St. Helen's Bishopsgate: History; post-Reformation period

Pages 19-23

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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The parish records of St. Helen's do not, as in the case of several City parishes, include any of pre-reformation date. The Vestry Minutes begin in 1558, but there is a serious gap between 1578 and 1676. The churchwardens' accounts begin in 1563. These records contain a certain amount of information relative to the fabric, and the material portions have been printed in Cox's work. (fn. 1)


The nuns' church, together with the rest of the priory buildings, was granted in 1542 to Sir Richard Williams (alias Cromwell). (fn. 2) The Leathersellers' Company acquired their property in St. Helen's in 1543, and with it the nuns' quire. (fn. 3) In 1561 the Vestry Minutes refer to a conference with the Leathersellers' Company as to "the repairing and amendement of certaine decayeed places on the outside of the north Ile of the church." Some time therefore between these two dates the parish had come into possession of the fabric of the nuns' church, but whether by gift or purchase does not appear. It is likely, however, that the transfer happened very shortly after 1543, as otherwise the nuns' church would probably have been stripped of its lead and unroofed as of no use for domestic purposes.

Leathersellers' Company.

In 1548 the church was considerably affected by the dissolution of the chantries. The chantry certificates give the following particulars of St. Helen's (fn. 4) at this date:—

The paroche of Seint Ellens.

The kinge's majeste findeth within the saied churche two chauntry prestes and payethe them out of thaugmentacions xiij li xiijs. iiijd.

Ther is of howsling people within the same paroche the nombre of ccxx.

The kinges majestie is parsone of the same churche and no vicar there but a parysshe prest.

John Goldesburgh by lycence of king Edward the thirde founded one chauntery within the seid churche and gave certen quitrentes to the sustentacion of a priest ther oute of dyverse tenements in the tenure of the parischeners of Saint Bennet ffynckes of the yerely value by yere. iiij li vjs viijd. whereof To Sir John Bedell Incumbent for his Salary iiij li vjs. viij and then remayneth clere nil.
Thomas Wilforde by lycence of Kyng Henry the ffourthe founded one chauntery in the seide churche and gave for the mayntenaunce of a priest to syng ther for ever landes and tenementes by yere. lxvijs. iiijd. wherof To Sir John Meryalle Incumbent for his salary lxvijs. iiijd. and ther remeyneth clere nil.

The religious changes of the early years of Queen Elizabeth are reflected in the following entry in the Minutes under the date 14th January, 1564–65: "It is ordered and agreade be the whole assent of the parishioners here present that the residue of oure roode lofte yet standinge at this daie shallbe taken downe according to the forme of a certain writing made and subscribed by Mr. Mollyns, Archdeacon of London . . . . And further that the place where the same doeth stande shallbe comelie and devoutlie made and garnished againe like to St Magnus Church or St Dunstone in the East." Other indications of the arrangements of this period are provided by various entries: a mention of the price of burials indicates that the chancel was flanked by Sir Thomas Gresham's pew (probably on the north) and the vestry (probably in the south chapel, its later position); a further mention of burial in the porch seems to indicate that the western part of the nave was used for that purpose. In 1568–69 the roof at the west end was repaired, and the "cloke house" moved (possibly from the apex of the west gable) for greater safety to "the corner of the wall so as ytt shall be borne uppon the wall and not to beare any pt of ytt on the roof of the churche"; this position is still occupied by its successor. Small alterations included the taking down of the organ and the removal of the two upper steps of the altar-pace in 1576.


Sir Thomas Gresham (d. 1579) promised to build a steeple "in recompense of ground in their church filled up with this monument," but this was never done. Stow, writing in 1598, (fn. 5) mentions that the partition between the nuns' church and the parish church had then been taken down.

In 1632–33 a general repair of the church became necessary, and free subscriptions were obtained towards the cost, from the City of London Corporation (for Gresham's College), the Merchant Taylors', East India, Skinners', Mercers' and Leathersellers' Companies, Sir Julius Caesar, Sir Henry Machin, Mr. Thomas Audley and others. The indications of the work undertaken, from the churchwardens' accounts are very meagre, but the disbursement of £122 to the carpenters, £35 to the bricklayers, the same sum to the smiths, £139 to the plumber, £78 to the painters, £299 (part payment) to the masons and £463 to the joiners, indicates considerable structural alterations, including large repairs to the roof. Mention is made separately of the new font and cover (£20), 10½ ells of canvas for the "commandements," the clock tower, the church porch (£23 10s. 9d.), and the glass painter (£15 16s. 6d.). Of the last two items it seems probable that the first refers to the cost of the existing south doorway and the second to the cost of the stained-glass shields of contributors, some of which still remain in the nuns' church. The total cost of the restoration, entered under the date 1632, was £1322 3s. 2d. It has been asserted that these alterations were made under the direction of Inigo Jones (vide Cox, op. cit., page 40), but the statement, apparently, rests on no contemporary evidence.

The religious troubles of the middle of the 17th century are reflected in two entries in the churchwardens' accounts of 1643–44, relating to the taking down of the cross on the belfry, and the defacing of "superstitious" inscriptions. A sundial was set up on the church in the latter year.

Few alterations seem to have been made to the fabric or its fittings during the second half of the 17th century. There is, however, mention of a new organ in 1683, and to the pulling down of the old engine house (for the fire engine), in 1694. At a vestry meeting held on 8th October, 1696, it was agreed that Sir Christopher Wren should be consulted about the repairs of the church. Something was done and finished in 1697, but no particulars of the work are available.

