St. Mary le Bow 104/0

Historical Gazetteer of London Before the Great Fire Cheapside; Parishes of All Hallows Honey Lane, St Martin Pomary, St Mary Le Bow, St Mary Colechurch and St Pancras Soper Lane. Originally published by Centre for Metropolitan History, London, 1987.

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D J Keene, Vanessa Harding, 'St. Mary le Bow 104/0', in Historical Gazetteer of London Before the Great Fire Cheapside; Parishes of All Hallows Honey Lane, St Martin Pomary, St Mary Le Bow, St Mary Colechurch and St Pancras Soper Lane( London, 1987), British History Online [accessed 20 July 2024].

D J Keene, Vanessa Harding, 'St. Mary le Bow 104/0', in Historical Gazetteer of London Before the Great Fire Cheapside; Parishes of All Hallows Honey Lane, St Martin Pomary, St Mary Le Bow, St Mary Colechurch and St Pancras Soper Lane( London, 1987), British History Online, accessed July 20, 2024,

D J Keene, Vanessa Harding. "St. Mary le Bow 104/0". Historical Gazetteer of London Before the Great Fire Cheapside; Parishes of All Hallows Honey Lane, St Martin Pomary, St Mary Le Bow, St Mary Colechurch and St Pancras Soper Lane. (London, 1987), , British History Online. Web. 20 July 2024.

In this section

Origin, early history, and the evolution of the parish

The first closely datable reference to the church of St. Mary le Bow is to be found in an early 12th-century chronicler's account of a storm in London in October 1091. A great wind blew from the S. against the church quae dicitur ad Arcum. Two men were killed, and the roof and rafters (tigna) of the church were lifted so high into the air that, on falling, six of the rafters sank so far into the ground that only a seventh or eighth part of their length remained visible. The rafters were said to be 27 or 28 feet (8.2 m. or 8.53 m.) long. A slightly later version of the story states that since the rafters could not be pulled out of the soil, they were cut off at ground level. (fn. 1)

There can be little doubt that the structure which suffered this calamity was the church above the substantial, surviving late 11th-century crypt of St. Mary le Bow. After the Great Fire the vaults of the crypt were reconstructed, and the church above totally rebuilt under the direction of Christopher Wren. (fn. 2) When the church was struck by the storm in 1091 it is possible that the building was in the final stages of being completed. By this date, too, the church was almost certainly in the possession of Canterbury Cathedral Priory. A 12th-century obituary of William the Conqueror records that among numerous lands which he restored to the priory was the monasterium sancte Marie at London with lands and houses which Living the priest and his wife had held. This is certainly a reference to the church of St. Mary le Bow, and in a priory rental of its London property, datable to between 1098 and 1108, the same holding is described as the church of St. Mary, with the lands, houses, and churches belonging to it, which Living the priest gave when he became a monk at Canterbury. The rent of Living's church, presumably the focus of an extensive estate, was said to be £40 a year. (fn. 3) The date and precise context of this donation, and of any royal confirmation or restoration of the church to Canterbury before the Conqueror's death in 1087, remain uncertain. Nevertheless, the scale and architectural unity of the crypt, unusual for a parish church, especially at this early date, and the association with Canterbury Cathedral, suggest that the late 11th-century church had a special function and status. In size, the crypt is comparable with that beneath Archbishop Lanfranc's choir at Canterbury, and there are other similarities between the crypt and work at Canterbury. It thus seems likely that this imposing and unusual church, on a prominent site in London's most important street, was erected for Lanfranc (d. 1089) himself as a headquarters from which to conduct Canterbury affairs in the city. Lanfranc's successor was apparently the first of the archbishops of Canterbury to stay at Lambeth when they had business in London, (fn. 4) and it may be that Lanfranc intended the church of St. Mary le Bow to be part of an archiepiscopal residence in Cheapside. Later evidence for the extent of Canterbury property in the immediate vicinity of the church, however, suggests that this is unlikely, since there was hardly room for a house worthy of a cleric of Lanfranc's standing. By the late 12th century there was a stone house, under the direct control of Canterbury Cathedral Priory, between the church and Cheapside, but even this was probably too small for an archiepiscopal residence, and it seems more likely to have had a primarily commercial function (see 104/20). If Lanfranc was involved in the construction of St. Mary le Bow, his intention was probably to create an impressive symbol of Canterbury authority in the heart of the city, which might also, in the shape of the house next door, provide an occasional lodging for the officers of his priory, and a focus for the priory's economic and other business interests in London. Living's donation may simply have been the means by which a site was acquired for this purpose, perhaps soon after Lanfranc's consecration in 1070. Alternatively Canterbury Cathedral may already have held the site and the church before Lanfranc's time. In either case it is possible, perhaps even likely, that a church existed on the site before the late 11th-century crypt was constructed.

