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Christchurch, Greyfriars: The lost burial site of three medieval queens

The site of Christchurch Greyfriars, is a strange, haunting place, redolent of history. It is now a ruined, public garden and a popular place for Londoners to take their sandwiches for lunch. Long gone is the atmosphere of bells and prayer from the Middle Ages; although in an odd parallel to its previous use as a church, it manages to be a place of peace in the noise of the City and nearby Stock Exchange.

Greyfriars was historically unfortunate in suffering twice as a church both times that London burned; the first medieval, monastic church – which became a parish church following the Dissolution of the Monasteries – was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666, the second, Wren church, erected on the old medieval foundations, fell victim to bomb damage during the Blitz. It is close to Wren’s magnificent St. Paul’s Cathedral, in which the architect himself is eulogized by his own powerful tomb inscription: “Reader, if you seek his monument, look around you”.

Greyfriars was one of approximately fifty London churches which Wren did rebuild, whilst creating other splendid examples of his own, such as the great St. James’s Church in Piccadilly. History made circles, however, for on the night that Christchurch Greyfriars burned during the Blitz, eight other Wren churches were destroyed. One of the few objects that were recovered from the burning Christchurch Greyfriars was the lid of a wooden font, retrieved by an unnamed postman who ran in to save it. Fittingly, the ruins of Christchurch Greyfriars are near Postman’s Park.

Christchurch Greyfriars, London (By Gryffindor [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], from Wikimedia Commons)

So, the Greyfriars site links up lost worlds, the medieval with the baroque London of the 1660s and then, the Blitz of 1940. The earlier church was also the burial place of – among others – no less than three medieval queens, now lost to history. So, how did this church come to disappear?

The first, medieval church was a Franciscan monastery on Newgate Street, established in the mid-thirteenth century, the second largest in London at the time of its completion. Queen Margaret, second wife of King Edward I, is rightly regarded as one of the first church’s foundresses, acquiring land for the friars in 1301-2; its foundation stone was laid in her name in 1306. Despite spending 2,000 marks on the medieval church, (British History Online, Version 5.0 ,www.british-history.ac.uk> [accessed 18 April 2018]) it was still incomplete at the time of her death. Queen Isabella, consort of Edward II, acquired further land for the monastery church in 1352-3 and made the gift of some windows at the church’s eastern end. (British History Online, Version 5.0 ,www.british-history.ac.uk> [accessed 18 April 2018]). Between them, both queens spent the enormous sum of over £2,000 on the Choir alone. Most appropriately for Queen Margaret, her body – wrapped in the Franciscan habit – was placed after her death in 1318, in the very monastery that she had helped to found; sadly, her tomb was amongst the other important monuments destroyed during the Reformation. Following her death in 1358 at Hertford Castle, Queen Isabella was also buried at the church, with the Archbishop of Canterbury, Simon Islip, officiating at the service. Queen Isabella’s daughter Queen Joan of Scotland, better known to history as Joan of the Tower – because of her birth at the Tower of London in 1321 – also died at Hertford Castle and was buried, like her mother, in the Franciscan church in 1362; her tomb has similarly disappeared.

So, two medieval queens who were perhaps most associated with the church, also had it as their final resting place. But it would not be a place of rest, however. Instead, the church would experience the turbulent Dissolution of the Monasteries and burn twice in London’s history.

Isabella of Valois “finding the church which Queen Margaret, her aunt, began, not yet finished, spent about it seven hundred pounds and more”, (British History Online, Version 5.0 ,www.british-history.ac.uk> [accessed 18 April 2018]).during the reign of Queen Isabella’s son, Edward III. Queen Philippa of Hainault – Edward III’s queen – also made donations to the church, helping to fund its roofing. Queen Philippa’s eldest daughter, Princess Isabella of England (de Coucy) was also buried at the Franciscan church, as was Princess Beatrice of England, daughter of Henry III and Queen Eleanor of Provence. Incidentally, Queen Eleanor of Provence’s heart was also interred at the Franciscan church after her death, when she was buried at Amesbury Abbey, a tomb now lost.

When the monastery was dissolved, its important monuments were damaged and its valuable, historic tombs destroyed; gone were its eleven medieval altars. Henry VIII gifted the building to the City Corporation in 1546 and his successor, Edward VI, founded the school of Christ’s Hospital, who used it as a place of worship. One of the tombs in the former medieval church also included that of Elizabeth Barton, the famed ‘Holy Maid of Kent’, who had made controversial prophecies concerning the King’s proposed marriage to Anne Boleyn.

Following Blitz damage, the post-war authorities decided not to rebuild Christchurch Greyfriars; instead, its former parish joined that of St-Sepulchre-without-Newgate. Since 1989, the nave area has functioned both as a memorial and a public space; the whole site was subject to archaeological investigation in 2002. The former tower of the Wren church has now been converted into a private flat, and the wooden font which was saved by the postman can now be seen in the entrance of the St-Sepulchre-without-Newgate.

Today, the site is known as Christchurch Greyfriars Church Garden; the ruins bloom with flowers, a poignant sight inside the remnants of Wren’s church. But the ruins too, have of course, also become part of London’s history. As times have changed, so has the city’s buildings, part of its cycle of life. But the fact that the ruins are not left as ruins, means that London’s public continues to use them as a place of recreation and reflection. Its history too then, must live on.

©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2018.

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