Christ 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.
The 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.
The 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 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.
Today, 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?
It 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.
In 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.