The site of the church, the stone house next to it (20), and the cemetery, occupied in all an area measuring about 120 ft. (36.57 m.) square. This plot of land may preserve the outline of a large early medieval property fronting on to Cheapside, and the church may have originated as a small private chapel serving this property. The lands and houses which Living gave with the church may have been within this property, but they almost certainly also included rents and holdings in several locations in the immediate neighbourhood of the church, perhaps deliberately assembled to provide an income specifically to maintain the Canterbury headquarters in the city. Late 12th- and early 13th-century rentals reveal a concentration of Canterbury rents in the parish of St. Mary le Bow, particularly on the E. side of Bow Lane (104/23, 25-7) and on the N. side of Cheapside (104/37-43), where a block of Canterbury property extended into the adjacent parish of St. Mary Colechurch (105/11- 15). In the late 12th-century, Canterbury rents in these two parishes amounted to more than £20 a year, of which nearly half came from the stone house next to the church (104/20). The church itself presumably attracted a steady income in the form of tithes and other offerings, so that it is not difficult to see why the total value of the St. Mary le Bow estate at the beginning of the 12th century was given as £40 a year. The churches which at that time were said to pertain to that of St. Mary would also have contributed to this total. These churches can almost certainly be identified as those of St. Mary Aldermary (possibly so named in relation to the newly-built or newly-founded church of St. Mary le Bow) and All Hallows in Bread Street, whose parishes adjoined that of St. Mary le Bow to the S. and W. At the time of his donation Living the priest may have served all three churches. The three churches are more explicitly associated with one another in later 12th-century sources. Thus in papal confirmations of Canterbury Cathedral Priory's possessions in 1179 the churches of St. Mary de Arcu, St. Mary veterem,and Lafullecherche in Lafullestrete (identifiable from later Canterbury records as All Hallows in Bread Street) are confirmed to the camera of the priory, while the priory's other London churches were acknowledged as possessions of the sacristaria. In the late 12th-century rentals of the priory's London estate the pensions due from St. Mary Aldermary and Lafulchirche are the only ones out of those due from 12 London churches to be paid on the feast of the Nativity of the Virgin Mary. No pension from St. Mary le Bow is entered in these rentals, probably because at that time any payment due was being withheld by William the clerk, a matter which, in 1182, the pope, having received a complaint from Canterbury, ordered to be investigated. St. Mary le Bow and other London churches were confirmed by the pope as priory possessions in 1187, but on this occasion no distinction was made between those pertaining to the chamber and those of the sacristy. It may have been about this time that the church passed fully into the possession of the archbishop, as had certainly happened by 1232, when the king made a presentation to the living during an archiepiscopal vacancy. The archbishop's interest is in itself probably an indication of the special status of St. Mary le Bow. At an earlier date, the association of the 3 churches with the chamber of the priory may indicate that the Canterbury monks made particular and direct use of St. Mary le Bow and its associated properties, perhaps on the lines suggested in the previous paragraph. The chamber estate in London was said to include lands, houses, rents, liberties, and the priory's wharf. The wharf was not part of Living's gift, but was a facility which the monks would probably have wished to keep in their direct control, rather than using it solely as a source of income. (fn. 5)

The early association of the churches of St. Mary le Bow, St. Mary Aldermary, and All Hallows Bread Street suggests that their parishes may originally have been one. It is equally possible, however, that their parochial areas, insofar as they were defined at all at that date, only came to be associated because the churches were held by Living the priest. Whatever these early arrangements were, the later parish of St. Mary le Bow, with an area of 2.7 acres (1.09 ha.) in 1901, was relatively large by comparison with other parishes which included houses on the Cheapside frontage (mean size 1.66 acres or 0.67 ha.). In the 12th and 13th centuries St. Mary le Bow parish was probably even greater than this, for it seems at one time to have included property on the N. side of Cheapside, directly opposite the church, which was later in the parish of All Hallows Honey Lane (see 11/8). Land may have been transferred from St. Mary le Bow parish to that of All Hallows in order to ensure the viability of the latter parish, which even after this apparent enlargement was one of the smallest in the city. There is no evidence that the church of All Hallows was ever associated with or dependent upon that of St. Mary le Bow, and so it is unlikely that the parish of All Hallows had ever been entirely contained within that of St. Mary. The special status of St. Mary le Bow probably explains why, at the time when the city's parochial structure was crystallizing, households might wish to be counted as part of that parish rather than the parish of any other near by church.

The crypt and its use (Fig. 1)

Nothing is known of the structure of the late 11th-century church above the crypt. The floor of the crypt lies about 11 ft. (3.35 m.) below the modern surface of Bow Lane, but at the time of its construction the crypt was probably less than half this depth below ground. The crowns of the vaults are about 12 ft. 6 in. (3.81 m.) above floor level, and so the arches of the crypt, and any arcading on the outer faces of the walls which may have reflected their arrangement, would thus originally have risen well above ground level, possibly by as much as 7 ft. 6 in. (2.29 m.). (fn. 6) The surviving evidence for window openings in the crypt suggests it was lit principally by means of narrow splayed openings well above head level on the outside, so that the building would probably have presented a plain, strong appearance to passers by. Each of the bays in the N. and S. walls had one of these windows, as did the 3 bays at the W. end of the central aisle. The square recesses at the E. ends of the N. and S. aisles seem originally to have been high-level window openings. There may have been similar openings at the E. end of the central aisle, but these have been subject to later alteration, possibly in connection with the openings which in the 17th century led off Bow Lane into the cellars beneath the church. There are no signs of any original entrances into the crypt directly from outside, although there may have been entrances in the W. walls of the N. and S. aisles, both of which have been destroyed by later work. At the N.W. corner of the N. aisle are the remains of a small spiral staircase. This may have been an original feature, although the way in which it appears to cut into the adjacent masonry and to encroach on to the near by window opening suggests that it is an insertion, possibly at a relatively early stage of the crypt's history. (fn. 7) A more intensive examination of the fabric of the crypt than has been possible might resolve some of these uncertainties.

The crypt is an imposing structure of 3 aisles, each 46 ft. 6 in. (14.17 m.) long internally. The central aisle or nave is 26 ft. 6 in. (8.08 m.) wide and its groined vaults are supported by two rows of 3 columns each. Thick spine walls, each pierced by 4 arches, divide the nave from the N. and S. aisles, each of which is 14 ft. 6in.. (4.42 m.) wide. The original use of the crypt is not easy to determine. A liturgical use seems most likely, but this would have been difficult if the only means of access was by the spiral stair. On the other hand, there may have been openings towards the cemetery to the W. through which processions and worshippers could have entered. It is certain, however, that the original structure extended no further to the W. Nor can there have been any apse or further extension to the E. where the crypt adjoins Bow Lane. To judge from the way in which the structure projects into Bow Lane, causing it to narrow considerably, the church either encroached on to the lane when it was built or occupied an earlier encroachment. One possibility is that, as originally planned, the upper storey of the church was intended for use by the archbishop and his familia, while the lower storey served a wider congregation. Unlike other double chapels, such as the contemporary bishop's chapel at Hereford, however, this arrangement would not have allowed any visual communication between the two storeys of the structure. (fn. 8)

