St. Helen's Bishopsgate: Architecture

Pages 31-35

Survey of London: Volume 9, the Parish of St Helen, Bishopsgate, Part I. Originally published by London County Council, London, 1924.

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There is ample documentary evidence of the existence of a church of St. Helen, on or near the present site, in the 12th century, but it has been generally assumed that this building was entirely removed about the time of the foundation of the priory. A close study of the plan of the existing building reveals, however, the significant fact that the existing south doorway, together with the earlier one which it replaced, is set unusually far east, being indeed about the middle of the south wall. This easterly position of the south doorway is in itself presumptive evidence of a lengthening of the nave westwards, and that the earlier nave terminated a short distance to the west of the doorway, which would thus assume its normal position. Now the ordinary proportions of a 12th-century parish nave are roughly two squares, that is to say, the length is double the width; the position of the division between the nave and chancel is, for various sufficient reasons, (fn. 1) very seldom altered, so that by setting out two squares from the existing screen the approximate position of the early west end should be arrived at. This setting out marks a point in the Spencer monument (in the south wall), and the same point is marked externally by the only buttress on the south wall. The logical conclusion is that this buttress was added by the 13thcentury builders to mask the junction of the earlier work with their extension, as otherwise the buttress is meaningless.

The reconstruction in the early years of the 13th century appears to have begun with the nuns' quire, as indicated by the small lancet window in the north wall, which is of early 13th-century type, and to have been followed by the parish nave and chancel and the south transept, lancet windows, of about the second quarter of the century, still remaining in the south transept and nave. About 1300 the western of the two arches, between the nuns' quire and the parish chancel, was inserted, and shortly afterwards the west doorway of the parish nave was built; these appear to be now the only structural evidences of the extensive rebuilding mentioned in the will of Thomas of Basing (ante p. 4).

Before 1363 Adam Francis appears to have built (ante p. 6) the two chapels (of the Holy Ghost and St. Mary) east of the south transept, together with the arcade opening into them. Early in the 15th century the eastern arch between the nuns' quire and the parish chancel was inserted. The nave arcade was built and other alterations carried out about 1470–75. For certain of the works provision was made in the will of Nicholas Marshall, ironmonger, 1472, (fn. 2) and others were due to a bequest of 500 marks made by Sir John Crosby in 1475, and the character of the existing work agrees well with this attribution. To Crosby also must be assigned the two arches on the south of the parish chancel (one of which spans his tomb), (fn. 3) the mouldings and other details being the same as those of the nave arcade. The west doorway of the nuns' quire and the doorway to the night stairs from the dorter are both late 15th-century insertions or reconstructions, and to the early years of the succeeding century belong the north clearstory windows of the nuns' quire, and the three windows on the south side of the parish nave. The two large west windows of the church are possibly due to the restoration of 1632, and the two main east windows appear also to have been reconstructed at the same time; they survived until they were "restored" to their present form in the last century. Perhaps early in the 17th century the south window of the transept was inserted, and in 1633 the south doorway of the nave was built.

The various modern restorations of the church have been already dealt with and it will be unnecessary to recapitulate them here.

Architectural Description

The Nuns' Quire is a simple rectangular building 119½ feet long by 26½ feet wide. The large five-light east window dates entirely from 1888, when it took the place of a window of five-pointed lights in a pointed head, shewn on old engravings, and probably of 17th-century date. In the north wall there are nine windows, of which the four to the east are modern and are set very high in the wall. The next four windows further west are at a rather lower level, but set sufficiently high to be above the level of the roof of the former cloister; they are of early 16th-century date and are each of three plain pointed lights in a segmental-pointed head; externally they have been much restored. The westernmost window is an early 13th-century lancet light, with wide internal splays and much restored. Remains of the external sills of three similar windows are visible further east. In the lower part of this wall is a series of squints and doorways, all connected with the now destroyed monastic buildings which adjoined the church on the north. Taking these in succession from east to west, the first is an elaborate squint formerly opening into the eastern part of the sacristy (see Monument 5). Immediately west of this is the east jamb of a blocked doorway formerly opening into the west sacristy. It is not now visible externally, the wall arch containing it being blocked with brickwork. Farther west is a second squint, probably of late 15th or early 16th-century date, and of two squareheaded openings with traces of the mortices for an iron grille. It is set externally in a recess with a segmental-pointed head. The early 13th-century doorway further west is of two continuous chamfered orders with a twocentred head. It is now blocked, but formerly opened into the west part of the sacristy, and must have served as the eastern processional entrance to the church. A third squint of uncertain date is rectangular with chamfered reveals and has traces of the fixing of a former grille. Higher up in the wall and below the third window from the east is a small square opening which must have communicated with the building above the sacristy. Below the fifth window from the east is a staircase in the wall; enclosed externally in a brick projection, and probably used as the night stairs from the dorter. The doorway into the church is of late 16th-century date, and has moulded jambs and a four-centred head; two iron door-pins remain in the west jamb. Below the westernmost window in the north wall is a four-centred relieving arch, marking the position of the western processional entrance from the cloister.

