The ghosts of Christ Church Greyfriars

Garden, Christ Church Greyfriars, LondonChrist Church Greyfriars is one of those places you stumble across in London without meaning to.  That’s exactly what I did a few years ago, drifting in search of somewhere to eat a sandwich after a tedious meeting.  Close to the Stock Exchange, I found myself in a peaceful garden planted inside the ruins of an old church, where butterflies fluttered, bees buzzed and birds tweeted, yet where the traffic of a great city still, ludicrously, rasped by.  Where there had once been pews, there were now box-edged flower beds, the colours mainly blue and white with the odd, cheeky, splash of red.  Where there had been proud, roof- bearing, columns, stood small wooden frames, festooned with clematis.   Christ Church Greyfriars is one of I don’t know how many intriguing historic places superbly maintained by the City of London parks and gardens people, bless their little green souls; and I’d had no idea it was there.

Christ Church Greyfriars, churhes destroyed in the BlitzThe original Christ Church Greyfriars was the church of a Franciscan monastery, founded in 1225; the ‘greyfriars’ comes from the colour of the monks’ habits.  A grand new church was built in the early 14th century, partly paid for by Margaret of France, Edward I’s second wife.  It was, apparently, 300 feet long by 89 feet wide (91.5 x 27 metres), making it the second largest church in medieval London after its neighbour, St Paul’s Cathedral.  It used to extend right under where King Edward Street now runs.  Inside, so ‘tis said, it was sumptuous, with eleven altars, many marbled tombs and all the usual trappings.  The monastery was an important place of learning; in the 15th century, another benefactor was four times Lord Mayor of London, Dick Whittington, who helped found the extensive library.

Christ Church Greyfriars, the tower, Merrill LynchThe monastery was dissolved during the Reformation in 1538.  The exuberant interior of the church was wrecked and no doubt valuable items were commercially recycled.  Christ Church became the local parish church and, in 1552, Edward VI founded a school in the former monastery buildings.  Christ’s Hospital School is still in existence today, though it moved to a site in West Sussex, near Horsham, in 1902.  It is known as the Bluecoat School, because its pupils wear a kind of blue coat, and have done since Tudor times.

Christ's Hospital School, London

Christ’s Hospital School, an engraving by Toms c 1770. You are standing on Newgate Street, the church is on your right and modern offices are now on the site in front of you. Image via Wikimedia

Christ Church Greyfriars was totally destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666, one of 87 churches lost in that particular disaster.  A new church, inevitably designed by Sir Christopher Wren, was built on the foundations of the old.  It was a magnificent baroque creation, with a wide, elegant, aisle, ornate plasterwork, a gallery and, allegedly, pews made from the timbers of a Spanish galleon. The church became a focal point in the City of London, with the Lord Mayor attending the annual Spital Sermon there.  (The Spital Sermon first took place at St Mary Spital in the 14th century and is intended to attract charitable donations, mainly to hospitals; ‘spital’ is derived from ‘hospital’.)  Christ Church was also known for its music: the organist Samuel Wesley performed there and, in 1837, Felix Mendelssohn entertained an audience playing works by Bach, and others. I have also read that, as a teenager before the Second World War, William Lloyd Webber, father of Andrew and Julian, used to play the organ there – but have been unable to verify it. Andrew, Julian – can you shed any light on this?

On Sunday 29th December 1940, the Luftwaffe launched one of the heaviest and damaging air raids of London’s Blitz, dropping an estimated 24,000 high explosive bombs and 100,000 incendiaries on the City.  163 civilians and fire-fighters died that night, more succumbing to their injuries afterwards, and a huge swathe of the Capital was destroyed.  The medieval Great Hall of the Guildhall was gutted and Paternoster Row, for centuries the nucleus of London’s printing and publishing business, was wiped out.  St Paul’s was saved – the iconic picture showing the dome surrounded by destruction was shot by Daily Mail photographer Herbert Mason from Fleet Street.  Eight Wren churches burned; and one of those was Christ Church Greyfriars, its combustible timbers helping to create a mighty inferno inside its old walls.

St Paul's, Blitz, LondonToday, only the shell of the church remains; the vestry is now a dental practice and the tower is a private residence. Commercial premises occupy the site of the friary and school, which was redeveloped after its move; the last time I looked, it was the London offices of Merrill Lynch, part of Bank of America.

