London Puzzles No.3: The Church Of Surprises
What’s this all about, then? A boat sticking out of a wall? That’s the first puzzle you encounter on entering St Magnus the Martyr.
It’s just another research day in London. I was heading to a specific London location to see something few people bother checking out. Who, I wonder, is still interested in the city’s history?
‘London is like a railway junction; it has no true life of its own,’ says Lucia in EF Benson’s eponymous books. ‘There is no delicacy, no appreciation of fine shades. Individualism has no existence there; everyone gabbles together.’ Nobody gabbles here. The area is overlooked and loved only by those who know it.
I found what I was seeking – I was alone inside the church except for the vicar, who was nodding off over a book. St Magnus the Martyr isn’t just hard to find – it’s hard to reach. The arterial passage of Lower Thames Street cuts across its path, hiding it in plain sight. But here you’ll find an almost perfect example of a church from the Middle Ages, long before pews became popular, when churches were still rowdily filled with food stalls and arguing tradespeople. The church was at the centre of the community and was therefore overrun with people, especially as it was on the thoroughfare of London Bridge.
It’s the home of the last remaining cleric in the Church of England to use the title Cardinal. Second puzzle; why is it the guild church of plumbers and fishmongers? The answer lies with its neighbour just up the road, the former Billingsgate Fish Market, with Britannia on its roof. The church was founded in 1116, but why St Magnus? The pious martyr was executed on the Isle of Egilsay in the Orkneys, and was attached to Danish heritage, and thence the Viking Age, which is why he is now portrayed with a massive bit of artistic licence as a Viking.
Now, here’s where it gets interesting, although the history of the church is insanely complex, and even its Wikipedia page is a demandingly long read. The church’s bells were forged in the Whitechapel Foundry (now under threat of closure – indeed, it may already have gone) and were consecrated before installation.
Then in the narthex there’s this odd-looking thing. London’s first fire engine, made of wood and extremely ineffective-looking. I can’t imagine it was of much use in the Great Fire, but at least it could get down the narrow streets.
The Romans had built the first bridge across the Thames, London Bridge, and the original stone church was at its head. So to get onto the bridge you had to pass St Magnus. Eventually London Bridge had tall houses on either side, and even a castle at the centre. Outside St Magnus there’s still a section of the original Roman bridge that stood there (AD75), strapped to a wall. Nobody ever notices it.
And inside, there’s one more delight to discover. Inside St Magnus is a large model of the old London Bridge that is clearly old but doesn’t even warrant a mention in the church’s history. Somewhere on the model, I’m told, is one figure in modern dress – this is the man who built it. It’s as precarious and delicate as the bridge itself.