Monday, July 13, 2009

Sacred Spaces - Monday

After breakfast at the Barbican (see Breakfast Rambles - Monday), Maurene and I set off on foot to see some sacred spaces.

Our first stop was St. Helen's, an Anglican church in the Bishopsgate area. Actually, St. Helen's wasn't on Maurene's itinerary. We stumbled upon it rather by accident, and I insisted we take a quick look. We were glad we did, for the building has an interesting construction which reflects its long history.

St. Helen's worship space was originally two separate chapels. Apparently there was a parish church that predated the chapel built in 1210 for an order of Benedictine nuns. The nuns' chapel was a little wider and longer than the parish church, giving the present sanctuary an odd shape.

St. Helen's has many claims to fame: It is the only surviving monastic building inside the city walls. It survived the Great Fire, the World War II Blitz, and two IRA bombings in the 1990s. It was the parish church of William Shakespeare in 1590. It may have the longest name of any single church. It's full and proper name, which includes the names of all 5 parishes consolidated from the 16th century to the present, is: "St Helen Bishopsgate with St Andrew Undershaft & St Ethelburga Bishopsgate & St Martin Outwich & St Mary Axe".

(For each slideshow in this post, you can make the pictures larger by double click the first one. Then, on the Picasa Web site, click on Slideshow.)

Additional info on St. Helen's:
1) St. Helen's Bishopsgate - historical timeline on the church's website
2) St. Helen's Bishopsgate, Tour UK website - more historical details
3) St. Helen's Bishopsgate, Wikipedia - most representative pictures and good references in the footnotes.

On our way to the next place of worship, Maurene and I walked through the Leadenhall Market. The narrow street leading into the covered market reminded me that I was in a very old part of the city. The market itself was established in the fourteenth century, but it stands on a site which dates back to AD 47 when the Roman city of Londinium was built.

More recently, the market was used to depict Diagon Alley in the movie Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. Harry Potter fans, do you recognize this ornate ironwork?

Additional info on the Leadenhall Market:
1) Leadenhall Market - historical timeline
2) Leadenhall Market, Wikipedia - short synopsis, wonderful picture

After a few wrong turns which resulted in crisscrossing the Leadenhall Market, we finally arrived at the Bevis Marks Synagogue. Its website explained why we had trouble finding it: The synagogue was actually built in a back alley because in 1699 Jews weren't allowed to put their buildings on the main roadways. Bevis Marks, completed in 1701, is the oldest synagogue in continuous use in London. The website link above is really interesting and quite well done. I highly recommend it to you for all the background details that I'm about to skip. I will just touch upon the aspects of the synagogue that I particularly enjoyed.

Upon entering the building, I immediately noticed a similarity to Quaker (Nonconformist) meetinghouses: balconies that circle above the main meeting space on three sides, and large windows with many panes of clear glass to let in the light. Later I learned that the builder of the synagogue was a Quaker named. No wonder there was a similarity! This Quaker, Joseph Avis, built the synagogue at cost because he felt it unethical to make a profit from the construction of a house of worship.

Perhaps the lavish decoration of the synagogue reflects the tastes of the original congregation, which was comprised of Sephardic Jews from Spain and Portugal. I particularly liked the brass chandeliers which filled the room, seven of them representing the seven days of the week. The chandeliers still had candles in them, which looked well used. There were also large brass candlesticks by the pulpit and the cabinet containing the Ark of the Covenant. While there were some electric lights in the balcony and on the tops of the pillars supporting the balcony, it seemed like the main source of light in the evening would probably come from candles. It was a very elegant and beautifully maintained sanctuary.

Here are a few pictures - they aren't great, so be sure you look at the the ones on the main Bevis Marks website as well.

Additional info on Bevis Marks:
1) Bevis Marks, Jewish Communities & Records (JCR) UK website - congregation data, other information which includes detailed Congregation History, good bibliography.
2) Bevis Marks, Wikipedia, good description, nice links.
3) Bevis Marks, Sacred Destinations website, concise summary and a map showing exact location

Our next stop was St. Ethelreda's, a Roman Catholic church in Ely Place. St. Ethelreda's was built between 1250 and 1290. Over time, the chapel and the crypt below served different purposes. In the mid-1500, the crypt was used as a tavern. From 1620 to 1622 the chapel served as Spanish ambassador's private chapel (and thus it was considered on "Spanish soil"). In 1642 during the English Civil War it was used as a prison and hospital. It was closed for a while, then reopened as an Episcopalian church before it was put up for auction in 1873 and bought by a Catholic priest who restored both the chapel and the crypt to their 13th century design. The crypt was used as a tavern in the 16th century. All said, this building indeed has a long and interesting history.

Despite the fact that it was not very well lit, Maurene and I especially enjoyed the crypt. It was obviously very old and gave us the sense of stepping back in time.

In the upper church, Maurene and I strolled the side aisles looking at the statues of martyrs from various historical periods, people from the area who probably attended this church. We took a moment to rest in the pews and commune with the spirit of St. Ethelreda. And she was actually there. I don't know if we realized it at the time, but on the right of the altar is a jeweled box said to contain a piece of St. Ethelreda's hand.

Additional info on St. Ethelreda's Church
1) St. Ethelreda's Church, Wikipedia, good summary and nice pictures
2) St. Ethelreda's History, part of St. Ethelreda's website - most complete historical information.
3) St. Ethelreda's Gallery, part of St. Ethelreda's website - pictures of all stained glass windows in the church and the crypt.
4) The Hand of St. Ethelreda by Dwight Longenecker, Fr. Dwight Longenecker's website - essay which suggests the hand of St. Ethelreda is symbolic of the Catholic Church in England

The final sacred space of this post is Ye Olde Mitre Tavern. In 1546 when it was built, the Mitre was a pub for the palace servants of the Bishops of Ely - the same Bishops who worshiped at St. Ethelreda's Church. Like the church, the Mitre went through a restoration about 200 years ago. In addition to being named for a bishop's cap, I'm classifying Ye Olde Mitre as a sacred space because it has has always been a place where people could meet together to escape from their mundane lives for a little while and return revived and refreshed. Think of it as a non-denominational, non-theological church of the common man -- or woman, as the case may be.

By the time Maurene and I arrived at the Mitre, we were certainly ready to rest our weary feet and have lunch. We ordered a grilled cheese sandwich and a glass of hard cider. Then we took a look around. All the rooms are small, but there are two sitting rooms downstairs separated by the bar in between them. Both rooms are lined in dark paneling and with their low ceilings impart the feel of a much earlier time. Up a narrow, winding staircase is the Bishop's Room, now just another room for patrons to socialize, as well as the ladies room and the office.

Interestingly, the bit of land on which the Mitre stands is still under the governance of Cambridgeshire, not London. This dates back to the 13th century and its connection to the Ely Palace. For some reason, this bit of land was never incorporated into the City of London. According to TimeOut London, if robbers from the nearby jewelry district run down the alley that leads to the Mitre, the only thing London police can do is seal off the exits and call their counterparts from Cambridgeshire to come make the arrest!

Additional info:
Secret London: Ye Olde Mitre Tavern, Timeout London. Good historical details.

© 2009, Linda Mason Hood
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