As if it isn’t already a little hard to take in the history of Christ Church Greyfriars – the centuries of normal existence as part of the fabric of London, punctuated by the devastation of religious reform, fire and blast – consider, for a moment, those who were laid to rest there.  These include the remains of no fewer than four queens, buried inside the church, or in close proximity.  In no particular order: the heart of Queen Eleanor of Provence (d 1291), wife of King Henry III and mother of Edward I; Queen Margaret of France (d 1318), 2nd wife of King Edward I and a principal benefactress to the church; Queen Isabella (d 1358) the ‘she-wolf of France’, wife of Edward II and mother of Edward III; and Joan de la Tour (d 1362), Isabella’s daughter and Queen of Scotland; they all ended up in Greyfriars.  Isabella was, famously, the lover of Roger Mortimer, who was himself executed for treason and possibly also initially buried at Greyfriars before being moved elsewhere.  Some believe that Isabella had a part in the gruesome murder of her husband; oddly, legend has it that she was buried in her wedding dress with Edward’s heart in her hand.  Also interred at Christ Church Greyfriars was Lady Agnes Hungerford, a great beauty, hanged at Tyburn in 1523 for her first husband’s murder, and the Mad, or Holy, Maid of Kent, Elizabeth Barton, a nun executed in 1534 for treason and her head displayed on a spike over London Bridge, having prophesied the death of King Henry VIII if he married Anne Boleyn.  Apparently, Sir Thomas Mallory, who wrote Le Morte d’Arthur, is also round about here somewhere. More recent memorials can be seen on the tower: John Perry, steward to this hospital 23 years, died 21 April 1785 aged 62.  What happened to them all, I wonder?

Christ Church Greyfriars, gardens in the City of LondonIt is curious that Elizabeth Barton, who had humble origins and was, after all, a convicted traitor, should be laid to rest in somewhere so prestigious – a burial place of queens. Is it indicative of a powerful ally, or perhaps an anti-Henry faction?  Who knows?

In the 21st century, it is possible to hire Christ Church Greyfriars garden for your special day or party.  Naturally, you will have to share it with several ghosts.  The ones to particularly watch out for are those of Elizabeth Barton, Queen Isabella, Lady Agnes, an unidentified monk – and a dog.  Apparently, Isabella and Agnes don’t get on too well and have been seen having a slanging match; perhaps they can’t agree on the best way of disposing of unwanted spouses.

hrist Church, Greyfriars, garden, BTIn any event, I sat there in this little oasis, happily chewing my sandwich, watching the butterflies, birds and bees all do their stuff.  Just across King Edward Street, where part of the original old friary church would have been, is the headquarters of BT, British Telecom, a company appropriately renowned for its medieval attitude toward its customers. If that spoils your view, take comfort; one day, BT won’t exist anymore either.

 

49 thoughts on “The ghosts of Christ Church Greyfriars

  1. Richard Sutton

    This reminds me of regularly eating sandwich lunch in the gardens next to another ancient place -the old Reading Abbey. Henry 1 is buried there somewhere in a grave so far undiscovered. Even one or two of our Kings have gone missing! There’s another post waiting here.

  2. Carla TePaske

    Well, this was very interesting.
    Buried with the heart of Edward in her hands … oh my!

    Have you done a post on the Double Decker buses? My boys wonder, why double deckers never became popular elsewhere?

  3. jmnowak

    I’d love to see inside the tower and the lifestyle and decorating taste of its family, and to learn something about them and their history with the place.

      1. jmnowak

        Oh, I guess I watch too many of those home renovation shows, such as Grand Designs or similar. I’m always fascinated by the people who buy such rundown places and have the vision and money to make it habitable again. Especially when it was a huge task, as this tower would’ve been. I wouldn’t do it!

  4. Clare Pooley

    That is what I love about the City! There are so many interesting places hidden down alleyways and behind modern office blocks. I must have a wander about next time I get out of the train at Liverpool Street instead of getting straight onto the underground.

  5. Grace

    How wonderful to sit and eat your sandwiches surrounded by so much turbulent history Mike, did you feel any sense of it? The photograph of St Paul’s rising out of the destruction all around is incroyable!

  6. John

    That’s the thing with this wonderful country: the more you mooch about the more you find – and there seems to be no end to it. I’ve long been puzzled about ghosts though: they usually make themselves at home in graveyards and such, often centuries after their deaths. So how does anyone know who they are? Do they wear handy name-tags or do they announce themselves like hospital staff are supposed to do? “Hello, my name’s Isabella, I’m your she-wolf for today.”

