London Churches: St Magnus the Martyr

Posted: December 27, 2016 in History, London, UK
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The church of St Magnus stands at the northern end of London Bridge. It is first recorded in 1128 although it is unclear when it had been built. The dedication of the church has been a subject of discussion over the centuries with 3 possible candidates being favoured:

  • Magnus of Anangi, a bishop executed under the Roman emperor Decius in the 3rd century
  • Magnes, another bishop, persecuted by the Roman emperor Aurelian in the 3rd century
  • Magnus, Earl of Orkney a man of gentleness and piety who was killed by his cousin in a family power struggle in 1118 and was canonised in 1135.

It was not until 1926 that this was resolved and the declaration made that the dedication was to St Magnus of Orkney.

Until 1831 the road leading from London Bridge into the city passed the doors of the church and the site included a separate chapel dedicated to Thomas-a-Becket for pilgrims on their way to the saint’s shrine in Canterbury (when this fell out of use it was converted to a house and a warehouse and subsequently demolished in the 18th century).

The unassuming church entrance which was passed by all those crossing London Bridge

The unassuming church entrance which was passed by all those crossing London Bridge

 

This was an important church and by the 14th century the patronage (the right to appoint the rector) was in the hands of the Pope before passing to the Abbots of two nearby Abbeys, the crown (on the dissolution of the monasteries) and finally to the Bishop of London. Its list of medieval rectors included Myles Coverdale, who was the compiler of the first complete English language translation of the Bible.

The history of St Magnus’ is one of fire. This was a crowded area of the city without much space between buildings and as such a constant fire hazard. In 1633 42 houses at te north end of the bridge were destroyed by fire but St Magnus managed to narrowly escape any significant damage. It was not so fortunate in 1666, being only 300 yards from the bakers shop of Thomas Farriner, where the Great Fire of London started. Rebuilding began in 1668, under the supervision of Sir Christopher Wren, and by 1676 the church was re-opened although building works continued until 1687. Interestingly, when Thomas Farriner died in the 1670s he was buried under the main aisle of St Magnus.

The clock on the Tower was presented in 1701 by Sir Charles Duncombe, Lord Mayor of London that year. Its position meant that anyone entering the City across London Bridge would know the time.

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In 1711 he also presented a new organ to the church.

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In 1760 a fire in an oil shop to the south-east spread and destroyed the roof and damaged the structure and in 1763 some outbuildings including the vestry were demolished to ease the access to the bridge. In 1827 a fire in a nearby warehouse spread to the church and caused enough damage that it had to be closed for 6 months.

The re-building and re-siting of London Bridge, a little way upstream of the Medieval bridge, took place between 1823 and 1831 and made a major difference to St Magnus as people crossing the bridge no longer passed the church.

The Tower stood astride the walkway from London Bridge until 1831

The Tower stood astride the walkway from London Bridge until 1831

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The church again narrowly survived significant damage during a warehouse fire in 1847 but was seriously damaged in 1940 when a bomb which fell near London Bridge blew out all the windows and damaged the structure. It was to be 11 years before repairs made it possible to hold services in it again.

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St Magnus stands today surrounded by the changing scenery of the waterside city area, somewhat dwarfed by the tower blocks. Its Tower pointing to the sky rather reminds me of a child in a group of taller Children holding up his hands so that everyone can see that despite all that has happened to it over nearly 1000 years it is still here.

Aerial photo of St Magnus (Photo by Duncan -  https://www.flickr.com/photos/duncanh1/)

Aerial photo of St Magnus (Photo by Duncan – https://www.flickr.com/photos/duncanh1/)

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