St Bride’s Church, Fleet Street | Where the tiered wedding cake began
The traditional wedding cake we know today was inspired by one of the City of London’s churches
The name St Bride’s for a church off Fleet Street could not be more apt, because it plays an important role in today’s wedding culture. While the name of St Bride comes from St Bridgit or St Bride of Kildare – a druidic slave and daughter of an Irish prince, who was born in 453. She gave away so many of her father’s possessions, he eventually allowed her to follow her religious calling. St Bridgit is marked by a feast day, when it is customary to donate to the poor and a cake is baked for her travels.
The current St Bride’s was built by architect Sir Christopher Wren (1633-1723) in 1672, one of the first he designed as the City of London was rebuilt following the Great Fire Of London. It is thought to be the seventh church to stand on the site since the 6th century, with the Great Fire potentially destroying one dating back to the 15th century. The previous church was where the famous diarist Samuel Pepys (1633-1703) was baptised in 1633 and was mentioned in his diary entries concerning the great fire. Although the main church was open for worship from 1674, the tower and steeple weren’t complete until 1703.
The steeple, consisting of four tiers, each diminishing in size the higher they are, was originally 234ft high, but lost 8ft in 1764 due to a lightning strike. After St Paul’s Cathedral, St Bride’s was Wren’s tallest church and was prominent on the London’s then-skyline.
At weddings, it is commonplace to expect a tiered cake as the centrepiece of the reception, with everyone grabbing their cameras or smartphones to capture the iconic cutting of the cake by the bride and groom. Dessert at weddings were originally a stack of cakes, then a bride’s pie, before the bride and groom had their own separate cakes. Just like the traditional colour of a bride’s wedding dress, the white icing was meant to symbolise purity.
Who invented the tiered wedding cake?
Pastry chef William Rich (1755-1811), who lived on Ludgate Hill in late 18th century London, is said to be responsible for the tiered wedding cake we know today. Living a stone’s throw from St Bride’s on Fleet Street, he found inspiration for making a cake for his own marriage to Susannah Prichard (1758-1810) in 1776 by looking at the tiered steeple. Despite claims Susannah was the daughter of his boss, William was actually apprenticed to a baker named William Stiles for years, while Susannah’s father Davis Prichard was a peruke maker (wigmaker) from nearby Cheapside. Following the couple’s nuptials, they continued to live on Ludgate Hill and had 12 children, many of which were baptised at St Bride’s. By the time of William’s death in Stockwell, south London in 1811, he had built up quite a bit of wealth and was listed as a venison dealer and cook. The couple were buried at St Bride’s Church, followed by their son Henry Thomas Rich in 1828.
Amazingly, the steeple survived World War II, despite the actual church being fire bombed by the Luftwaffe on 29 December 1940 (see a photo of the bomb damage). By now, the church had been embraced by the journalists and editors of Fleet Street, who financially contributed to the church’s rebuilding in the Fifties, with the building being Grade I listed by Historic England in 1950. Despite the damage, the bombing did uncover the 6th century foundations of an earlier Saxon church on the site, which can be visited on tours.
- St Bride’s Church, Fleet Street, EC4Y 8AU. Nearest stations: Blackfriars or City Thameslink. St Bride’s Church is open for worship and visits. Please check their website for more information.
Read more on Sir Christopher Wren’s churches and other designs
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Many thanks to the talented proprietor of Ashley Jane Cakes – a caterer located in Lancs – for allowing me to use a photograph of one of her wedding cake designs.