Reblogged from A Medieval Potpourri

Old London – City of Churches.   Bow Church can be seen to the left.  Part of the The Visscher Panorama of London, 1616. Image Peter Harrington Rare Books.  

Orange and lemons say the bells of Saint Clement’s

You owe me five farthings say the bells of St Martin’s

When will you pay me say the bells at Old Bailey

When I grow rich say the bells at Shoreditch

Pray when will that be say the bells at Stepney

I do not know said the Great Bell at Bow..

This has to be perhaps the most charming of all nursery rhymes but did we, as kids, ever stop to cogitate about the six old London churches whose names rolled off our tongues?  On the whole I don’t think we did.  And yet there can’t be many adults who sung this old rhyme as children who can’t recall the names of those six lovely old churches some of which were destroyed in the disastrous conflagration known as the Great Fire of London in 1666.


St Clement Danes at nightfall.  Note the statue of Hugh Lord Dowding.  Photo

St Clement Danes There is some debate about which of two churches is the one mentioned in the rhyme but the consensus is that it is St Clement Danes.  According to Stow the church was named after Harold, a Danish King and other Danes buried there.Harold was the son of King Canute by a concubine but we won’t go into that here except to say that after he popped his clogs Harold’s remains spent some time in the Thames after being thrown there by an annoyed brother, Hardicanitus (and no dear reader I’m not making this up!). However a kindly fisherman retrieved him and he was reburied in St Clement Danes churchyard. Another story suggests that the church was named thus after the burial of Danes that were slain in the aftermath of a great looting, murder and general mayhem committed by them. Time passed and the medieval church was partly rebuilt in 1640. The parish of St Clement Danes was heavily hit by the Great Plague in 1665 with 1,319 deaths from that awful pestilence alone (1). However the church managed to escape destruction from the Great Fire of London 1666 only to fall into such disrepair in 1679, except for the tower, that it was declared unsafe and rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren. Spire rebuilt by James Gibbs c.1719, with the surviving tower being, happily, incorporated. Interesting members of the congregation included Samuel Johnson and James Boswell.  William Webb-Ellis, was a rector between 1843 and 1855, who as a schoolboy at Rugby ‘with a fine disregard of the rules of the game (football) as played in his time, first took the ball in his arms and run with it, thus originating the distinctive feature of the Rugby game’

The interior was badly damaged during the Blitz in 1941 but miraculously the exterior and tower survived. The remains of the medieval crypt were discovered in 1942. Restored in 1958 and now in use as the Central Church of the Royal Air Force. A Latin inscription now over the main door reads


which translates as

“Christopher Wren built it 1672. The thunderbolts of aerial warfare destroyed it 1941. The Royal Air Force restored it 1958”

However, it should be noted that the church referred to in the rhyme could very well have been :

St Clement Eastcheap.  First mentioned in the IIth century, repaired in 1632 only to be destroyed in the Great Fire and rebuilt by Wren 1683-7.    The grateful parishioners presented Wren with one third of a hogshead of wine cost £4 2s.  The claim to being the church mentioned in the rhyme is based upon its close proximity to the wharves where citrus fruit from the Mediterranean used to be unloaded although it should be said there were other churches that were even closer.  Yet another church badly damaged in 1940.


Delightful carved cherubs from the 17th century pulpit St Clement Church.

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