How London's Churches Got Their Unusual Names

By Nick Young Last edited 8 months ago
How London's Churches Got Their Unusual Names

Ever wondered where London's strange church names came from? The saints' names are fairly common, but what about the references to Danish people, garlic, wardrobes or being without? These came about to avoid confusion between churches dedicated to the same saint. The churches listed here (we've limited it to ones that are still standing) are all of medieval origin, as are their names which can reflect their location (by referring to a nearby building, for example), the identity of a long-dead benefactor or even the fact that a particular church is older than its namesakes...

St Andrew-by-the-Wardrobe

Photo: Ian Wylie

This Wren church, located on Queen Victoria Street, is dedicated to St Andrew, one of the disciples. Originally called 'St Andrew juxta [near] Baynard Castle' due to its proximity to Baynard's Castle, it got its current name in the mid-14th century when King Edward III moved the Royal family's ceremonial robes and garments from the Tower to a house near the church.

The house became known as the Great Wardrobe (or the King's Wardrobe) and the church's new name reflected its proximity to this important building. The Great Wardrobe's location is commemorated by a plaque in nearby Wardrobe Place.

St Andrew Undershaft

Photo: Luca Taranta

Unusually, this church managed to survive both the Great Fire and the Blitz. It got the second part of its name in the 15th century; the shaft of a tall maypole was set up opposite the church each year until the Evil May Day riots of 1517 put an end to this tradition. The maypole itself survived, stored under the eaves of the houses on the nearby (and no longer existent) Shaft Alley until 1549, when it was denounced as a pagan idol and destroyed.

St Botolph-without-Bishopsgate

Photo: G Macdonald

A medieval church rebuilt in the 18th century, it stood just outside the city wall by the Bishop's Gate (it's not certain which bishop it was named after). Botolph, or Botwulf of Thorney, was a 7th-century Saxon abbot who became the patron saint of travellers, which is why all of the London churches dedicated to him could be found close to city gates (the other two surviving ones are 'without' Aldersgate and Aldgate).

St Clement Danes

Photo: charleyk

There are two explanations for this church's Danish connection. The first is that when Alfred the Great drove the Vikings (or Danes) out of London in the 9th century, he allowed those who had married English women and accepted Christianity to remain in the area to the west of the City of London. Being a seafaring people, they named their church after St Clement, a martyr killed in 99 AD who is the patron saint of mariners.

The second explanation is that Harold Harefoot, a King of England with Danish ancestry who died in 1040, could have been buried in the church. The present church, the work of Sir Christopher Wren, was where Samuel Johnson worshipped; its association with the Royal Air Force is due to that service paying for the post-Blitz restoration.

St James Garlickhythe

Photo: Paul Wood

Sometimes known as 'Wren's Lantern' due to its abundance of windows, this church is named after St James the Great, one of the disciples. 'Great' distinguishes him from his fellow disciple James the Less (after whom St James's Palace is named). The 'Garlickhythe' part of the name refers to a nearby landing-place (hythe in Old English) where garlic imported from France was sold in medieval times; this can also be seen in the name of the street on which the church stands — Garlick Hill.

St Katharine Cree

Photo: Anatoleya

Named for St Catherine (or Katharine), who died in Alexandria at the orders of the Roman Emperor Maxentius in 305 AD, this church was founded in 1280 by Holy Trinity Priory in nearby Aldgate (most of the current church dates back to the early 17th century). Apparently the church was built because the prior didn't like the monks associating with the ordinary people on Sundays. Rather confusingly, the priory was also known as Christchurch Priory, and as a result of this the church was called St Katharine Christchurch. Over time, the second part was shortened to 'Creechurch' and later to the present-day Cree.

St Martin-in-the-Fields

Photo: Eric

Located on the north-east corner of Trafalgar Square, this church has medieval origins, although the present building is the work of James Gibbs and dates from the 1720s. It's dedicated to Martin of Tours, a 4th century bishop who is the patron saint of, among other things, beggars (because he is said to have cut his cloak in half so he could share it with a beggar), geese, innkeepers and vintners. Back in medieval times it was surrounded by fields, as it was located between Westminster and the City of London.

St Mary Aldermary

Photo: Matt Brown

There has been a church on this site for over 900 years, with a certain Mr Wren being responsible for the current one after the old one was destroyed in the Great Fire. The architecture historian Sir Nikolaus Pevsner called it "the chief surviving monument of the 17th-century Gothic revival in the City". In recent years, the Host Cafe has operated within the church itself.

'Aldermary' means 'Old Mary', reflecting the fact that this church is older than London's other churches dedicated to the Virgin Mary, of which there are quite a few.

St Mary-le-Bow

It is this Wren church on Cheapside, and not the church at Bow in the East End, which is the home of the Bow Bells which all true Londoners must be born within earshot of. For centuries, the biggest of the bells — the 'great bell of Bow' — was known for being very sonorous (ie. the sound carried very far). As well as having been apparently heard by Dick Whittington on Highgate Hill, it could be heard from Hackney Marshes and was used to sound the City's curfew in medieval times. The 'Bow' part of the church's name comes from the Norman arches, also known as 'bows', in the crypt.

St Mary Woolnoth

Photo: Richard Watkins LRPS

Immortalised in T.S. Eliot's 1922 poem The Waste Land, this church (the present, early 18th century one is a creation of Nicholas Hawksmoor) is officially called St Mary of the Nativity but few people use that name. Traces of Roman and Saxon places of worship have been found beneath the foundations. In 1191, the church was recorded under the name 'Wilnotmaricherche', and it is believed that it was named thus for an early 12th century benefactor called Wulfnoth, or Wulnot, de Walebrok.

St Sepulchre-without-Newgate

Looking up at St Sepulchre-without-Newgate

Standing across the road from the Old Bailey, this church was located just outside (without) the city wall, close to the New Gate - which, despite its name, was just as old as the other gates which date back to Roman times. The church was originally dedicated to the 9th century martyr St Edmund, but was renamed after Jerusalem's Church of the Holy Sepulchre — one of Christianity's the holiest sites — in the 12th century; that church got its name from the sepulchre (rock-cut tomb) where Jesus's body was placed after the crucifixion. 'St Sepulchre' is an Anglicisation of the church's Latin name, Sancti Sepulchri.

St Stephen Walbrook

The dome and tower of St Stephen Walbrook

Another medieval church destroyed in the Great Fire and rebuilt by Wren, this one has a dome which was based on his original plan for St Paul's Cathedral. In medieval times it stood by the Walbrook, a stream (now subterranean) which ran from the City wall near Moorfields to the Thames - hence its name, although another theory is that it means 'brook of the Welsh'. St Stephen, whose feast day coincides with Boxing Day (the 'Feast of Stephen'), was stoned to death for blasphemy in Jerusalem around 34 AD, making him the first Christian martyr.

St Vedast-alias-Foster

Inside St Vedast-alias-Foster

The name of this Wren church reflects the fact that the saint it commemorates was known by several different names. Vedast, also known as Vaast or Vedastus, was a 6th century bishop who helped prepare King Clovis of the Franks for his conversion to Christianity. In medieval England, he was given another name, the more English-sounding St Foster, and it was after him that Foster Lane (upon which this church stands) was named. The church name is a blending of the two.

See more of our London etymology series, including how London's markets, squares, parks and football teams got their names.

Last Updated 09 January 2017