St Ethelburga the Virgin

Above: View of the restored church. Its ‘new neighbour’ on the left is an overbearing office block called ‘100 Bishopsgate’ – completed in 2019.

Bishopsgate (Street) certainly has some interesting churches standing beside it or nearby. One is the church of St Ethelburga the Virgin which is believed to have Saxon origins. It stands on the east side of Bishopsgate (Street), a short distance south of the junction with Camomile Street.

St Ethelburga – more correctly spelt Æthelburh – was the founder and first Abbess of the double monastery of Barking, where she was buried. St Ethelburga was the sister of Earconwald, Bishop of London, who became Bishop in AD 675. St Ethelburga also founded the church of All Hallows Barking, in the City of London on land given to her by her brother Eorconwald about AD 675. She was the first woman to be the head of an abbey in England. Having refused an arranged marriage to a pagan prince, she was banished to an abbey by her brother and appointed to Barking Abbey in AD 675. St Ethelburga is especially remembered for her heroic conduct in caring for the sick during an outbreak of the plague in AD 664 which eventually killed her and most of her community. She died after the date AD 686. In the Anglican calendar, her feast day is 11 October.

Barking developed into a village and an ancient parish in the County of Essex, 10 miles (16 km) east of Charing Cross. Barking today is the administrative centre of the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham – an Outer London Borough. The remains of the abbey are still visible in a large park near the centre of the town.

Returning to the subject of the church of St Ethelburga, in the City, it was in existence by about AD 1000 which means that it was founded in Saxon times. The first documented mention was in 1278. The body of the church was last built about 1411. Before his last voyage to Canada, the English sea explorer and navigator, Henry Hudson, took communion at the church in 1610. During the voyage, the crew who had mutinied and Hudson was cast adrift with other members of the crew from his ship. He was last seen alive on 23 June 1611 (aged 45–46) in James Bay, North America.

The Great Fire of London (1666) did not reach the church of St Ethelburga and so it was spared destruction at that time. The bell turret was added in 1775. The church suffered only minor bomb damage during the Blitz of the Second World War and was repaired in 1953. In 1954, the church lost its parish to St Helen, Bishopsgate, and became a Guild Church until 1991, when it became a Chapel of Ease to the church of St Helen and was used for storage. Having stood unharmed for so many centuries, St Ethelburga – the smallest church in the City of London – was a real gem and the sense of history as you entered the ancient building was quite wonderful.

Above: View of the church in 1975 (from a digitised slide).

After such a long history, the church was totally destroyed by an IRA bomb on Saturday 24 April 1993 which exploded almost outside the church. About 70% of the church was destroyed, with only the lower parts of the walls and part of the eastern wall of the building (which was furthest from the blast) remaining. Most of the street was also devastated and closed for many months while the rubble was cleared away and new buildings erected. The site of the little church stood in a ruinous state for several years until a decision was taken on what should be done to effect repairs. The main question was whether a modern church should replace the old one or whether it should be rebuilt in its original form. It was eventually decided to restore the building to its original state and it was reopened officially by Prince Charles in November 2002. Some of the original stonework was retained within the restored building – notably the south arcade.

Because of its status as a Chapel of Ease, regular services are no longer held in the building. Instead, it has become a centre for peace. Using the words taken from their Website, those who run St Ethelburga’s today ‘explore how faith and spiritual traditions can mobilise individuals and communities to take action for a more inclusive, peaceful and sustainable world.’

Public access can be gained from Bishopsgate (Street) by walking along the side of the church and through an ornamental gate into the little garden that was once the original churchyard. The building is in the possession of the City Parochial Charities.

See also: Barking Abbey – SHOW_THE_WEBPAGE

-ENDS-

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1 Response to St Ethelburga the Virgin

  1. clavdivs26 says:

    Marvelous history of this Saxon church; sad, though, about its 70% destruction by IRA bomb in 1993. Luckily it was decided to return her to her glory of old, rather than modernize.

    Like

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