St Botolph, or Botwulf of Thorney to his mates, is a man with many links to London. Don’t try to pretend you’ve never wondered what was behind St Botolph-without-Bishopsgate and various other mentions of the fellow around the city.
So who was he, what made him so saintly and why does he have a whole load of churches named after him in London?
Who was St Botolph?
Obviously not a saint to start with, but a simple chap from the east of England who lived during the 7th century. He had a brother named Adolph with whom he was sent off to France to study monkism, and though Adolph settled in the Netherlands to spread the good word of Dark Age Catholicism to the European mainland, Botolph headed back to what’s now known in most circles as Suffolk. Or possibly Lincolnshire, but Suffolk seems more likely because who really knows where Lincolnshire is?
Back in England he was granted land by the understandably conflicted ‘King Anna’, a member of the Wuffingas family who ruled large parts of the east. Botolph subsequently founded a monastery at a place called Icanho, believed to be present-day Iken, a small settlement near the sea where an archaeologist named Stanley West in 1977 found a large stone Saxon cross in the wall of the local church, carved with the heads of dogs and wolves, emblems of St Botolph.
Simply setting up a monastery isn’t enough to become a saint of course, or we’d all be at it.
How did he end up a saint?
Botolph’s main claim to fame was the expulsion of evil spirits from the marshlands of Suffolk — likely he oversaw the draining of swamps and removal of the noxious marsh gas with its unholy night-time glow. In what few writings survive from the next couple of centuries he is described as a man of epic religiosity and grace, and by all accounts he could really hold his mead. It seems his generally tremendousness saw him canonised some time during the 8th or 9th centuries, perhaps even by the coolest Pope of all, Pope Zachary.
None of this explains how there’s ended up being a load of churches named after him in London, and for that we need to kill him off.
Botolph comes to London, sort of
He died in 680 and was supposedly buried at Icanho, which survived him by a couple of hundred years before the Vikings arrived to smash the holy hell out of it. Having been elevated to sainthood, it didn’t seem right for his remains to stay scattered about among the pillaged wreck of his monastery; the King of England, Edgar the Peaceful, made the curious decision to divide up these remains and send parts of Botolph to Ely (his head, to one of the country’s richest monasteries), to Thorney Abbey (they got his middle, it says here), and to Westminster Abbey (‘the rest’).
And here lies the man’s connection with the capital. These remains, clearly divided into yet more parts, were brought to London through the four City gates of Aldersgate, Bishopsgate, Aldgate and Billingsgate, and it’s obvious Botolph was quite heavily revered back in the day as four London churches were subsequently dedicated to him near to each of the gates.
St Botolph’s London churches
St Botolph Billingsgate: destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666 and never rebuilt. It stood at what’s now Monument Street, at the corner of Botolph Lane (here). Oh yeah, he has a lane named after him as well, and an Alley, and also a Street but that’s over by...
St Botolph's Aldgate: St Botolph Street forms the ring around another of his churches, this one most recently rebuilt in the 18th century. Its full name is St Botolph without Aldgate and Holy Trinity Minories, but it was otherwise previously known as the ‘Church of Prostitutes’ a century or so ago as ladies of the night would stroll around the island on which the church sits in a bid to evade plod on the prowl.
St Botolph’s Aldersgate: or St Botolph without Aldersgate. Known mainly for its splendid interior, praised by none other than John Betjeman, the Prince Charles of his day, at least in the sense of having forthright views on architecture. The churchyard is now part of Postman’s Park, which is home to the Watts Memorial to Historic Self-Sacrifice, commemorating civilian Londoners who died heroic deaths, including among many others Solomon Galaman, who died aged just 11 in 1901 after saving his little brother from being run over in Commercial Street.
St Botolph-without-Bishopsgate: the website of which has the most useful information for anyone writing about St Botolph, so thanks for that. The poet John Keats was baptised here, which strikes us as a fairly low-level claim to fame, and one of Ben Jonson’s sons is buried in the churchyard. The building survived the Blitz intact but for one solitary window, but was badly damaged by the Bishopsgate bombing of 1993 by the IRA.
Patron saint of travellers
Botolph’s main job these days is to act as the patron saint of travellers and wayfarers, which is believed to be related to his body’s odyssey around southern England and through London’s city gates. On their way out of the city, people would stop to pray for Botolph to bless their journey. On their way into the city people people would stop to give countless thanks that Botolph had saved them from the catastrophic and terrifying world that existed outside London's limits, much as they do today.
The gates may be gone, all demolished between 1760 and 1767, but St Botolph is still with us and we raise a hearty salute to the man, even if his head’s probably never been here.