A brief history of Christ Church Greyfriars: Plague, fire, war and English reformation

Christ Church Greyfriars in the City of London has been destroyed twice, sold once and seen the burials of four queens, yet hardly anyone knows it’s there.

Also known as Christ Church Newgate Street owing to its location on the corner of Newgate Street and King Edward Street, Greyfriars’ close proximity to the chain sandwich shops and the towering office blocks means it’s now usually inhabited by a few lunchtime smokers during the week, but is largely deserted on a weekend.

Vestry and tower of Christ Church Greyfriars

The site started life as a 12th century Franciscan monastery called the Franciscan Church of Greyfriars, before an impressive new church was built in the early 14th century, partly funded by Queen Margaret, second wife of Edward I.

This new church was the second biggest church in the City of London (second only to the medieval St Paul’s) and had its own university and library. Its significance was so great that it’s said to have equalled Oxford in educational importance.

Christ Church Greyfriars, London

It was quite something to be connected to the Greyfriars in life, and something else entirely to be interred here in death. Those considered to be significant enough to be buried in the medieval church included the children of kings and four queens: Joan de la Tour, Queen of Scotland and daughter of Edward II; Margaret of France, second wife of Edward I and one of the church’s original benefactors; Eleanor of Provence, wife of Henry III (her heart is said to have been interred under the altar); and Queen Isabella, daughter of King Philip IV of France and wife of Edward II (nicknamed ‘the She-Wolf of France’ on account of her plots against her husband).

Also buried here, despite having been given a ‘traitor’s death’ was Elizabeth Barton, who was hanged in 1534 for prophesying the death of Henry VIII when he planned to marry Anne Boleyn.

Rose bed at Christ Church Greyfriars, London

However, the church’s heyday was not to last. Like many monasteries that existed at the beginning of the 16th century, Greyfriars was dissolved during Henry VIII’s English Reformation. Tombs were sold, monuments destroyed and the site was changed forever.

And so Greyfriars moved onto the second stage of its eventful life: after King Henry sold the friary to the City Corporation, a new parish was created around Greyfriars and named Christ Church. The huge buildings of Greyfriars were then taken over by Christ’s Hospital School, with the church used as the pupils’ main place of worship. Set up by King Edward VI for the education of orphan children, the school admitted its first 380 pupils – probably aged about 10 or older – in 1552 and prepared both girls and boys for work in commerce and trade for over 100 years.

Tragically, the school lost 32 children in the Great Plague of 1665 and suffered more misfortune the next year in the Great Fire of London. Most of the site was destroyed and only a small proportion of the children were able to return to education at Greyfriars; the school was eventually moved to new accommodation in Hertford in 1682.

The tower at Christ Church Greyfriars, London

Wooden structure representing the pillars at Christ Church Greyfriars, London

From here on in, Greyfriars’ story is not dissimilar to that of many 12th century churches in the Square Mile (including St Dunstan in the East). A new smaller church was built as part of Christopher Wren’s rebuild of the City after the Great Fire and finished in 1704. Despite the church being half the length of its predecessor, Wren used the foundations of the old church, meaning the original layout still survives today.

Christ Church survived for almost 200 years before being destroyed again in the Blitz: all of the church apart from the west tower and the walls was obliterated. Incredibly, though, one smaller part of the church was saved: a wooden font that is said to have been saved from the flames by a postman now stands in St Sepulchre-without-Newgate just down the road.

Christ Church Greyfriars, London

Since the need for churches had diminished after World War II, the parishes of the City of London were reorganised and Christ Church became part of St Sepulchre-without-Newgate; the Greyfriars site was turned into the beautiful rose garden that exists today.

And, thanks to Wren’s efforts to maintain the original layout and the elements used in the creation of the garden, the plan of the nave still survives. 10 wooden towers that weave their way through the flowers represent the pillars of the original church, and the rose gardens indicate where the pews once were. Unfortunately the widening of King Edward Street in 1973 meant that three of the remaining walls of the church were demolished, eventually being replaced by low-level ones to mark where the originals would have stood.

As for Wren’s magnificent tower, the Vestry House is now a dental practice and the tower is an incredible 10-storey home for one lucky Londoner.

Bird in the flower beds at Christ Church Greyfriars, London

When I first sat down in the garden of Christ Church Greyfriars, the plan was simple: take some good photos, write about how quiet and lovely it is and leave the experience with some nice memories. But Christ Church Greyfriars sticks with you, and the more I read about it, the more sure I was that a quick post wasn’t going to suffice.

It’s seen some of London’s most troubled times and, rather than come out triumphant like St Paul’s or the Tower, it’s been battered about and left unloved. And yet its history reads like a timeline of the world’s greatest power struggles: from the dalliances of Queen Isabella that lead to the death of King Edward II and the start of the reign of 15-year-old King Edward III, and Henry VIII’s treatment of anyone who dared question his decision to marry Anne Boleyn; to the Great Fire of 1666 and eventually World War II. And bits of it were STILL being torn down in the 1970s.

There’s something about these places that is bitter-sweet: they’re permanently changed by history, but it’s that history that means we don’t want them to change. Let’s hope this is the last of Greyfriars’ misfortune.

Nearest Tube: St Paul’s

More information: Visit the City of London website

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Christ Church Greyfriars history: Sources

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