In view of its architectural elaboration, it seems unlikely that the crypt was originally intended for secular purposes such as the safekeeping of valuables. By the 13th century, however, when the church's parochial role was more dominant, part at least of the crypt was being let out. In the mid 13th century the owners of a house on the W. side of the cemetery owed a rent of 13s. 4d. to the church, and in the 1290s their successors owed a rent of the same value 'for part of the crypts beneath the church' which they presumably used for storage (see 104/12). In the 16th and 17th centuries the crypt, or a substantial part of it, was let out to parishioners who lived near the church, (see below, iii), and this may have been the case from at least as early as the mid 13th century. It seems unlikely that any part of the crypt was used for the burial of the dead until after the Great Fire when, in accordance with the wishes of the parishioners, it was specifically designated for that purpose. By the 19th century the crypt was choked with burials. (fn. 9)

The cemetery

The greater part of the cemetery lay to the W. of the church. When burials began there is not known, but the cemetery certainly existed by 1157 x 1159, when the pope ordered two houses to be removed which certain laymen had erected in cimiterio ecclesie sancte Marie de Archu. By this date the W. and S. sides of the cemetery were probably already lined with houses as they were in the 13th century. At least two of these later houses appear to have been encroachments on the cemetery, and may have been identical with the houses built in the mid 12th century. One (104/14) was on the Cheapside frontage and was bounded on the S. by the cemetery and on the E. by the cemetery or by a street of lane leading to it from Cheapside. This property was charged with a rent to Canterbury Cathedral Priory, perhaps in recognition of the encroachment; by the 1260s it included a step, apparently a further encroachment on the churchyard, for which a rent was paid to the church of St. Mary, and in the 16th century yet another encroachment was made. The other house (104/4) was in Bow Lane, and in the 13th century was bounded on the N. by a path leading to the church and on the W. by the cemetery; this too was charged with a rent to the priory (see 104/1). There were also later minor encroachments on the churchyard from other properties, and in the 15th century the churchyard was enlarged by including the sites of several derelict houses (see below, ii).

The church at the end of the twelfth-century

In 1196 William fitzOsbert, leader of the popular protest against exactions made by the more powerful inhabitants of London, sought sanctuary in the church of St. Mary le Bow. The records of this incident reveal something of the character and standing of the church at that time. William had murdered a leading citizen sent to arrest him by Hubert Walter, the king's justiciar and archbishop of Canterbury. One account states that the church pertained specially to the archbishop, and that William shut himself in the tower of the church where he was beseiged by a crowd of armed men. Two chroniclers comment that on this occasion the church fulfilled the function of a castle. William and his men were driven out of the church by fire, started by William himself, according to one account, or on the archbishop's orders, according to another. The Canterbury monks were outraged that their church had been so violated by order of their archbishop. (fn. 10) The incident reveals the strength of the church structure, that it had a tower, and the proprietary interest of the archbishop, who may at that time have been in the process of overriding the claims of his cathedral priory to the church.

The church in the later middle ages

The structure (Fig. 2)

In 1271 a great part of the bell tower of St. Mary le Bow collapsed towards Cheapside killing a number of people and damaging the stone house which lay between the church and the street. A marginal illustration to one of the accounts of the incident shows a tower surmounted by a spire at the foot of which are smaller spires or pinnacles. (fn. 11) This tower presumably stood on the N. side of the church near Cheapside, probably towards the W. end since it appears to have been the western part of the stone house which was destroyed by the collapse. This was probably the same tower as that in which William fitzOsbert had taken refuge in 1196. It was probably placed outside the structure of the 11th-century crypt, which shows no signs of having been strengthened in order to support a tower. Measurements of the church taken in 1523 (see below), show that by then the church had been extended some 20 ft. to the W. of the crypt, and so the tower, perhaps first erected during the 12th century, probably stood immediately W. of the N. aisle of the crypt. The spiral stair at the N.W. corner of the crypt may have been inserted in association with this tower. Early in the 20th century a piece of masonry was observed to the N. of the crypt at this point, indicating that the E. side of the block containing the spiral stair had a length of at least 15 ft. (4.57 m.). (fn. 12) It was suggested that this block represented the S.E. corner of the tower of the church, but it seems more likely that the block represented the N.E. corner of the tower, or of a staircase attached to the N.E. corner of the tower, and that the tower or staircase projected N. into the space between the church and the stone house. When the stone house was rebuilt after 1271 it appears to have encroached on to this space and the spiral staircase may have been closed off.

A part of the tower which collapsed in 1271, continued in use. One of the accounts of the murder of Lawrence Ducket within the church in 1284 states that Ducket was in the tower when he was killed. (fn. 13) This tower was evidently still there in 1523, when the N.W. corner of the church was marked by 'a buttress of the steeple there'. (fn. 14)

The N.W. tower, however, seems never to have been substantially rebuilt, and the principal tower of the late medieval church was the one whose foundations still survive, opening off the W. end of the S. aisle of the 11th-century crypt. This was probably the 'corner taken out for a tower' which Christopher Wren observed at the church, and the tower is very clearly shown in this position in the mid 16th-century 'copperplate map' of London (Fig. C). (fn. 15) It is possible that this tower originated in the 12th century, as one of a pair of western towers, but it seems more likely that it was intended to replace the tower which collapsed in 1271. Certainly the surviving foundation has been added to the crypt, the W. wall of which has been cut back to provide an opening into it. In 1348 John de Holegh, who wished to be buried in the church, left £30 towards the new work of the belfry (cloaca) and £20 for purchasing a bell. This belfry may have been the S.W. tower, and was presumably complete by 1363 when the city curfew was being rung at the church. Stow notes an order of common council in 1469 that the bell be rung there each night at nine o'clock. (fn. 16) A parishioner who died in 1448 wished to be buried within the belfry (infra solium campanilis). Soon after this the belfry was the subject of a further programme of repair and rebuilding. In 1459 John Lok left £10 towards its repair and in 1479 John Sutton left £13. 6s. 8d. towards the repair of the church and the steeple. Stow, apparently quoting a list of benefactors now lost, records that Robert Harding, goldsmith, gave £40 to the new work of the steeple in 1478, John Haw (rectius Hawes?) £10, Dr Allen £4, and Thomas Baldry £4. These gifts appear to have been made over a long period, and not necessarily all towards the steeple, for Harding died c. 1505, Hawes in 1516-17, and Baldry in 1534. (fn. 17) Stow, again citing a record now lost, perhaps an inscription in the church, states that the work of the steeple was finished in 1512 and that the arches on top were made of Caen stone in 1515-16. There were, he says, 5 lanterns on the tower, one at each corner and one on top where the arches met. He records that William Copland, one of the church wardens in 1515-16, gave the great bell which was first rung at his funeral c. 1518. The bell, or bells, at St. Mary le Bow had been a notable city sound since at least as early as the 14th century, but this great bell, known as 'Bow bell', clearly conferred upon the church an extra distinction. By the mid 16th century income from a parish property in Bow Lane (105/3A) had been assigned to ring Bow bell at 9 o' clock nightly, in continuance of what was clearly a long-established practice. (fn. 18)

