St Magnus The Martyr Church: The history of the old gateway to the City of London
Dwarfed by the modern architecture surrounding it, St Magnus The Martyr church in the City of London is not such a prominent building as it used to be. However, for hundreds of years, this very church stood at the head of London Bridge, with its frontage as an unofficial ‘gate to London’. For visitors crossing into the City from Southwark, it was the first building that would greet them after they stepped off London Bridge. With the capital’s oldest bridge being relocated further west in 1830, the grand entrance to the church is now hidden away in a small courtyard.
St Magnus The Martyr is named after Magnus Erlendsson, Earl Of Orkney (1080-1116 or 1118AD), who was executed following a power struggle with his cousin. He was canonised in 1135 and was remembered for his piety and gentleness. It is believed the church was established in the early 12th century, after the previously marshland area of the riverbank was developed and one of the many London Bridges to stand on the site was rebuilt. Thames Street – the road on which the church stands – was built in the second half of the 11th century just north of the Roman river wall. One of the pilings from the Roman wall dating back to 65AD was discovered in 1931 and is now encased in the base of the church tower at the entrance.
It is believed the first St Magnus The Martyr Church was built by 1128-33. During the building’s early years, there were a series of wooden London Bridges, which never seemed to last long. Finally in 1209, the Old Medieval London Bridge was opened. Made of stone, it took 33 years to build. The new bridge was aligned with Fish Street Hill so all pedestrians walking into London from the bridge would walk directly in front of St Magnus. The bridge included a chapel dedicated to St Thomas à Becket, where pilgrims would stop on their journey to visit his tomb at Canterbury Cathedral. The chapel and two 3rds of London Bridge were part of St Magnus’s parish.
Being so close to Pudding Lane, it is no surprise that the church was one of the first to be destroyed during the Great Fire Of London in 1666. Thomas Farriner’s bakery was less than 300 yards from the church so it didn’t take long to reach St Magnus. Farriner was a former churchwarden of St Magnus and was later buried in the church aisle in December 1670 – likely within a temporary structure for church services while it was being rebuilt. As with most churches in the City, architect Sir Christopher Wren (1632-1723) was tasked with rebuilding St Magnus The Martyr. Master mason George Dowdeswell was charged with the responsibility to construct the new church, under the direction of Wren, between 1671 and 1687. St Magnus cost £9,579 19s 10d to rebuild, one of Wren’s most expensive churches. The steeple, considered to be one of Wren’s finest, was added in 1703-06 and was inspired by that of St Carolus Borromeus in Antwerp, Belgium. The large clock hanging off the 185ft high tower was presented to the church by banker and one-time Mayor of London Charles Duncombe (1648-1711) in 1709. The clock hung over the road leading to the Bridge so became a familiar landmark to those entering the City. Duncombe went on to commission an organ by Abraham Jordan for the church shortly before his death in 1711.
In the 18th century, St Magnus The Martyr Church went through a lot of changes. In April 1760, a serious fire started in a nearby oil shop and destroyed most of the roof, as well as several houses on the northern end of London Bridge. With London’s population booming, the bridge was getting busier and busier, with a new pedestrian walkway being built along its eastern side in the 1760s – resulting in St Magnus being in somewhat of an inconvenient position for pedestrians. As a result, the vestry in the western part of the church was demolished and the side arches of the tower were opened up so people could pass through. More changes were to come in 1782 when the windows on the north side of the church were blocked up in a bid to cut out the increasing noise from nearby Billingsgate Fish Market.
In 1824, a big decision was made which would change the setting of St Magnus. The Old Medieval London Bridge wasn’t adequate for London’s growing city so a decision was made to construct a new larger bridge 100 feet west of the existing site. Old London Bridge, designed by Scottish engineer John Rennie (1761-1821), was opened in 1831. When the older bridge was demolished, St Magnus The Martyr ceased to be the gateway to London after nearly 600 years. Meanwhile, during work on the new bridge, in 1826, the church was restored back to how Wren would have designed it, with the eastern window – which had been closed for years – brought back to working use again.
In 1920, St Magnus’s future was briefly under threat when it was on a list of 19 City churches earmarked for demolition. Fortunately, an outcry from the parishioners and the public stopped this from becoming a reality. The London County Council recognised the church as one of ‘the most beautiful of all Wren’s works’. During the Blitz in 1940, St Magnus was battered by a bomb on London Bridge. All of the windows blew out, while there was considerable damage to the plaster work and the roof. It was repaired and reopened for worship in 1951, having being made Grade I-listed the previous year.
Today, the church is surrounded by modern (dare I say fairly unremarkable!) buildings. Looking at St Magnus from the northern end of London Bridge, you can barely see the entrance due to the close proximity to Adelaide House, which was built in 1924 and is now listed. However, the eastern side of the church is now exposed following the demolition of a warehouse in 1973-4. The Church is open to visitors and worshippers, with a four-metre long model of the Old London Bridge inside. There are also two stones from the Medieval London Bridge in the courtyard.
- St Magnus The Martyr, Lower Thames Street, Billingsgate, City of London, EC3R 6DN. Nearest station: Monument. For the official church website, click here.
To read about the history of London Bridge, click here.
Or for more of Metro Girl’s history posts, click here.