St Mary Axe is a small street near Bishopsgate in the Square Mile. It's famous as the home of the Gherkin skyscraper — officially called 30 St Mary Axe. But where does this odd street name come from?
The street takes its name from the church of St Mary Axe, which stood just south of the Gherkin site. This medieval relic was pulled down in 1565 (or thereabouts) having fallen into disrepair.
But how did the church get its name? There are various interconnected theories.
The historian John Stow*, writing about the church in 1603, describes "the signe of an Axe, over against the East end thereof". It's unclear whether he is describing a pub sign or that of some other business, but such motifs were common in an age when most people couldn't read names or numbers. So the street may simply refer to a combo of the church and a nearby hanging sign.
Another theory links the church to the Worshipful Company of Skinners. Stow tells us that this trade guild owned land adjacent to the church. It's possible that their skinning knives, which look a little like axe blades, became associated with the area. The church was also known as St Mary Pellipar, a reference to the Manor of Pellipar in Ireland, owned by the Skinners.
A third idea draws on the church's full name of St Mary, St Ursula and her 11,000 Virgins. It's an intriguing, if long-winded dedication. St Ursula was (in legend) a third- or fourth-century British princess who travelled to Rome then Cologne with an unlikely retinue of 11,000 virgin handmaidens. While on her journey, the party was set upon by Huns and massacred.
A document from 1514 links Ursula's legend to the church on St Mary Axe. At that time, the church supposedly possessed one of the axes used in the massacre. Hence, the church and later the street came to be known as St Mary Axe.
So, 30 St Mary Axe may well get its name from one of the most heinous and bloody crimes imagined in all European legend. Perhaps the building's owners might consider calling it the Gherkin like everyone else.
*Who, incidentally, has a unique memorial in the neighbouring church of St Andrew Undershaft.