The tower described by Stow is clearly depicted from the N. in the copy of the contemporary view of Edward VI's coronation procession through Cheapside in 1547 (Fig. 3) and in the parish seal dated 1580 (Fig. 4), and from the S. in the mid 16th-century 'copperplate map' (Fig. C) and most later panoramas of the city. (fn. 19) These sources show a substantial 3-stage tower with corner buttresses rising to the top of the second stage. There appears to have been a door at ground level in the S. wall of the tower. This was probably the S. door of the church near which a parishioner wished to be buried in 1492. Over the door, in the second stage of the tower, was a window. There was a large clock on the N. face of the second stage. The bell chamber occupied the third stage, on each face of which was a large, elaborately traceried window opening. These openings are shown as round-headed on the drawing and as flat-headed on the seal. Above the windows was an elaborate corbel table supporting a highly decorated and battlemented parapet. The arches rose from each corner of the tower, where there were pinnacles or lanterns, and supported a larger lantern at the top where they met. This arrangement of arches, pinnacles, and parapet, was similar to that on the tower of St. Giles's church Edinburgh, which has eight arches and was probably completed about 1500. The topmost stage of St. Mary le Bow tower was a more ambitious construction, but may have been modelled on the Scottish example. The arches on the tower were presumably those said by Stow to have been finished in 1515-16, although his text could be read to mean no more than that Caen stone for them was delivered at that time. They are shown on the copy of the painting of the 1547 procession and in a mid 16-century sketch sometimes attributed to Wyngaerde, but almost certainly not his work. (fn. 20) Wyngaerde's panorama of London, usually dated to c. 1540, shows several church towers close to Cheapside, but none of them surmounted by arches and lanterns. (fn. 21) The most likely candidate for St. Mary le Bow tower in this panorama has large windows above a heavily buttressed lower storey, with a low-pitched roof on top. The panorama may be in error, but if its depiction of the Cheapside churches is correct the arches on St. Mary le Bow tower can only have been erected in the 1530s or 1540s.

The arrangement of the body of the church probably reflected that of the crypt below, with a nave separated by arcades from narrower aisles to the N. and S. Wren's description of the church as 'mean and low' may indicate that at the time of the Great Fire the building still retained much of its Romanesque character. The high altar of the church, facing the nave, was presumably dedicated to the Virgin Mary. John Holegh in 1348 left money for painting an image of the Virgin in the choir and to buy a crown to be placed on its head: the image, mentioned again in 1380, was probably near the high altar. This part of the church was probably the chapel of Our Lady in which Ralph Davies wished to be buried in 1517. There was a rood between the chapel and the nave in 1511, and it was probably for the maintenance of le Bemelight before this crucifix that income from a property in Bow Lane was assigned in 1472 (see 105/3A). (fn. 22) The next most important altar in the church was that dedicated to St. Nicholas, which was probably at the E. end of the N. aisle. In 1348 John Holegh wished to be buried there in 'the chancel of St. Nicholas the bishop' in the tomb of his wife, over which was to be placed a marble stone with 2 images and letters of latten. In 1361 William Spark wished to be buried under the altar of St. Nicholas, and in 1423 John Prentout was to be buried in his wife's tomb in the chapel of St. Nicholas. In 1447 John Coventre wished to be buried at the back of the presbitery between the high altar and that of St. Nicholas. Further W. in the N. aisle, or between that aisle and the nave, there appears to have been an altar of the Holy Cross, which in 1406 was said to be on the left side of the church. (fn. 23)

In the S. part of the church, next to the way leading from the churchyard to Bow Lane, there was a chapel of St. Thomas the Martyr. This was near the house in the churchyard which had once belonged to St. Thomas's sister Agnes (see 104/1 and 5). Parishioners wished to be buried in this chapel in 1459 and 1501, and one of them, John Lok, in 1459, left money to purchase cloths for St. Thomas's altar and for painting the retable behind it. (fn. 24) Stow mentions 'a proper Chappell on the South side the Church' in which stood a tomb 'elevate and arched'. This was probably not St. Thomas's chapel, for Stow's description implies that the tomb was not Lok's, but it may have been the chapel of St. John the Baptist, where in 1471 John Stokton wished to be buried in a marble tomb before his pew (sedile), should he still be dwelling in the parish when he died. Half of Stokton's tomb was to be built in the S. wall of the chapel. Stokton had a special interest in the S. aisle of the church, for he directed that his executors were to cause to be removed the tectum seu le Rofe of the S. aisle and have made a flat roof covered with lead situand' super unum clere story warde walled and embatailled. The intention seems to have been to create clerestory windows to light the nave, by lowering the roof of the aisle, and to battlement the S. wall of the aisle. The work was probably carried out, for the mid 16th-century 'copperplate map' shows exactly this arrangement: the higher roof over the nave appears also to cover the N. aisle (Fig. C). There are later references to the S. chapel of the church and to the chapel in the S. aisle as intended burial places in 1581 and 1617. (fn. 25)

By 1468 there was a priest celebrating at the altar of the Holy Trinity in the church, and there are references in 1479 and 1486 to intended burials in the chapel of the Holy Tinity, one of them before the altar of St. Katharine there. The fraternity of the Holy Trinity at the church of St. Mary le Bow was in existence by 1437, but there are no clues as to where the altar was located within the church. (fn. 26)