The Nuns Choir: openings in north wall

In the south wall of the nuns' quire are two arched openings into the parish chancel and four into the nave. The easternmost arch is of early 15th-century date, four-centred and moulded; the east respond has an attached shaft with a moulded capital carrying the inner member of the archivolt; the west respond has a similar shaft cut short by a modern corbel and a second shaft on the north side. The second arch is of early 14th-century date; it is two-centred, and of two chamfered orders, with a moulded label on each face; the responds have each an attached shaft with a moulded capital and base. Above the west haunch of the eastern arch are traces of the jambs and segmental head of a clerestory window, probably of early 15th-century date. The late 15th-century nave arcade is of four bays with two-centred and moulded arches; the columns have each four attached shafts, divided by wave mouldings and having moulded capitals and bases, raised on tall plinths. The responds have attached half columns. In the west wall of the nuns' church is a five-light window of 16th or early 17thcentury character; the stonework, however, is modern, but the form of the window reproduces the earlier work except for the added transom. The late 15th or early 16th-century west doorway has a four-centred arch in a square head with a moulded label and quatrefoiled spandrels; the arch, spandrels, and perhaps part of the jambs are original, but the rest is modern restoration.

The Parish Chancel is 42½ feet long by 22½ feet, and is not structurally divided from the nave. The modern east window is in place of a 16th or 17th-century window of seven lights in a depressed head, removed at the restoration of 1888. On the south side are two late 15th-century arches opening into the chapels and transept. The eastern is two-centred and the western four-centred, and both correspond in detail to the arches of the nave arcade.

The Parish Nave is 77 feet by 22½ feet, and has in the south wall at the east end a blocked lancet window of mid 13th-century date, now largely concealed by the pulpit. Further west are three early 16th-century windows, each of three pointed lights in a segmental pointed head, and having moulded internal reveals. The sill of the middle window is kept high to clear the south doorway. This doorway was inserted or rebuilt in 1633, and is an interesting if somewhat coarse example of Renaissance work. The opening has moulded imposts and a round arch with an architrave moulding and three key blocks; surrounding it is an "eared" architrave with rusticated pilasters supporting the ears, and surmounted by a frieze, cornice, and pediment. The tympanum encloses a carved cherub-head, and the middle part of the frieze is brought forward as a panel and inscribed in large Roman capitals LAVS DEO S HELENA. On the key blocks is inscribed REPd 1633. To the east of this doorway are traces of an earlier doorway, visible externally. Below the westernmost window in the south wall is a modern doorway opening into the modern vestries. In the west wall of the nave is a window of five lights and of 16th or early 17th-century type, but completely restored on the old lines. Below it is a much-restored 14th-century doorway with a moulded two-centred arch and label; the jambs have each an attached shaft with a moulded capital and base.

The South Transept is 26½ feet by 22 feet, and has a late 14th-century arcade of two bays in the east wall. The two-centred and deeply moulded arches spring from a column having four attached shafts with moulded capitals and bases, and divided by hollow chamfers. The responds have attached half columns. Above the arcade is a modern timber clerestory. In the south wall is a large Jacobean Gothic window of three cinquefoiled lights with tracery in a two-centred head. The upper part of the wall is cut back and has probably been rebuilt; in it is a small restored window, cut across by the modern boarding of the roof. In the south-east angle is a small doorway of doubtful date, with a pointed head and opening into a stair turret communicating with the leads of the roof. In the west wall are two blocked lancet windows of mid 13th-century date; the northern is open internally to the face of the jambs, but the southern is entirely blocked.

