St. Mary-le-Bow is a historic church rebuilt by the great Sir Christopher Wren after the Great Fire of London in 1666 on the main east-west thoroughfare, a ‘marketplace’ called Cheapside. The sound of the bells of St. Mary-le-Bow is prominent in the story of Dick Whittington and His Cat, in which the bells are credited with having persuaded him to turn back from Highgate and remain in London to become Lord Mayor. The bells are also referred to in the nursery rhyme Oranges and Lemons.
The church with its steeple had been a landmark of London. Considered the second most important church in the City of London after St Paul’s Cathedral, St. Mary-le-Bow was one of the first churches to be rebuilt after the 1666 fire to the designs of Sir Christopher Wren (between 1671 and 1673). The 223-foot steeple was completed in 1680.
Archaeological evidence indicates that a church existed on this site in Saxon times. A medieval version of the church was destroyed by the London Tornado of 1091 – one of the earliest recorded, as well as being one of the most violent tornadoes in Britain. The arched Norman crypt survived and is the oldest parochial building in London still in use, now as a café.
During the Henry II period, the church (known as St. Mary de Arcubus) was rebuilt and named because it was built over two stone arches or ‘bows. It has also been known as St. Mary of the Arches.
From at least the 13th century, the church was a peculier (sic) of the Diocese of Canterbury and the seat of the Anglican ecclesiastical court, the Court of Arches, to which it gave the name. The “bow bells”, which could be heard as far away as Hackney Marshes, were once used to order a curfew in the City of London. This building burned in the Great Fire of London of 1666 (after which time, the Court of Arches transferred its sittings to the nearby Doctors’ Commons).
Picture Credit: “File:St Mary-le-Bow Church as shown on Agas map of 1561.JPG” by Stephencdickson is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0
Traditionally, people born within London who are within earshot of Bow Bells are said to be “Cockney”. Of course, this excludes those who hear the bells on the radio – a recording of the Bow Bells made in 1926 is still used by the BBC World Service to introduce English language broadcasts. Today, Bow Bells ring out proclaiming the presence of a church that has been at the centre of London life since Llanfranc refounded St Mary-le-Bow in 1088.
Cockneys have the reputation of being happy-go-lucky, flamboyant and jocular characters; people of simple needs and an even simpler philosophy of life who talk in rhyme and wear their hearts of gold proudly on their sleeves. I know this as I am one, born in Whitechapel hospital. Cockneys are sometimes considered dressing in the sequin-decorated finery of pearly kings and queens (see below), feasting on jellied eels and pies’ n’ mash and being prepared, at the drop of a hat, for a knees-up, muvver brann. World War II proved they were more than just friendly figures of fun and always full of humour. The war brought out their bull-dog tenacity and strength and allowed them to resist the might of Hitler and his cronies.
Defining a Cockney
Many say the word Cockney comes from the Norman word for a sugar cake, cocaigne. The Normans called London the ‘Land of Sugar Cake’, which seems to have stuck with some variations over the years. In the 1360s, the writer William Langland also used the term ‘cockeney’ to mean cock’s egg. Ask anyone what defines a Cockney, and the chances are they will tell you it’s someone who uses Cockney Rhyming slang.
Bow Bells Mileposts
Distances by road from London to far-flung places in Britain are measured from Charing Cross but, before the late 18th century, they were measured from the London Stone in Cannon Street or the Standard in Cornhill. However (and interesting for Sussex residents), on the road from London to Lewes, the mileage is taken from the church door of St Mary-le-Bow. To note the reference point used, mileposts along the way are marked with the rebus in cast-iron of a bow and four bells.
The Bells of St. Mary-le-Bow did not ring for 21 years (from 1941 to 1961). Much of the building was destroyed by fire caused by a German bomb during the Blitz in May 1941 – during the fire, the bells crashed to the ground. In 1956, the Lord Mayor of London launched an appeal to raise money to repair and restore the bells to the church.
The bells cast in 1956 by Mears & Stainbank, are hung for ‘full circle ringing’ – a method of ringing a bell such that it swings in a complete circle from mouth upwards around to mouth upwards and then back again repetitively.
The 12 bells and their notes are:
The previous “Great Bell at Bow”, the tenor bell of the ring of bells installed in 1762 and destroyed in the London Blitz in May 1941, weighed 58 hundred-weight, with six tons of ironwork braces cut into the inside walls of the tower as reinforcement. The tower now contains a new peal of twelve bells (listen to them, here) that were cast at the famous Whitechapel bellfoundry of Mears & Stainbank in 1956. Salvaged metal from the destroyed bells in 1941 was reused, but the overall weight of the bells was reduced. The new bells were rung for the first time on 21st December 1961. They hang 100 feet (30 metres) above the ground in a bell frame made of Javanese Jang. The smallest bell weighs five cwt (285 kgs), and the biggest or tenor bell weighs almost 42 cwt (2135 kgs). Each bell has an inscription from a Psalm or New Testament canticle (by the way, that’s a hymn, psalm or other Christian song of praise with lyrics taken from biblical or holy texts other than the Psalms) on it, and the first letters of each inscription spell the 12 letters of D WHITTINGTON.
William of Normandy conquered England in 1066, and in the following years, he built castles and religious institutions in the Norman style. In the east of London he erected the Tower of London; in the west, the vast new St. Paul’s Cathedral; and to the south was Bermondsey Abbey. And, in the very middle of the city, he commissioned a great new church – St. Mary-le-Bow – towering over all the buildings that surrounded it.
Sourced/Excerpted from and Further Reading
Picture Credit/Attribution: Public Domain. “Cheapside and Bow Church” engraved by W. Albutt, 1837 steel engraved print after a picture by T.H. Shepherd, first published in The History of London: Illustrated by Views in London and Westminster. Engraved by John Woods.
- Lanfranc was a celebrated Italian jurist who renounced his career to become a Benedictine monk at Bec in Normandy. He served successively as prior of Bec Abbey and abbot of St Stephen in Normandy and then as Archbishop of Canterbury in England, following Englland’s Conquest by William the Conqueror. Source: Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lanfranc ↑
- A rebus is a puzzle device that combines the use of illustrated pictures with individual letters to depict words or phrases. It was a favourite form of heraldic expression in the Middle Ages to denote surnames. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rebus ↑
- Source: “The London Encyclopedia” Hibbert, C; Weinreb, D; Keay, J: London, Pan Macmillan, 1983 (rev 1993, 2008) ↑
- Source: https://www.stmarylebow.org.uk/bells/ ↑