In 1523, apparently following a dispute between the parish and the landlord of the adjacent stone house (104/20) over the vaults or cellars beneath the church, viewers measured out the church and the adjacent parsonage (104/17). This survey provides the best evidence for the extent and arrangement of the church above ground at the end of the Middle Ages. By this date the body of the church appears to have been extended W. as far as the W. walls of the two towers. The church measured 77 ft. 8 in. (24.14 m.) from N. to S. on the W. side and 75 ft. 8 in. (23.53 m.) from W. to E. on the S. side. On the N. side it measured 53 ft. 1 in. (16.24 m.) from the N.W. corner of a buttress of the steeple, above the first 'skew' (offset) of the buttress, E. as far as the parsonage. There was an angle which was (the sense is not entirely clear) 2 ft. 9 in. (838 mm.) from the church wall to the N.W. corner of the parsonage under which the water from the gutter of the house (104/20) passed through the parsonage into the church gutter. The dimensions of the parsonage were also given (see 104/17). All the ground under the church and parsonage, including the vaults there, was said to belong to the parson and parishioners. (fn. 27)

The cemetery and its enlargement

Most parishioners of the parish were probably buried in the churchyard rather than in the church itself. After a dispute over an encroachment in 1358-9 a jury stated that the ground from the thresholds of the houses beside the churchyard as far as the church belonged to the church, with common burial everywhere, but that the holders of these houses had right of way across the churchyard to Bow Lane, Goose Lane, and Cheapside (see 104/12-13). Evidently a distinction was made between these public highways and the cemetery itself. By the late 14th century the part of the churchyard immediately N. of 105/5, and so on the S. side of the church, was known as the pardonchirchehawe, a name which could also have covered other parts of the cemetery. By the 1460s the site of the house in Bow Lane immediately E. of 104/5 was occupied by a garden (104/3B),which was left to the church as the endowment for an obit. By the mid 16th century this garden was being used as a churchyard known as 'le grene churche yarde', and it may have been the 'little churchyard' where William Carkeke wished to be buried in 1548. (fn. 28) The parish lost this property in 1548, and it was later built on (see 104/3B). Immediately N. of this garden was another property which was also acquired by the parish in the 15th century and came to be used partly for the site of a vestry and partly for a new way into the churchyard from Bow Lane (see 104/4 and below).

Fraternities at the church

The most important of the fraternities associated with the church was that of St. Mary established by the drapers, out of which emerged the Drapers' Company. Drapers had congregated in the vicinity of the church since at least as early as the mid 13th century, when 'Drapers' Row' was in Cheapside immediately W. of the church. Later the drapers were one of the dominant trades in Bow Lane. The Drapers' Company ordinances of 1418 claimed that the fraternity had begun in 1332. Otherwise, the fraternity of St. Mary is first mentioned in wills of 1361, and is first said to have been founded by the drapers in a will of 1388. At least one legacy to the fraternity of St. Mary, in 1385, was from a leather merchant, and several tanners were among benefactors of the church in the 14th century. The interest of this group in the church presumably arose from its activities at the Tanners Seld (105/42) nearby. The overall impression arising from legacies to the church is that, in the late 13th and first half of the 14th centuries gifts were received from a variety of craftsmen, including drapers, but that later, gifts from the drapers predominated. In the 15th century St. Mary le Bow was the chief church of the Drapers' Company, which maintained 2 chaplains who celebrated for the souls of dead members of the brotherhood, and lights there in honour of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. The company assembled there to hear mass on the Sunday after that feast day, and attended the church again on the next day, immediately before their annual dinner. In 1505, however, the company shifted the focus of its attention to the church of St. Michael Cornhill, and the fraternity of St. Mary, which appears to have had no landed endowment, faded away, leaving no trace in the chantry certificates of 1546 and 1548. (fn. 29)

A parishioner in 1437 left small sums to the high altar of the church, to the fraternity of St. Mary, and to the fraternity of Holy Trinity. This suggests that there may only have been two fraternities in the church at this time. The fraternity of Holy Trinity had its own priest and a chapel within the church (see above). It is last recorded in a will of 1486, which enjoined the members of the fraternity to erect a latten plate on the wall of the chapel in memory of the testator. (fn. 30)


The church attracted a large number of chantry endowments. Between 1284 and 1400 more than a dozen endowments of chantries in the church can be identified. (fn. 31) Some of these gifts may have been made to existing chantries, and in some cases the income proved insufficient in the long term to fulfil the intentions of the founder, so that several of the foundations were amalgamated. (fn. 32) Two of the 14th century endowments still produced substantial incomes in the 1540s. These were the chantry of Walter de Blecchyngleye, cheesemonger, whose name had been forgotten by the 16th century, which was paid for by St. Helen's Priory, and that of John de Holegh, endowed by his will of 1348. In 1381 the clerical staff of the church comprised the rector and six chaplains, but by 1546, the church was served only by the rector, his curate, and 3 priests. (fn. 33) This was in spite of further endowments, of which the most substantial was the chantry of John Coventre, mercer, established by his executor Henry Frowyk in his testament of 1459 under the terms of Coventre's will, proved in 1429. This brought in £15. 10s. p.a. in 1548, more than twice as much as de Holegh's lands. (fn. 34)

The vestry and parsonage

In 1340 the parish acquired a shop (105/17) in Bow Lane immediately adjacent to the church on the N. side. By 1397 this was being used as the vestry, and in 1523 was the parsonage house. On the eve of the Great Fire, however, the parson was living elsewhere, and the former parsonage may have been let to tenants. This was probably a temporary arrangement, for on a plan for Wren's new church the minister's house is shown as occupying exactly this site just N. of the church. In the 13th century a shop forming part of this property (105/17) was said to be in veteri archa: this may simply reflect its proximity to the crypt of St. Mary le Bow, but it may mean that vaults or arches similar to those of the crypt at one time extended a short distance to the N. of the church.

