The history of St Mary Abchurch

A Christopher Wren masterpiece

St Mary Abchurch is first mentioned in the l2th century but, like many of the City churches, is almost certainly of much earlier origin. It may be named after a Saxon benefactor (Abba or Abbe), or the name Abchurch may be a corruption of “Up-church” (up the hill from the river).

Situated in one of the City’s little side-streets just off Cannon Street, the church was one of 107 that existed in the square mile before the Great Fire of 1666. Like so many, it was destroyed by the Fire and was rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren in the 1680s. His mason was Christopher Kempster, who came from Burford in Oxfordshire and whose memorial can be seen in the church there. Kempster was one of Wren’s key masons in the building of St Paul’s Cathedral and was also responsible for City churches such as St James Garlickhythe and, with Thomas Strong, St Stephen Walbrook.

On the outside, St Mary Abchurch is built of plain red brick, with a simple lead steeple. The interior, however, is quite exquisite and is very little changed from Wren’s original. It consists of a single, square room, with no aisles, but with a dome – something we had never had in this country before Wren introduced them. The dome, which was painted in 1708 by a parishioner, William Snow, is a clever piece of engineering, because it is not, for the most part, supported on columns, but directly on the walls of the building. Snow’s painting shows, in the centre, the tetragrammaton (the name of God in Hebrew), surrounded by the rays of a Glory, a colourful chorus of worshipping angels and, in monochrome, the figures of the Christian virtues.

The main feature of the church is, however, the magnificent array of wood-carvings – the finest in any City church. They include carvings of fruit and flowers and a gilded pelican in piety, all by the great Grinling Gibbons, on the reredos behind the altar. There are more superb carvings, many of them by William Emmett, on the pulpit, the doorcases, the font cover and the Royal Arms on the organ gallery, below which are original 17th century churchwardens’ pews. Two 17th century poor-boxes are situated at the back of the church, each bearing the gilded inscription “Remember the Poor”. 

There are a number of memorials to celebrated City figures of the past, including a fine stone monument to a Lord Mayor of 1680-1, Sir Patience Ward, in front of the south-east window. Two other Lord Mayors, both from the early 19th century, are remembered by wrought-iron sword rests attached to the front pews. These feature coats of arms of the City, the Lord Mayors, and their livery companies, and were attached to the pews to hold the Lord Mayor’s sword of office when he visited the church for a service.  

The church has a west tower, in which one can find a belfry with a single bell. At the top of a ladder, which goes from here up to a little square dome, a fine view can be seen across the City, with St Stephen Walbrook close by to the west and the Monument clearly visible in the other direction.

Beneath the church, accessible via steps in the south aisle, is a small, rib-vaulted crypt and, down a steep ladder below the baptistery, is a boiler-house where one can see a magnificent marble slab bearing the words “The Entrance to the Vault belonging to Mr Westbrooke’s Family”.  Below this legend is the single word “Resurgemus” – we will rise again.

St Mary Abchurch is no longer a parish church, but holds regular services and is open on most weekdays for members of the public to visit. It was one of the very few City churches to avoid any substantial damage in the Second World War and has survived over many centuries to give us a wonderful insight into the history of the City and its churches.

 

Tony Tucker

Tony Tucker is the author of The Visitor's Guide to the City of London Churches and Sword Rests of the City, both obtainable from the Friends of the City Churches

Photographs of St Mary Abchurch

Thank you to Simon Knott for providing the photographs that you will find throughout this website.

And thank you to Chris Portwine for providing us with access to his photos of St Mary Abchurch.

Videos of St Mary Abchurch

Thank you to Terra Measurements for making videos of St Mary Abchurch

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