The church of St Bride’s on Fleet Street is most renowned for its wedding cake spire, completed to the designs of Sir Christopher Wren in 1703 and plagiarised by bakers ever since. Beneath the intricate steeple, more than two thousand years of history lurks within the building’s fascinating crypts.
Tasked with restoring the church after it was gutted by the Great Fire of 1666, Wren formed these passages by building over the remains of the church’s six previous incarnations, which stretch back to the 6th century. When a cholera outbreak ravaged the capital in 1854, burials were banned in London and the tombs of St Bride's were sealed. Ironically, it was not until the church was destroyed again – this time by Nazi bomber planes aiming for St Paul’s Cathedral – that the crypts were opened up and excavated, revealing the lives of London’s dead and buried.
Venture underground on one of the church’s tours and the sense of heritage is inescapable. Even our enthusiastic guide, Sue Anne, belongs to the Guild of St Bride’s, which was established in 1375 by King Edward III.
"That’s a Roman ditch there and a Roman pavement down there,” she says in the first room, pointing to remains that predate the church itself. “The ditch was actually deeper than the one around the Roman city wall, so one has to wonder what it was doing there.”
As we walk past Saxon and Medieval foundations, as well as tombstones of notable benefactors, a foreboding iron coffin greets us. This belonged to a woman named Mrs Campbell, and had been used to ward off 19th century body snatchers, known as the ‘Resurrection Men’, who would dig up corpses and sell them to barber surgeons for medical research.
“There was a big trade for bodies,” our guide explains. “Children would be sold by the inch, adults by other means, and everybody was afraid that they would be taken.”
Elsewhere, the crypt is a mixture of old and new. A restored Medieval chapel lies as a memorial to newspaper staff fallen in the two world wars (St Bride’s is widely known as the ‘journalist’s church’ due to its Fleet Street associations). In one corner, a collection of Sunday school toys is piled up along the wall – an odd juxtaposition with the next room on our tour.
“Is it alright if we come in?” Sue Anne deadpans, pulling back the heavily-sealed door to the charnel house. A cold must fills the air before our eyes settle on the sea of bones: one side neatly arranged into a line of skulls, the rest a vast pile of jumbled limbs.
It all feels very macabre, but charnel houses have long been a necessity for cultures where cremation isn’t an option. When churches found old bones while digging fresh graves, this is where they would be deposited to save space. At least some of the skeletons at St Bride’s must have succumbed to the plague – during the highest point of the epidemic, one priest there conducted 43 burials in a day – but we're assured with, erm, relative certainty, that no risk remains.
The tour is a vivid insight not just into the history of the church, but of the capital at large. And clearly it is still bearing fruit. In the last room we visit, a PhD student is studying gravestones alone, cheerily unbothered by the wall-to-wall labeled boxes of human skulls retrieved from the seven original vaults.
For the most forensic history buffs, an underground museum features bell fragments, pottery and curiosities from St Bride’s earlier forms; a video screen also includes snippets from the diary of Samuel Pepys, lamenting the 'miserable sight' of the church where he was baptised yielding to the Great Fire.
If he were to return today, Pepys would surely find some comfort. St Bride’s and its vaults clearly know how to come back from the dead.
See the St Bride's website for details of upcoming tours.
All photos by the author, unless stated otherwise.