In the 15th century, by 1451, a new vestry was built on the S. side of the church, partly on the passage leading from Bow Lane into the churchyard and partly on the site of a shop there (105/4). The remainder of the site of the shop was probably occupied by a new passage leading to the cemetery. The mid 16th-century 'copperplate map' (Fig. C) does not depict this part of the church very clearly, but shows a feature which may be the vestry structure adjoining the S. aisle of the church towards the E. end. In 1666 the building here on the N. side of the passage leading off Bow Lane was described as the schoolhouse (see 104/4). After the Great Fire the site of this building formed part of that of the new church.

The school

The school at St. Mary le Bow had a long and apparently continuous history. Between c.1134 and 1141 the archdeacon of London was enjoined to excommunicate those who presumed to teach in the city without the licence of the master of the schools (at St. Paul's), except for those who conducted the schools of St. Mary de archa and of St. Martin le Grand. There thus appear to have been three principal schools in the city, each subject to one of the three ecclesiastical jurisdictions, namely the ordinary jurisdiction of the bishop and the two peculiar jurisdictions of the archbishop of Canterbury, centered on St. Mary le Bow, and of the dean of St. Martin le Grand, which was a royal free chapel. William fitzStephen was probably thinking of the same three schools when he wrote in 1174 of the 3 principal churches of London which had famous schools. One of the texts of William's description, written in the early 14th century, expands the sentence to explain that the three principal churches were those of St. Paul, Holy Trinity Priory, and St. Martin le Grand. This almost certainly distorts the original meaning of the text, but should not lead us to assume that the schools associated with St. Mary le Bow had faded away by the early 14th century, when Holy Trinity Priory was much more obviously one of three main churches of the city than St. Mary le Bow. The right of the 3 jurisdictions in the city to govern their schools persisted. There was a schoolmaster at St. Mary le Bow in 1387, and in 1393 he joined his fellows at St. Paul's and St. Martin's in a petition to parliament against strangers who held grammar schools in the city. In 1446 the bishop and the archbishop, with the assent of the king, enlarged this monopoly to 5 grammar schools in the city, and in the following year an attempt was made to increase the number. The school at St. Mary le Bow perhaps thus lost its standing in the city but, as we have seen, continued up to the time of the Great Fire, when it was held in the former vestry on the S. side of the church. Henry Drake, who inhabited the schoolhouse, assessed at one hearth, in 1666, was presumably the last schoolmaster before the Fire. (fn. 35)

The Court of Arches

The parishes of the 13 London churches which by the 13th century belonged to the mother church of Canterbury formed a peculiar jurisdiction known as the deanery of Arches. The Dean of Arches, responsible for this jurisdiction, was an important officer in the province of Canterbury, who often acted on matters outside the immediate concern of his deanery. In particular, he very frequently acted as Commissary General of the Official of the archbishop of Canterbury, in charge of the ecclesiastical court of the province. By the mid 16th century the offices of Official and Dean of Arches were being held by the same man. In this way a confusion arose between the court of the peculiar jurisdication and the court of the province, which, since London was far more central than Canterbury, commonly, although not invariably, met at the church of St. Mary le Bow. The Official and the Dean of Arches appear in association almost as soon as the court of the province is recorded, and by the late 13th century the court could be referred to as the 'consistory in the church of the Blessed Mary of the Arches in London'. Eventually the name of the place where the provincial court was held came to denote the court itself, so that by the 15th century, at the latest, the 'Court of Arches' was the usual name for the provincial court. (fn. 36)

References to the Court of Arches up to and including the 17th century indicate that it met within the church, but it is not clear whether the court sat in any particular part of the building. There are several .mt 7 references to the Court of Arches in the accounts for the rebuilding of the church after the Great Fire. It is just possible that one or more of these concern the part of the church in which the court sat before the Fire, for several other parts of the earlier church are mentioned in the records of rebuilding. It is more likely, however, that they all concern the structure identified as the Court of Arches in a study for the plan of the new church. This was a large room over the N. aisle of the 11th-century crypt adjoining Bow Lane, and was eventually built on an even larger scale. (fn. 37) In the event, the Court of Arches usually sat at Doctors' Commons in the period after the Great Fire, and this room came to be used as the vestry.

Other activities in the church

As with other churches in medieval London, St. Mary le Bow was a place where felons sought sanctuary from time to time. (fn. 38) The size and prominent location of the church may have made it an attractive place of refuge, but there is no evidence that its status as principal church of the deanery of Arches, exempt from the jurisdiction of the bishop of London, enhanced its position in this respect. St. Mary le Bow, was also like other churches, a place where secular business was transacted, and in particular where debts were specified to be repaid. (fn. 39) Such business seems to have taken place more frequently in St. Mary le Bow than in some smaller parish churches, but by no means so often as in the conventual church of St. Thomas of Acre at the E. end of Cheapside (cf. 105/18).

The church seems also to have been used occasionally for secular assemblies, although again to nothing like the same extent as with St. Thomas of Acre. The drapers appear to have assembled there for devotional rather than secular purposes (see above), but in 1380 a large number of journeymen saddlers met in the church of St. Mary atte Bow, apparently in opposition to the masters of the craft. (fn. 40) The devotional interest of other leather workers in the church at about this time (see above) suggests that this assembly may not have been an isolated occurrence.

Valuations of the church

The high standing and prominent location of the church, as well as its relatively large parish, appear to have accounted for the high income which its incumbent enjoyed from tithes and other offerings. In 1291 its spiritualities were valued at £13. 6s. 8d., by far the largest valuation among those given for parish churches in the city, and equalled only by that for the church of St. Magnus, which may have attracted many offerings from travellers crossing London Bridge. In 1535 the value of the tithes and the rector's dwelling was given as £33. 12s. 3 1/2d., a valuation which likewise was substantially greater than those for other parish churches in Cheapside. (fn. 41)

The name of the church

Throughout the Middle Ages, after the 12th century, the church's name is almost invariably given as St. Mary de arcubus in Latin or as des arches in French. In the English vernacular of the 14th and 15th centuries the name usually appears as St. Mary atte Bowe, a form which persisted into the 16th century. The names 'Bowchurch', 'St. Mary Bowe' (or occasionally 'St. Mary de Bowe'), and 'Bowchurchyard' were commonly used in the 16th century and later. The name 'St. Mary le Bow' does not appear to have been introduced until the later 16th century, or to have been widely adopted until the 17th.

