St Helen Bishopsgate, City of London and its monuments

St Helen Bishopsgate is a precious survival of a pre-Fire of London City church. It is in fact two churches, an ancient Parish Church and the adjoining Benedictine Priory of St Helen. Often described as a nunnery with a secular church attached, the Parish Church was in fact the earlier building, put up in the 12th Century, and the nunnery was founded only in 1204-16, with the Nuns’ Quire adjacent to the Parish Church nave. On the dissolution of the Priory in 1538, the central wall was removed and the Parish Church remains, but bigger. And big it is, for a City Church, at 120ft long and 50ft wide in the now doubled nave – though the Nuns’ Quire is now also called the North Nave. The walls are mostly 12th and 13th Century, the supporting arches mostly 15th and 16th Century, and on this page with its predominantly sculptural concerns, we need only note further that the Church has continued to be repaired and refurbished, and added to, with two restorations in Victorian times and further changes more recently. Despite everything, to stand in the North Nave, the old Nuns’ Quire, is to experience an essentially complete Benedictine church of the 13th Century. It is a privilege to visit it.

The Church itself

St Helen Bishopsgate, frontage with yard.

A couple of words on the exterior – we see from the outside the two parallel naves, long, broad and low walls – it feels much higher within the Church than it looks from outside – medieval and evocative, with the entrance facing onto the surviving courtyard and once surrounded with picturesque buildings (see engraving below). There is no ancient tower, but a small cupola over the west front, which is 18th Century.

St Helen Bishopsgate has an outstanding series of monuments, including over a dozen really grand ones from an early period, and 50-odd smaller ones, mostly later, with a broad range of 18th and 19th Century types. The collection includes both those which were originally erected in the Church, and those brought here when nearby St Martin's Outwich was demolished in 1877. We start with the early grand tombs.

View of St Helen Bishopsgate before modern buildings introduced.

Recumbent Figure Sculpture

St Helen Bishopsgate now possesses four great monuments with figure sculpture where the subjects lie on their backs, recumbent, and we commence with these. They include the oldest alabaster monument in the Church, and we conveniently have one from each of the 14th, 15th, 16th and 17th Centuries.

Altar Tombs and Easter Sepulchre

Kneeler Monuments

Elizabethan Kneeler monuments, sometimes referred to loosely as Tudor monuments, are so called for the kneeling, praying statues of the deceased - there is a whole page about them here. They are often painted, sometimes rather unflatteringly to the sitter in both carving and colour, or may be left in the natural alabaster colour, and if a couple, they generally kneel facing each other across little prayer desks, with their children behind them, neatly divided by sex. The men wear armour if knights, or rich robes if not, and usually have the familiar Elizabethan collars. The women often wear head coverings, and robes or skirts which are usually voluminous, presenting a typically shapeless female figure. Both men and women sit on little cushions with tassels at the corners, and normally the whole ensemble is within one or two arches, with some construction above and below. St Helen Bishopsgate has four such kneeler monuments, and the huge monument to John Spencer noted above has a small kneeler as well as the recumbent figures, and is of the same overall style and period. The St Helen kneelers are typical of the breed.

Kneeler monuments: Judd, and figures from Staper and Bonde monuments.

The warship and coat of arms of Richard Staper.

Other Grand Monuments in St Helen Bishopsgate

To these recumbent figures, altar tombs and recumbent figures, we should add three more monuments of massive size, before passing on to their lesser brethren.

So these are the grand tombs of St Helen’s Bishopsgate, and we now move on to the smaller monuments, which still include some splendid things, including some of sculptural interest.

16th and 17th Century Monuments

The bulk of these monuments have already been covered, but there are another half a dozen mural (panel) monuments which we note here:

John Standish, d.1686.

18th Century Monuments

The 18th Century monuments in the Church introduce us to the Cartouche, the shield-shaped or violin-shaped panel with sculptural rather than architectural Baroque surround, which is perhaps the most beautiful type of mural monument. Cartouches appear in the late 17th Century, but had their heyday in the first half of the 18th Century, and the three examples at St Helen’s Bishopsgate date from the earlier part of that period: Henry White and Gervash Reresby from the 1700s, and Thomas Clutterbuck from 1714 (mini-cartouches just for the coats of arms of a monument are much more common). Towards the end of the century we come across the obelisk monument, starting with Peter Gaussen, d.1788, the best of the five in the Church, but the group as a whole make an interesting collection because each of them has a different shaped obelisk. The point of the obelisk, forgiving the pun, is that it is an Egyptian symbol evoking death and rebirth. However, we start the century with an oddity:

Monuments from 1800-1850

The majority of 19th Century church monuments are from the early decades, the numerous white marble on a black backing type, with the design frequently in the form of a tomb-chest end, with upper shelf, little legs below, and perhaps a lid above, or a small pediment with ‘ears’ (acroteria). The monuments to James Hester, John Williams and the Revd. James Blenkarne epitomise the type in St Helen’s. The sides of the panel can angle outwards, giving a casket end, as in the memorial slabs to Barbara Gould Simpson and Samuel Winter, for example. Often these tablets are without sculptural adornment, but we may have a high relief pot or urn on top, typically draped, as with Edward Edwards, Revd. John Rose and Henry Ward. The Jane Blenkarne monument has a draped casket on top of a tomb chest end design, all in pale marble, unusual in St Helen’s in having a visible signature of the sculptor, William Behnes. Three out of the five obelisk monuments are among the 19th Century monuments, rather late for such things.

Monuments after 1850

The reason to break at mid-19th Century is because the couple of examples we happen to have in St Helen’s Bishopsgate from the late 19th Century belong with the Arts and Crafts revival style which reached its peak at around 1900 or shortly after. This is particularly so with the multicoloured panel to the Revd. John Edmund Cox.

Brasses:

To avoid this page being unduly long, we touch only briefly on the brasses, noting there is a good collection of standing figures, male and female, dating from the 15th and 16th Centuries. They include Nicholas Wotton, d.1482, from the church of St Martin Outwich, where he was the rector, and a noble knight in armour in the person of John Leventhorp, d.1510. Also notable are Robert Rochester, d.1514, and a 1530s figure of a lady in a long robe with two tall heraldic lions inscribed upon the flanks. Best of all is the slender, supple figure of Margaret Wylliams, shown with her husband Thomas Wylliams, d.1495, which in a few elegant lines shows the curvy silhouette of a medieval beauty.

Two of the ancient brasses.

There are also a number of modern brasses, including Alexander Macdougall, d.1835, William Jones, d.1882, Charles Matthew Clode, d.1893, Revd. John Alfred Lumb Airey, Rector, d.1900, James Fletcher, d.1907, and Percy Richard Venner, d.1932, and Maud Edith Venner, d.1966. These serve to show the conventional type of such brasses, which involves typically black letter or capitalised text, with the initials in red, some sort of inscribed border which can bear a repeating design, and a feature made of the corners. The panel to James Fletcher includes the arch of a Gothic window in the design.

Also in the Church:

With many thanks to the church authorities at St Helen Bishopsgate for permission to use photos from inside the Church, and in particular to Mike Burden there; their website is at http://www.st-helens.org.uk/.

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