The architecture of St Bride's: Fabric

Pages 41-46

Survey of London Monograph 15, St Bride's Church, Fleet Street. Originally published by Guild & School of Handicraft, London, 1944.

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Wren's design for the new Church of St Bride stands high among the remarkable variety of buildings with which he restored to London its architectural distinction and gave it a new beauty of his own creation. It is not only among the largest of the new churches; it shares with St James's Westminster and Christ Church Newgate a fine dignity and unity of interior composition and is yet marked with interest and originality. And over and above the masterly treatment of the building as a place of worship, the strong governing purpose of the whole conception, it possesses in its tower and spire a wholly outstanding example of the architect's genius. The simplicity of the theme, the repetition of motifs which might so easily have been merely banal has been transmuted by his deft handling into a monument of superlative beauty.

The new building was a worthy successor to the fine fifteenth-century church which had preceded it. There is not sufficient evidence, at the time of writing, to say how the old and the new plans were related. In clearing the debris after the raid of 1940 it was found that the north arcade rested on the foundations of the medieval aisle arcade. It is unlikely, however, that this coincidence extended to the remainder of the plan. We do not know how many bays went to the medieval nave nor to the chancel. Wren's church has, like its predecessor, both north and south aisles. There is no structural division between nave and chancel, the whole parallelogram measuring 97 feet by 28 feet 3 inches. (fn. 1a) The eastern portion of this, 6 feet 9 inches in depth, projects beyond the aisles and forms the Sanctuary. The aisles are 11 feet 6 inches wide and terminate with the west wall of the Church. They are of five bays each, and the westernmost bay forms a vestibule, separated from the Church by a screen that extends over both nave and aisles, and is furnished with north and south doors. The west tower, 31 feet square externally and 14 feet 9 inches inside, also communicates with the vestibule and with an external entrance, thus forming a ceremonial approach to the Church from the west. The tower is flanked by two staircases which give access to the galleries over the vestibule and the aisles, and also to the rooms in the tower.

The integration of the whole design is so entirely regulated by the interior that it will be convenient to describe this before the external elevations. Each side of the central compartment is filled by the five semicircular arches of the arcades, springing from piers and responds formed of coupled Doric columns with a section of entablature above each pair. The bases of the columns stand on semi-octagonal plinths, well above the seating, the capitals have an egg-and-tongue enrichment to the echinus, and the only relief to the entablature is given by the dentils of the cornice bed-mould and the waterlily leaf of its upper member. The face-mould of the arches is plain, but each has a delightful little key block of a winged cherub's head beneath a feathered headdress. A rich character is given to the arcades by the coffering of the soffits, with carved mouldings to the panels and roses in the centre of each panel.

Above the arcades runs an inconspicuous cornice from which springs a segmental (almost semicircular) plaster vault that spans the Church from side to side and extends from east to west, some 45 feet in height. This vault is divided into bays which echo the arcades not only in number but in their transverse arches that are similarly coffered and enriched. These arches are carried on skilfully designed corbels in the arcade spandrels formed of elaborate escutcheons with a boldly carved cornice member that stands out from the unemphasized springing of the vault. In each bay the vault opens at the sides to provide for the large elliptical windows of the clerestory, the effect of which depends solely on their concentric and radiating glazingbars. This is clearly shown in the views of the ruined Church. These large windows flood the Church with light and give value to the whole arcuated scheme of the interior. In the centre, between the sections of cross-vaults that admit the clerestory, the vaulted ceiling is furnished with simple rectangular panels with carved bolection mouldings.

The sanctuary at the east end is marked by a more decorative treatment in strict harmony with the general scheme. The main entablature carried by the piers extends along the side walls and returns on the east wall to be stopped by the east window. It breaks round terminal and angle pilasters which have the same detail as the pier-columns. The spaces between are filled with square panels above semicircular-headed recesses, the latter, on the north and south, being niches curved on plan. A second story of pilasters carries up to the springing level of the vault, and here the highly enriched cornice, used for the corbels, displaces the nave cornice and links the last pair of corbels with the eastern composition. The two pairs of side pilasters have a slightly greater projection than the corbels and this has enabled the more elaborate vault of the sanctuary to master the last transverse arch. The vault is composed of two bands of guilloche ornament joined by similar horizontal bands to form seven deeply coffered panels with carved mouldings and centre pieces, the whole forming an ornamented arch over the altar-pace. Between the upper tier of pilasters are panels with carved swags above them.

