The peaceful garden…a tranquil spot to sit a while in the busy heart of the City of London. Photo Haarkon co.uk.
St Dunstan-in-the-East was already ancient when John Stow wrote about it in his Survey of London Written in the Year 1598. Not to be confused with St Dunstan-in-the West, Stow described the church as ‘a fair and large church of an ancient building and within a large churchyard’. First mentioned in records in 1271-2 although it would have, of course, been older. It had also been known at different times as St Dunstan towards the Tower c.1271; St Dunstan by the Tower c.1293 and St Danstan near Fanchurch in 1361 (1). Time having finally caught up with this grand old lady and, by then being in a perilous state, the church was rebuilt c.1633. I’ve been unable to discover how much, if any, of the old medieval church was preserved and incorporated in this rebuilding but it is known that one window still retained its geometrical tracery from c.1260. Also unknown is what become of the burials of the numerous medieval Londoners inside the church but I fear the worse.
Wisteria overhangs a doorway… Photo Wikipedia.
Standing within a parish that was home to many affluent Londoners the interior of the church was rich with their tombs and monuments. Thanks to Stow we know some of their names and the dates they were buried:
John Kenington, parson, 1374; William Islip, parson 1382; John Kryoll and his brother Thomas 1400; Nicholas Bond, Thomas Barry both merchants, 1445; Robert Shelly 1442, Robert Pepper, grocer (obvs!); John Norwich Grocer, 1390; Alice Brome wife to John Coventry, sometime mayor of London 1433; William Isaack, draper and alderman 1508; John Ricroft sergeant of the larder to Henry VII and his son Henry VIII, 1532; Sir Bartholomew James, Draper, mayor, 1479, buried under a fair monument with his lady; Ralph Greenway, grocer, Alderman, put under the stone of Robert Pepper, 1559; Thomas Bledlow, one of the sheriffs 1472; James Bacon, fishmonger, sheriff, 1573; Sir Richard Champion, Draper, mayor, 1568; Henry Hudson, Skinner, Alderman 1555; Sir James Garnado, knight; William Hariot, draper, mayor 1481, buried in a fair chapel by him built, 1517; John Tate, son to Sir John Tate, in the same chapel in the north wall; Sir Christopher Draper, ironmonger, mayor 1566, buried 1580. And many other worshipful personages besides whose monuments are all together defaced (2).
Only just 33 years after the rebuild of 1633 disaster struck. In 1666, on the evening of the third day of the Great Fire of London, Wednesday 5th September, the terrible conflagration reached St Dunstan’s. Stout efforts were made – ‘a strenuous contest had waged for the preservation of St Dunstan-in-the-East’ – led by John Dolben, Bishop of Rochester and Dean of Westminster. Dolben had been a soldier priest in the English Civil War and had fought for the Royalists at Oxford. At Marston Moor while carrying the colours he had received a musket ball in the shoulder. Whilst in York when it was besieged he was shot in the thigh breaking the bone. This was not a man to stand by idly while London went up in flames! ‘The peril of the fire revived the soldier spirit beneath the cassock. Assembling the Westminster school boys in a strong company, he marched at their head through the city to the eastern limits of the fire, and there kept them hard at work for many hours, fetching water from the back of Saint Dunstan’s. They extinguished the flames in the houses crowded closely together and the church isolated by their efforts, conspicuous over the City by reason of its high leaden and steeple, stood after the Fire of London was out, grievously defaced, it is true, but perhaps not the mere ruin to which so many others were reduced’ (3).
St Dunstan had survived albeit blooded with almost all of the side walls standing. The repairs and rebuilding including the Spire and Tower designed by Sir Christopher Wren, would amount to £1,071 and were completed more speedily than many other more badly damaged churches. We know it was still in a ruinous state in 1668 thanks the helpful entry Samuel Pepys made into his Diary on Thursday 23 April of that year. Mr Pepys who had spent the day at the Cocke Alehouse with some female friends eating lobster and being mightily merry, as you do, described in his diary what happened when after he had dropped the ladies off home, he attempted to take a short cut home through the ruins of St Dunstan’s: ‘it being now ten at night; and so got a link; and, walking towards home, just at my entrance into the ruines at St Dunstan’s I was met by two rogues with clubs, who come towards us. So I went back, and walked home quite round by the wall, and got well home, and to bed weary, but pleased at my day’s pleasure, but yet displeased at my expence, and time I lose’ (I could say serve him right but that would lead me to digress….. ). To return to Sir Christopher Wren who, it was said, was particularly proud of St Dunstan’s. Upon being told one morning that a hurricane had damaged many London spires, he remarked, “Not St. Dunstan’s, I am quite sure”.
In 1810 St Dunstan had become again ruinous and a further rebuild would take place in 1816, with thankfully, Wren’s Tower and Steeple being incorporated. However in the last quarter of the year 1940 St Dunstan was badly bombed during the Blitz although miraculously both Wren’s Tower and Steeple, as well as some walls survived intact. A decision was made not to rebuild this time but instead to turn the remains into a peaceful and tranquil garden. St Dunstan, not for the first time almost nearly utterly destroyed, arose yet again, phoenix like, from its ruinous state. Although no longer in its former guise as a church but a beautiful and atmospheric ruin, I’m sure if inclined, it would still be an appropriate place to sit and offer up a prayer.
Today a serene haven, awash with wisteria and ivy, in the middle of the hurly and burly of the City of London, St Dunstan-in-the-East provides a welcome refuge for the office workers, tourists and Londoners who go there to seek a tranquil spot in which to sit and rest for awhile.
A traceried window at St Dunstan-in-theWest. Photos Haarkon.co.uk.
An early postcard of the interior of St Dunstan-in-the-East.
19th etching of St Dunstan-in-the-East. Unknown artist.
- A Dictionary of London 1912. Henry A Harben.
- A Survey of London Written in the Year 1598 p.p.129.130
- The Great Fire of London p. 55. W G Bell.
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