a Sunday morning in the City.


[1] The flower of merchants who upon the British soil have bloomed, Behold beneath this monument lies William Bond entombed.