How far this treatment of the east end can be ascribed to Wren is doubtful. We shall refer later to the description of the east wall before John Deykes, the architect, made his alterations in 1822–3 (see under Reredos, p. 53). The east window with a semicircular head is of three lights terminating in a transome at springing level, which arches over the centre light, leaving an uninterrupted curved light above. This is a restoration which approaches the original arrangement (see Plate 4). Deykes removed the mullions and transome and the whole window was reglazed with a copy of Rubens' Descent from the Cross in Antwerp Cathedral. We learn, from George Godwin's description in 1839, that the glass was executed by Charles Muss and that together with the ironwork it cost £600. (fn. 1) It is shown in the lithograph of 1835 reproduced on Plate 29. This and Clayton's drawing (Plate 5) show the window framed by the wall pilasters already described and an entablature supported by scroll brackets and a curved pediment just beneath the vault. The pediment was removed by Mr H. M. Fletcher, in his restoration of the interior of the Church (1932) when three terminal vases were substituted on the entablature. Mr Fletcher removed the elaborate painted decoration which had been lavished on the whole interior of the building by Basil Champneys in an earlier restoration at the end of the nineteenth century. It was under his direction that the east window was altered and the glass by Powell and Wooldridge inserted. (fn. 2a) The arch of the window has a central key block, and this with the cherub's heads in the spandrels are part of the original work.

The treatment of the west end, obscured by the organ and gallery, has now been laid bare by the fire. The archway into the tower is semicircular and springs from plain moulded responds, the moulding of which continues across the eastern face of the tower wall. Above the arch the pier entablature is continued unbroken, and over this is a large shallow elliptical recess, faced with ashlar, and hollowed out of the tower wall to give additional space to the organ gallery. In the centre of the recess is a semicircularheaded doorway, with access to the tower-room, framed in pilasters carrying a pediment over. Higher up a narrower doorway connects the tower with the roof space over the Church.

The galleries, which stand over the aisles, have panelled fronts of independent sections between the piers, and are carried on pilasters attached to the east and west faces of the coupled columns. The ovolo bases of the pilasters align with the lowest member of the column bases, and have a plain moulded capping and necking. The oak fronts are each divided into three panels, an oval centre enriched with banded bayleaves flanked by rectangles, and separated by panelled pilasters. A plain cornice forms the top and below is an entablature with the cornice breaking round the pilasters and dropping in a festoon-like curve under the central panels. Each side of this feature the architrave breaks upwards in a mitred 'ear' beneath the pilasters. The west gallery follows the same scheme, with a clock in the centre and beneath it is the screen.

The external walls of the aisles have three large round-headed windows in the central bays, across which the gallery passes. In the end bays of each aisle is a circular window ranging with the upper part of the larger windows, and below the western pair are the north and south entrance doorways. In the east walls are large windows corresponding with those north and south, while to the west the walls are pierced by semicircular-headed doors to the staircases and circular openings above. The aisles are ceiled in each bay with a plain groined vault in plaster, and between each compartment is a transverse arch springing from moulded corbels with winged cherubs' heads beneath set in the external walls.

The interior of the tower in the ground story is a particularly interesting design. The passages through the east and west wall are each formed with inner and outer arches, the space between being coffered above, and having tall niches in the walls. The respond of the arches is continuous around the compartment, which is curved on plan on the north and south to follow the line of a circle struck from the centre of the tower. These curved recesses are arched to match the entrance arches and between them are pendentives carrying a saucer dome based on a bold circular cornice, and pierced with an eye, enriched with carving, for the passage of the bells. The staircases to the galleries, north and south of the tower, were of oak with the normal detail of the period, moulded strings and handrails, square newels and twisted turned balusters.

The exterior of the Church is of the simplest character. A moulded plinth is carried round the entire building and all the external angles are rusticated, with quoins the depth of the ashlar courses. The aisles are finished with moulded cornice and plain parapet and the windows already described have simple broad architraves (with a slight projecting ear covering the springing of the arched head) and moulded cills. The circular windows have continuous architraves without key blocks or ornament. The external doors (now blocked) to the eastern bays have pedimental heads carried on carved console brackets, with a projecting panel in the centre of the frieze and architrave, the latter of which surrounds the door. The entrance doors in the western bays are more elaborate. An archway of rusticated masonry, with flanking columns of the Ionic order supports an entablature and pediment.