In 1696 an agreement was entered into between the parish and Thomas Armstrong that, in consideration of the sum of £100 and taking down the bells, wheels and ropes in the belfry (over St. Helen's Gate in Bishopsgate Street), and delivering them safe and sound in the church, Armstrong should have the lease of the belfry for 61 years, evidently with a view to rebuilding the structure. From this it appears that the bells hung, and probably had hung since the 16th century, over the gate-house at the entry to Great St. Helen's, and that only a clock bell hung in the clock tower, or steeple, over the church. On 18th June following it was decided to sell three of the four bells for the repair of the church, the best of the four to be kept for the use of the parish. In 1699 the belfry and church were repaired and a bell hung up to give notice of burials. (fn. 6)

The church was repaired in 1710 at a cost of £155 10s., and in 1722 a further sum of £127 was expended. In 1736 an estimate of £550 3s. 1d. for repairs, was referred back for reduction. There is no evidence as to the work done on any of these occasions.

In 1742 a new organ and organ loft were built from the specifications of Mr. Thomas Griffin at an estimated cost of £500, including a "compleat butifull outside case or frame of mahogany, the work to be masterly finished with beads, mouldings, carvings, frees, cornishes, and other ornaments."

In 1763 a partition was set up across the western part of the church, under the organ loft, forming an ante-chapel (it is represented in the engraving reproduced in Plate 7). At the same time (1764) £1000 had to be raised for the repair of the church.

At the end of 1764 various inhabitants of Little St. Helen's had leave to open a door out of the garden of Leathersellers' Hall into the church at the east end. This doorway was covered externally by a small porch of renaissance design which figures in several late-18th-century views of the east end of the church. This feature is not shown in Ogilby and Morgan's map (1677), and was almost certainly added when the door was pierced. It was destroyed soon after 1799.

The various restorations of the 19th century have very materially altered the internal aspect of the church, but though much of interest has been removed and much 17th and 18th-century work has been wantonly destroyed, the Gothic revival has not swept the church so bare of nonGothic features as in many another instance.

The following are the details of the restorations and of the principal alterations effected thereby.

In 1809–10 £2994 17s. 3d. was spent, an external roof covered with slates being erected over the existing roof. At this time the staircase in the north wall of the nuns' church was discovered, and the outside repaired with brick. An ancient window was uncovered on the south side and another on the west side; these were probably both in the south transept or chapels. The seating was rearranged and the pavement relaid.

In 1841 the outer roof of 1809 was repaired and recovered with slates, and subsequently the external walls were protected by dry areas.

In 1865 the screen at the west end was removed, the organ repaired and removed to the Holy Ghost chapel; part of the floor of the nave was lowered and the nuns' stalls moved from the nuns' quire to their present position in the parish chancel.

In 1874–76, at a cost of £1560, the chapels were restored, the floors lowered and the roofs renewed.

In 1888 the most important restoration took place. The external walls were stripped of plaster and repointed; the floors of the parts of the church, not previously dealt with, were lowered to their present level; the outer roofs of 1809 were removed and the old roofs repaired and covered with lead, the parapets rebuilt and the belfry restored or rebuilt. The vestry in the south chapel was removed and the new vestries on the south side of the nave built; new windows were inserted in the north wall and various alterations and additions made to the fittings.

By Order in Council dated 5th May, 1873, the benefices of St. Helen and St. Martin Outwich were united, and on the demolition of the latter church 18 monuments from it were transferred to St. Helen's.


  • 1. J. E. Cox, The Annals of St. Helen, Bishopsgate, 1876, pp. 100–226.
  • 2. Patent Roll, 33 Hen. VIII, pt. 6. The property is described as follows:— "All that site, close, circuit, ambit and precinct of the late priory of St. Helen, within the City of London, and also the church commonly named the Nonnes Churche of Seynt Helyns, and all and singular messuages, houses, edifices, structures, yards, dovecotes, gardens, orchards and the land and soil of the same, profits, commodities, emoluments and other hereditaments whatsoever within the same site, close, circuit, ambit or precinct of the same late priory being, or which as part or parcel of the same late site were commonly reputed or esteemed lying or being, in the parish of Saint Helen, within our said City of London, and also all and singular messuages, houses, edifices, lands, tenements and other our hereditaments whatsoever lying or being in the parish of Saint Helen, in our City of London, and now or lately in the several tenures or occupations of William Baker, Jane Julyan, Edmund Brewer, Guy Sturdye and Lancelot Harryson, or their assigns, or the assigns of any of them, and to the said late priory of Saint Helen formerly belonging and pertaining, and being parcel of the possessions of the same late priory."
  • 3. Add. Ch. 39406 A. The purchase price was £380, and the description of the property given in the indenture of 28th April, 35 [Henry VIII], i.e., 1543, between "Sir Richard Wyllyams otherwise Crumwell" and Thomas Kendall, who acted for the company, is practically identical with that in the grant of the previous year. For further particulars of this transaction see W. H. Black's History of the Worshipful Company of Leathersellers (1871), p. 88.
  • 4. P. R. O. Chantry Cert. 34, No. 101. The two chantry priests are presumably those serving the Francis chantries.
  • 5. Survey of London (Kingsford's edn.), I, p. 171.
  • 6. According to Hatton's New View of London (1708), i, p. 274, the small tower (probably the existing one) was built in this year.