  7. April Munday

    Interestingly, in light of your last paragraph, I used to walk past there on the way to meetings with BT.

    Can I persuade you not to use ‘medieval’ as a term of abuse? The Middle Ages gave us many things of great beauty as well as a great deal of knowledge.

    1. Mike@bitaboutbritain Post author

      I’m using ‘medieval’ as an adjective – in the same way as one might describe a country’s penal system, for example. You might say that someone had ‘a Victorian upbringing’ – and the legacy of the Victorians is enormous. A Bit About Britain is full of content about our heritage (as is your own superb site and your books) – history is a passion – but not everything about the past was good.

      1. April Munday

        It wasn’t, but not everything in the Middle Ages was bad, violent or unjust. I’ve seen a lot of discussion s between historians of the Middle Ages about the misuse of ‘medieval’ and some of it has rubbed off on me.

  8. Anne Clare

    It looks beautiful, but it’s strange to think that once the church isn’t a church the buried are just…there, memorials and all! (But, I suppose, what would you do with them? It’s probably a bit late to re-inter everybody… or every body, rather…) What an interesting place to discover!

    1. Mike@bitaboutbritain Post author

      London is full of bodies – they turn up pretty much whenever any major building excavation is done! I’m guessing, but don’t know, that many of the more prominent tombs here were smashed up and the contents disposed of during the Reformation.

      1. Anne Clare

        No wonder the ‘ghosts’ are irritable! (Would the Reformation you’re referring to be Henry the VIII era? I’m familiar with the Lutheran one on mainland Europe- a stint of art destroying there too, sigh- but not so much the activities in Britain. Or, I suppose I could look it up, rather than bothering you…:) )

        1. Mike@bitaboutbritain Post author

          Yes, sorry, that was thoughtless of me. The English Reformation was triggered by Henry VIII’s desire to divorce his first wife, Catherine, marry Anne Boleyn and have a son. To achieve that, he made himself Head of the Church of England (which the monarch still is) and severed ties with the Catholic church in Rome. The actual religious reformation – simpler churches, no idols, services in English etc, and the dissolution (closing) of monasteries, followed. Actually, a lot of the real reforming came later. Complicated and long story… there’s an article in the history section about Henry – due to be revised shortly. 🙂

          1. Anne Clare

            Thanks- and no worries! Church history has many twists and turns, and I wanted to be sure I was in the right century at least. 🙂 I’ll have to check the article out.

  9. 1066jq

    What an interesting post, had never heard of the place before. Interesting to learn what spiral actually means.

  10. fun60

    A favourite place to sit and have a sandwich. I often wonder how many people walk past without realising it’s there. Did you also go to Postman’s Park?

    1. Mike@bitaboutbritain Post author

      Not knowingly..! Looking at it, I think I’ve been there before I started to be really interested. London is very lucky to have so many green spaces – and they are often tucked away, with a wonderful history. Thanks for that – next time I’m there…

  11. Darlene

    I love this post packed full of history and interesting stories. I visited a similar site in Liverpool. A church that had been bombed out during WWII and is now open for special occasions or just to relax and eat a sandwich. I must check this out the next time I’m in London. Thanks!

  12. Helen Devries

    I must ask my husband if he came across it in his days on the Stock Exchange…the old one…as he used to wander the area in his lunch break.
    The Franciscans changed the colour of their habits to brown later on, but apparently should there be a Franciscan cardinal he would wear grey robes rather than red….that is if they haven’t all been made to wear suits by now.
    I am quite surprised that BT don’t have a dungeon and the rights of high, low and middle justice, given their attitude to their customers.

  13. Judy@cranberrymorning

    We were at that site in October, but you’ve added so much more to the story that we didn’t know. I hope Julian or Andrew get back to you. Let us know. And as always, your writing is most engaging. You make us see events in history as well as your recent munching at the monastery.

  14. Shammy

    Another splendid description of a place I knew nothing about. And now I do! I love the idea of the interior of the church turned into a peaceful garden. Too bad you didn’t see any of the ghosts while you were munching on your sandwich. Not even the dog?

  15. hilarymb

    Thanks Mike – a place I’ll definitely visit when I return to Britain … I love visiting the Guildhall and this is nearby – great history you’ve given us here … cheers Hilary

  16. cleemckenzie

    All of that intrigue right there in the heart of London. You make my traveling feet itch to pop over and experience that garden and those haggling ghosts. I assume the doggie ghost is Bobby, so I’d love a glimpse of him, too.

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