The east elevation has a pediment crowning the sanctuary projection, with a circular window set in the tympanum. The east ends of the aisles have a horizontal parapet and one large window to each. The main east window has a panelled cill (probably due to the glass line having been raised) and rests on a podium, with two panels, reaching down to the main plinth. The window is enclosed in a moulded arch resting on pilasters, and the whole is within a pedimental frame with additional panelled pilasters terminating in console brackets.

The west elevation of each staircase has a circular window over a squareheaded one with architrave surround and cornice over. Above each parapet the east and west staircase walls are curved stone ramps to the tower ending above in ornamented volutes. Between the staircases rises the tower which is of three stages, the second and third having two stories apiece. Above the uppermost is the lofty stone steeple.

The ground stage of the tower projects about a foot from the main walls above and is capped with a bold string course and curved weathering which covers the projection. The angles have quoins and in the centre is the main west entrance with a square-headed opening set in rusticated masonry with flat arch having a large keystone bearing a cartouche with the words 'Domus Dei' beneath a cherub's head. The door is flanked by Ionic columns supporting an entablature and segmental pediment, the latter rising above the course which divides the stories.

The second stage consists of a plain block, 47 feet in height, without projecting quoins but with emphasised ashlar joints. The centre, for rather more than a third of the whole width is recessed and arched at the top within a distance of three courses of the cornice. This contains a circular window above a large rectangular one finished with entablature and pediment. Each window is surrounded by a broad architrave in three faces and there is a sunk panel beneath the lower light. A well-marked cornice furnished with modillions surrounds the tower between the second and third stage, and above it the lower surface is extended for four courses to serve as base for the structure of the third stage. The other faces are plain except for a small circular opening north and south, the former having been covered by a modern clock. The third story (bell chamber) has all four faces alike. At each angle is an engaged (three quarter) column, flanked on each side with pilasters, of the Corinthian order, carrying a continuous entablature that surrounds the tower. This entablature breaks forward slightly on each face above the pilasters to carry a segmental pediment. The columns and pilasters have moulded bases resting on pedestals that stand on the podium above the cornice of the story below. Within a rectangular recess between the pilasters is an arch, framing the louvred openings of the bell chamber. This arch springs from moulded responds on plain jambs and beneath the cills of the openings is placed a projecting panel or table capped with a moulded cornice. On the north and south faces small circular windows are inserted in the centre between the pedestals of the main pilasters. Above the pediments each face of the tower is carried up the width of the central feature only, leaving re-entrant angles at the tower corners, to assist in the transition to the octagonal spire. A panelled parapet follows the contour of this uppermost section of the tower and eight vases, each carved with demons' heads and flame finials, stand on the parapet angles.

The steeple stands on a circular base with a simple cornice. Above this are four stages, octagonal in plan, treated in the lower three with arched openings on each face in the fourth with rectangular openings with a small circular hole above each. The angles of the stages, which diminish in size as they ascend, have single pilasters, Doric in the first two, Ionic in the third and Corinthian in the fourth. Each stage has a full entablature, breaking round the pilasters, and the three top stages have similar bases beneath both pilasters and arches. The arches have moulded responds and carved key blocks. In the centre of the spire is a stone newel stair which serves as a spinal support, terminating in the spirelet which has a panelled and pierced base. It is an obelisk in form, octagonal on plan, and carved with a ball at each angle above the base. The whole is surmounted by ball and vane. There were originally eight vases at the foot of the obelisk, shown in Mr Stratton's drawing (Plate 7) which follows Clayton.

The only addition of importance to the Church in the eighteenth century is the vestry, which has survived the air-raids and is now doing duty as a temporary Church.


  • 1a. The dimensions are those given by the Royal Commission on Historical Monuments, City of London, p. 129. The present tense is used throughout this description for convenience, though so large a part of the fabric has gone.
  • 2a. The design of this window is well recorded in the colour plate which forms the frontispiece to The Church and Parish of Saint Bride, Fleet Street, by E. C. Hawkins, 4th ed. 1922.
  • 1. George Godwin, Churches of London, etc. (1839), pp. 1–11.