(« back to home page)


English Church Architecture.


LONDON, St. Mary-le-Bow  (TQ 324 811),



The most expensive of Sir Christopher Wren's London City churches.



This is another City of London church designed by Sir Christopher Wren (1632 - 1723), built, like St. Bride's, Fleet Street, over the ruins of its mediaeval predecessor, the crypt of which remains.  A more unfortunate parallel is that it was similarly gutted by German bombs in the Blitz, in consequence of which the interior today is the work of Laurence King (1907-81), a prolific post-war church architect, whose plans here were executed 1956-64 and reputedly based closely on Wren's original arrangements, although this is difficult to verify.  The cost of the seventeenth century building according to Gerald Cobb (London City Churches, Batsford, 1977, p. 35), came to the astonishingly precise figure of £15,421-9s-0½d, making this 'the most expensive of Wren's churches', although St. Bride's, Fleet Street, was only about two hundred pounds less.


The plan of St. Mary-le-Bow is a curious one.  It abuts Cheapside to the north but has only a small frontage there.  The aisled nave and sanctuary (for there is no chancel) run parallel with the street (sic), behind the four-storey building to the left of the N. tower as seen from Cheapside (and also in the photograph, left), and the tower is joined to the rest of the church behind, through a vestibule with a vestry leading off to the left (east).   The tower is also the most important part of the building from an architectural point of view, which is accessed through round-headed doorways in the N. and W. walls, each set within a tall, round-headed recess, enhanced with rustication.  The doorways inside these recesses are framed by Tuscan columns supporting a Doric frieze (sic) with carved faces in the metopes. Oval windows in the tympanum-like spaces above, present the appearance of being held in place by carved angels at the sides.  The tower bell-stage contains, in the words of the nursery-rhyme, 'the great bell of Bow', rehung in King's restoration and at one time the imperious nine o'clock curfew bell, which was rung every evening in the City from c.1363 onwards (notes in the church).  The round-arched bell-openings with consoles for keystones, are set between double pilasters, while above, an open balustrade running between four open corner pinnacles, encloses a spire comprising a circular peristyle supporting a frieze from which flying buttresses reach across to a surmounting lantern with twelve little Ionic columns arranged in the form of a diminutive Greek cross.  Gerald Cobb thought this amounted to 'what can reasonably be regarded as the perfect Renaissance steeple.  Its finely designed [features] betoken Wren's genius' (ibid., p. 48).


All this is constructed of white Portland stone.  The rest of the church is built chiefly of brick, with stone reserved for the rusticated quoins.  Windows are large but simple, round-arched openings, but the pitched nave roof, beginning higher up than the flat aisle roofs and with pediments over the gables, provides a reasonably smart elevation. 


Inside the church, the nave consists of three bays only, with narrow aisles separated by broad round-headed arches carried on compound piers with attached demi-columns with Corinthian capitals towards the nave & aisles and shorter pilasters towards the openings. (See the photograph above right, showing part of the N. aisle.) The tunnel vault over the nave is covered in decorative panelling, painted blue and white, and penetrated by the clerestory windows above the frieze over the aisle arcades.  The sanctuary (illustrated left) is divided into three bays by Corinthian columns with surmounting entablature blocks.  The three E. windows are all round-arched but the central window is taller and wider than its neighbours, which have small circular windows above.  The present furnishings are designed by King and 'are mostly of oak, some explicitly Neo-Georgian, others plainer but still traditionally detailed' (Nikolaus Pevsner and Simon Bradley, The Buildings of England|: The City of London, New Haven & London, 2002, pp. 244-245).


Finally, described as 'exceptionally important' by Pevsner (ibid., p. 243), who dated it to c. 1077-87 'when the church was rebuilt by Lanfranc of Canterbury', the plan of the crypt is broadly similar to that of the nave except in being divided into four bays instead of three.    It has a groined vault supported on cushion and scalloped capitals and now serves as a café like those at St. Martin's-in-the-Fields and St. John's, Smith Square, but it must be admitted it looks distinctly less salubrious in a  painting dated 1818 by C. E. Gwilt, in which the floor is littered with skulls and other bones.  'It may be the vaults here, and not the flying buttresses of the pre-Fire steeple of 1512.., which gave the church its suffix de arcubus (of the arches or bows)'.