Christ Church Greyfriars: A little bit of nature amidst the concrete jungle of the City
The history behind the ruined 17th century church in the City of London.
The City of London was ravaged by bombs during World War II, with many iconic buildings and churches damaged or destroyed by the Nazis. Many of the churches created by Sir Christopher Wren (1632-1723) after the City was rebuilt following the Great Fire Of London in 1666 were again smouldering on the sites of their medieval predecessors.
Today, the City is a mish-mash of old and new, with what would have been some of the tallest buildings at the turn of the 20th century, now dwarfed by the likes of the Tower 42 and the Gherkin. Ruins of ancient buildings were cleared up or built over to create the metropolis of concrete and glass which dominates the City today.
However, just a stone’s throw away from St Paul’s tube station is a rare lasting monument to the damage of World War II. The ruins of Christ Church Greyfriars, now incorporating a rose garden, lie on the junction of King Edward Street and Newgate Street.
The site was originally a Franciscan monastery in the Middle Ages, with the name Greyfriars referring to the grey habits worn by the monks. Built in 1225, the friary stood for over 300 years. Throughout the centuries, several religious buildings were on site, with a Medieval church being built in the early 14th century. Amongst the notables buried in the church included King Edward I‘s (1239-1307) second wife Marguerite of France (1279-1318) and Edward II’s (1284-1327) widow Isabella of France (1295-1358).
Following the dissolution of the monasteries under King Henry VIII (1491-1547), the church was handed over to the Christ’s Hospital School, with pupils using it as their primary place of worship. However, like most of the City, the medieval church was destroyed in the Great Fire in 1666 and Wren was put in charge of the capital’s rebirth. Over the next few decades, Wren oversaw the building of 50 churches in the area, The Monument, and of course, his pièce de résistance, St Paul’s Cathedral. Wren’s team ended up using some of the Medieval church foundations to save time and money.
Wren’s Christ Church was completed in 1687 and comprised of a tower and steeple, with parishioners entering the nave from the west, which was smaller than the original medieval church. The stone walls included large windows letting in lots of light, with Corinthian columns separating the space into naves and aisles. The four corners of the roof featured carved pineapples, which were a symbol of welcome. As well as the pews on the ground, the building included two galleries for pupils (one of which being a young Samuel Taylor Coleridge) from nearby Christ’s Hospital School.
However, on 29 December 1940, a German firebomb crashed through the roof and nave. Amazingly, Wren’s tower and the four main walls remained standing (see a photo of the bomb-damaged interior here). On the same night, Wren’s St Bride’s Church at Fleet Street was also bombed, again the steeple amazingly survived. However, with Britain bankrupted by the war, the decision was taken not to rebuild Greyfriars, although the ruins were designated Grade I listed. The East Wall was demolished in 1962 to allow the widening of King Edward Street, with only the North Wall standing today.
While the Tower has now been converted into private residences, the site of the actual church is now a rose garden, providing a bit of nature to city workers, although with busy Newgate alongside, not necessarily peace and quiet. Rose beds have been placed where the pews once were, while the ghosts of the Corinthian columns are represented by wooden frames.
Alternatively, if you walk further north along King Edward Street, on the right is an entrance to Postman’s Park, another little sanctuary in the City.
- Christ Church Greyfriars Rose Garden, junction of Newgate Street and King Edward Street, City of London, EC1. Nearest station: St Paul’s.
For other posts on Sir Christopher Wren’s life and buildings read…
- A hidden garden in the City: The ruins of St Dunstan-in-the-East
- Missing – One church: The lonely bell tower of St Alban
- Temple Bar: The only surviving gateway into the City of London
- St Bride’s Church, Fleet Street – where the tiered wedding cake began!
- Only 311 stairs… climbing The Monument
- The lonely tower of St Augustine Watling Street: The history of St Paul’s next door neighbour
- Cardinal’s Wharf: A survivor of 18th century Bankside amidst two London landmarks
To read Metro Girl’s other blog posts on London history, click here.