The structure of the church after the reformation

The body of the church and the tower

Like many city churches, St. Mary le Bow was repaired and embellished during the 1620s and 1630s. In about 1620 the church was newly pewed and beautified, and the chancel raised. In the 1630s the parishioners feared that the lantern on the tower would fall, and so had it taken down, probably along with the stone arches which supported it. The work of reconstruction was entrusted to the well-known mason Edmund Kinsman. Forty tons of new stone were purchased for the work, but progress was hindered by the restricted availability of stone at the quarry until the requirements of the rebuilding programme at St. Paul's had been met. Consequently, the churchwardens were in November 1635 enjoined 'to use all diligence to restore the bow of the tower of the church', and in the following January reported that they were about to agree with workmen concerning scaffolding for rebuilding the lantern, of which they had caused a 'model' to be drawn. This work was presumably completed successfully, for Hollar's panorama of 1647 shows both the lantern and the arches beneath it. (fn. 42)

Following the reconstruction of the tower, the bells were hung. A carpenter from outside London, not a member of the Carpenters' Company, was employed for this and other work at the church. The Carpenters' Company, on behalf of one of their number who had tendered for the work, lodged an objection before the Court of Aldermen in 1643, alleging that the bell frames used were old and that through the carpenter's 'want of judgment or overmuch curiosity' the bells themselves had miscarried. As a result the churchwardens were ordered to pay compensation to the company. (fn. 43) This is the latest recorded work on the structure before the Great Fire.

The crypt

At this time the greater part of the crypt was probably let out for use as storage. Stow records that a cellar there had been let for 4s. a year and two vaults for 15s. 'both' (presumably meaning each). In 1546 the parish received £1. 13s. 4d. rent from William Lok and William Carkek, scrivener, both prominent parishioners who lived near by, for 3 vaults or cellars made in the vault beneath the church 'in the soil whereupon the said church is situate', At the time of the Great Fire Martha Hammond, widow, held the cellars beneath the church on a lease which was due to terminate in about 1674. As a result of the Fire part of the vaulting fell in, and between 1671 and 1673 the remainder of the cellar was used to store building materials. For this period Mrs. Hammond was paid £20 p.a. in compensation for her interest there. Mrs. Hammond held several properties immediately opposite the church (104/23B, 24E, 25-6) and until shortly before the Fire had also held a house just to the N. of the church (104/18). (fn. 44)

After the Great Fire

The fabric of the church was damaged but not destroyed in the Fire. Initially it may have been intended to retain the old steeple, for considerable sums were spent on shoring it up, inserting centering beneath the stone arches, making timber stairs within it, and repairing the stone work on the W. side. The supporting timbers had been removed from the tower by September 1671, however, and an account dated 1673 includes a payment for taking down the pinnacles, bows, battlements, and top of the old steeple as far as the bottom of the great windows. The space occupied by the old tower was taken into the body of the new church, completed in 1673. As first proposed, Wren's new steeple was to adjoin the N. side of the new church at its W. end, in what appears to have been almost exactly the position occupied by the tower which had fallen in 1271. The church was to be entered from Cheapside by a vestibule on the E. side of the steeple. In the end, however, a far more imposing arrangement was adopted, with the new steeple on the Cheapside frontage. (fn. 45)