The Chapel Aisle is 16¾ feet wide and contains the two chapels of the Holy Ghost and St. Mary. In the east wall are two almost entirely modern windows, of 14th-century character, and each of three cinquefoiled lights with tracery in a two-centred head. In the south wall are two equally restored windows, also of 14th-century character, and each of two cinquefoiled lights, with an octofoil in a two-centred head; they are enclosed under a 14th-century wall arcade with two-centred, moulded arches, resting on attached shafts with moulded capitals and bases, standing on a stone base and all much restored.

The Roofs throughout the building are of timber. Those over the nuns' church and the main parish church are of flat pitch with the purlins resting immediately on the tie-beams. In form, and no doubt partly in structure, they are of late 15th-century date, but have been frequently repaired during the numerous restorations. The tie-beams are moulded and have curved brackets or braces under the ends. The timber bell-turret, standing over the middle of the west front, is of late 17th or early 18th-century date. It is square, and has a segmental-headed, louvred opening in each face, a cornice and an ogee-shaped roof, covered with lead, and supporting a small lantern with a round-headed opening in each face; this is also finished with a cornice and ogee-shaped roof supporting a ball and vane.

The Ritual Arrangements of the nuns' quire, previous to the dissolution of the priory, must be briefly considered. The position of the various squints and doorways in the north wall is sufficient evidence that the nuns' stalls must have been placed to the west of the doorway from the night stairs. The existing stalls (now removed to the parish quire) occupy a length of 21 feet on the north side, and to this must be added an allowance for the returned stalls at the west end, and possibly for others which have been destroyed. This leaves at the west end a space of some 25 to 30 feet in length forming the retro-quire or ante-chapel. These main divisions are referred to in the will of Nicholas Marshall, already quoted, (fn. 4) as the "quere" and "rere-quere." The pre-Reformation altars and images in the church included the chapels of the Holy Ghost and St. Mary founded by Adam Frauncys, (fn. 5) the chapel of St. Katherine and St. Margaret, (fn. 6) the image of St. Helen (fn. 7) on the north of the nuns' quire, the light on the "beam" and the "lights de la Pité," (fn. 8) and the Trinity. (fn. 9)


  • 1. Commonly the divided responsibility of the parish and the rector.
  • 2. P.C.C. 16 Watlys, proved 1474. He desires to be buried at St. Elene in the chapel of the Holy Ghost there, under the marble stone "there by me ordcyned." The Ironmongers were to keep an obit for him and his wife Elizabeth, to be said as well by the Prioress and Convent in their common "quere" as by the priests and clerks in the parish "quere." His executors were "to fynysh in godely maner both the stone walles and the rofe coveres of the quere and rere-quere of the Nunnes church . . . from the parkeclose betwene the chauncell and the Nonnes quere unto the west end of the same church after the neuc werke made from the high auter unto the foresaid parkeclose and that they provide in the same werke a convenient steple for the said Nonnes so alway that the Prioresse and Convent there suffre myn Executors to have all the lede tymber irne stone and glass and all other stuffe now being in the church and steple of the old werke there in furtheryns of the said neue werke." If the work was done before his death the money was to be applied to find a priest.
  • 3. The direction in Crosby's will as to his burial in the chapel of the Holy Ghost, in conjunction with the position of the tomb, still remaining, is conclusive evidence that this chapel was the northern of the two still existing transeptal chapels.
  • 4. See ante, p. 31.
  • 5. See ante, p. 6.
  • 6. Will of Joan Cokayne, 1509, P.C.C. 9, Bennett. The double dedication is mentioned in the will of John Hudson, who desires to be buried in the parish church of Saint Helen within the chapel of Saint Katherine and Saint Margaret. Cons. Ct. of London, Book i. Palmer.
  • 7. See post, p. 55.
  • 8. Will of Alice Sewale, 1419, P.C.C. 44, Marche.
  • 9. Strype's Stow, see post p. 94.