  • 1. Florentii Wigorniensis monachi Chronicon ex Chronicis ii, ed. B. Thorpe (1849), 29. For the later versions of the story, see Willelmi Malmesbiriensis monachi de gestis regum Anglorum... ii, ed. W. Stubbs (Rolls Series, 1889), 375; Annales Monastici i, ed. H.R. Luard (Rolls Series, 1864), 5.
  • 2. For plans and a description of the structure before it was damaged in the Second World War, see RCHM, London, iv, The City (1929), 76-80. See also Fig. 1.
  • 3. B.W. Kissan, 'The earliest mention of Bow church', Trans LMAS n.s. 7 (1933-7), 436-44; idem, 'An early list of London properties', ibid. n.s. 8 (1938-40), 57-69.
  • 4. Brooke and Keir, 364.
  • 5. Canterbury: MSS B 14-16, passim; Reg K, f. 69. Pat R 1225-32, p. 505. W. Holtzmann, Papsturkunden in England ii (Berlin, 1935), nos. 181-2, 221, 250. Kissan, 'An early list of London properties' (see above, n. 3), does not identify the churches pertaining to St. Mary le Bow.
  • 6. Excavations at Well Court, a short distance S. of the church, revealed that the surface of Bow Lane in the later 11th century was about 6 ft. (1.83 m.) below the present surface: Museum of London, Department of Urban Archaeology, site WEL 79.
  • 7. Perhaps in connection with the building of a tower in the 12th century. The spiral stair was further exposed in 1959, but there seems little reason for the early 11th-century date attributed to it on the basis of observation at that time: N. Pevsner and B. Cherry, The Buildings of England, London i (3rd edn. 1973), 171.
  • 8. cf. A.W. Clapham, English Romanesque Architecture after the Conquest (Oxford, 1934), 111-12.
  • 9. A.W. Hutton, A short history and description of Bow church, Cheapside (London, 1908), esp. p. 39. The Wren Society, vol. 18 (Oxford, 1941), p. 39.
  • 10. Chronica Rogeri de Houedene iv, ed. W. Stubbs (Rolls Series, 1871), 6; Radulfi de Diceto decani Lundoniensis opera historica ii, ed. W. Stubbs (Rolls Series, 1876), 143; Chronicles of the reigns of Stephen, Henry II, and Richard I ii, ed. R. Howlett (Rolls Series, 1885), 466-71.
  • 11. London Eyre 1276, no. 221; De Antiquis Legibus Liber, ed. T. Stapleton (Camden Society, old series 34, 1846), 130. See also 104/20.
  • 12. E.S. Underwood, 'Architectural Notes' in Three papers on the church of Saint Mary-le-Bow (London, n.d.), p. 40.
  • 13. Annales Monastici ed. H.R. Luard (Rolls Series, 1864- 9) iii, 314; R.B. Pugh, 'Laurence Ducket's murderers', EHR 95 (1980), 331-8.
  • 14. CLRO, Viewers' Certificates, Henry VIII, no. 51.
  • 15. A. Prockter and Robert Taylor, The A to Z of Elizabethan London (London Topographical Society, publication no. 122, 1979), p. 31. C. Wren, Parentalia (1750), 265. One account of the church (W. Cater, 'The Pre-Fire Towers of Sanctae Mariae de Arcubus', Journal of the British Archaeological Association, n.s. 39 (1934), 110-15) argues that the late medieval tower of the church occupied the same site as the tower which collapsed in 1271, but this cannot have been the case.
  • 16. HR 80(1); Cal Close R 1360-4, p. 533; Stow i, 255.
  • 17. PRO: PROB11/5, ff. 7-9v; PROB11/6, ff. 285v-290v. Stow ii, 256; Beaven, s.n.
  • 18. Stow i, 256. For Copland, see PRO, PROB11/19 (12). For the distinctive sound of Bow bell in the 17th century, see HMC (63), Egmont i part 2 (1985), 531-2.
  • 19. For the map, see above, n. 15. The 1547 procession was depicted in a contemporary mural at Cowdray, now destroyed but reproduced in an 18th-century copy kept at the Society of Antiquaries, London. For a drawing of the seal matrix, now apparently lost, see Gentleman's Magazine 1823 part 1, pp. 305-6 (the date '1580' forming part of the inscription is obscure in this drawing but is otherwise attested), and for photographs of both the matrix and an impression from it, see Hutton, op. cit. in n. 9, above, pp. 2, 37. Hollar's panorama of 1647 shows the tower very clearly, although the lantern and the arches supporting it were presumably as rebuilt in the 1630s (see below, iii).
  • 20. The sketch, now in the Ashmolean Museum, is reproduced in F. Barker and P. Jackson, London, 2000 years of a city and its people (1974), p. 55, where it is attributed to Wyngaerde. For the tower of St. Giles's, Edinburgh, see RCHM Scotland, The City of Edinburgh (1951), 30.
  • 21. The panorama is in the Ashmolean Museum and is reproduced in Barker and Jackson, op. cit. in previous note, p. 50.
  • 22. HR 80(1). PRO: PROB11/17, f. 13; PROB11/18, f. 287v.
  • 23. HR 80(1), 108(15); PRO, PROB11/3, f. 8, The Register of Henry Chichele ii, ed. E.F. Jacob (Canterbury and York Society 42, 1937), 402-6. GL, MS. 9051/1, f. 156.
  • 24. PRO: PROB11/5, ff. 7-9v; PROB11/13, ff. 57-58v.
  • 25. Stow i, 257. PRO: PROB11/6, ff. 71v-75; PROB11/65, ff.7v-8v; PROB11/137, ff. 113-15.
  • 26. PRO: PROB11/6, ff. 285v-290v; PROB11/8, f. 357. GL, MS. 9171/3, f. 488v-489.
  • 27. CLRO, Viewers' Certificates. Henry VIII, no. 51.
  • 28. PRO, PROB11/32, f. 217.
  • 29. References to the fraternity: HR 89(123), 90(42), 97(29), 108(15), 114(76), 117(92), 126(118), 129(154). See also A.H. Johnson, The History of the Worshipful Company of Drapers of London i (1914), 110-11, 263-4, 285, 320, 321.
  • 30. GL, MS 9171/3, ff. 488v-489. PRO: PROB11/6, ff. 285v-290v; PROB11/8, f. 357.
  • 31. HR 14(182), 27(23), 37(32), 49(1), 52(10), 53(129), 67(20), 80(1), 89(145, 184*), 90(42), 123(40); Cal EMC, 156-7; LBF, 115 (f. 95r-v), Cal Pat R 1377-81, p. 125.
  • 32. Cal Inq PM xi, no. 599.
  • 33. Chant C, no. 77; PRO, LR2/242, pp. 82-91; The church in London, 1375-1392, ed. A.K. McHardy (LRS 13, 1977), no. 203.
  • 34. HR 188(36). For Coventre's tomb in the church, see above.
  • 35. Early Charters of St. Paul's, no. 275; Cal Close R 1385-9, p. 237; Cal Pat R 1441-6, p. 432; Rot Parl iii, 324. For the texts of fitzStephen's account, see H.E. Butler in F.M. Stenton, Norman London (Historical Association, 1934), 34. See also A.F. Leach, 'St. Paul's School before Colet', Archaeologia 62 pt. 1 (1910), 191-238, esp. pp. 195, 200, 212. PRO, E179/252/32/16.
  • 36. I.J. Churchill, Canterbury Administration (1933), esp. i, pp. 424, 430-4.
  • 37. The Wren Society, vol. 9 (Oxford 1932), plates 21-2, vol. 10 (1933), pp. 57-8, 60.
  • 38. Rot Hundr i, 407; London Eyre 1276, no. 38.
  • 39. Cal Pat R 1385-9, p. 127; Cal Close R 1360-4, p. 269; Cal Close R 1385-9, p. 121; Cal Close R 1405-9, p. 247.
  • 40. Cal PMR 1364-81, p. 264.
  • 41. Tax Eccl, 19; Valor, 370-4.
  • 42. Cal SP Dom 1635, p.462; Cal SP Dom 1635-6, p. 149; Newcourt Repertorium i, 437-8; Strype's Stow iii, 21.
  • 43. Rep 57, f. 15v.
  • 44. Stow i, 256; PRO, LR2/242, pp. 82-91; The Wren Society, vol. 10 (Oxford, 1933), 59, 60, 63, vol. 18 (Oxford, 1941), 39.
  • 45. The Wren Society, vol. 9 (1932) plate 21, vol. 10 (1933), pp. 58, 60, 62.