St Mary Abchurch is one of the easiest of the City Churches to actually miss. Rather than occupying any lofty position, or possessing a high steeple that towers over the surrounding vista, it is situated halfway down a narrow and easily overlooked thoroughfare called Abchurch Lane, linking the more formidable highways Cannon Street and King William Street. The church first appears in the historical record in 1198, and its suffix has been spelled in many ways: Abbechurch, Habechirch, Apechurch, Abchurch and Upchurch. The provenance of the suffix is unclear: it may have been because the building could be seen 'up' the hill from St Mary Overies across the river, later Southwark Cathedral, as the Prior was the Patron of the living until the fifteenth century. Alternatively it may have been named after a forgotten benefactor named Abbe, although in the absence of historical proof this is pure speculation. After the Reformation, Archbishop Parker persuaded Elizabeth I to grant the church to his College, Corpus Christi Cambridge, and the College has appointed the incumbent ever since. Stow described St Mary briefly, calling it 'fair'. It contained side chapels and a medieval crypt which still exists below the churchyard, but this building was completely destroyed in 1666.
In the interval between the church's destruction and its rebuilding, a Tabernacle was erected in the ruins. The Altar table existing in the church to this day comes from that temporary measure. Christopher Wren rebuilt the church between 1681-86 for £4,922, and he seems to have constructed it to form a perfect contrast with his nearby reconstruction of St Stephen Walbrook. Where St Stephen is faced with white Portland stone, St Mary's exterior is of warm redbrick with dressed quoins at the angles (this is a Dutch style also seen at St Benet Pauls Wharf). Where the interior of St Stephen is a celebrated baroque experiment in spatial manipulation, the small square box of St Mary's interior is given over to the intimate glory of wood. Betjeman described it as 'a complete surprise' and 'one of the most beautiful in the City', and it is easy to understand why, considering the building's hidden location and the exterior that suggests nothing of what awaits those who cross the threshold. Did Wren design this surprise deliberately? Of course he did, and it works as well today as it did back in the 1680's, for St Mary contains Wren's least 'interfered with' interior, and stands today almost exactly as he would have wished it to be seen.
The church entrance is approached across the churchyard, now cleared and pleasantly cobbled with five types of stone forming a geometric design. The 14th century vaulted crypt is below this yard. The tower can be seen to good effect; while not large, it is built of the same redbrick and quoin as the walls and ends in a lead-lined obelisk spire.
Through the entrance, and the visitor is confronted by the truth of how beautiful wood can be in the hands of the best craftsmen of Wren's day. It has been described as 'a treasury of seventeenth century art'. The beautiful pulpit is the work of William Grey, and William Emmett contributed the Door Cases, Royal Arms, Lion & Unicorn and Font cover, all in wood. The Font itself was a William Kempster work. The symbol of the Pelican feeding her young, which appears at other City Churches like St Michaels Cornhill and is symbolic of Christ shedding his blood for his flock, can be seen twice: first as the coppervane which once adorned the spire and now is fixed above the north door, and also in the reredos. It is also a symbol of Corpus Christi College. The pews, mostly originals from the Wren restoration, were once accompanied on the south side by small kennels for the benefit of parishioners who wished to bring their pets to church!
The reredos is the glory of St Mary's woodwork. It is the largest surviving work of Grinling Gibbons, and his original bill for what he called the 'Olter Pees' was discovered as recently as 1946 in the Guildhall Library. It is limewood, Gibbon's favourite material due to its versatility. He carved trailing fruit and flowers, and topped it with four gilded urns. Fruit and flowers can also be seen adorning the elaborate pulpit, very appropriate as this is now a Guild Church for the Fruiterer's Company.
However, Wren had not yet finished with the element of surprise. When the visitor manages to tear his eyes away from all this fascinating and ornate decoration, he may cast his eyes upward to see that the architect had incorporated a Dome into the ceiling, a Dome which - unlike that at St Stephen - cannot be seen from the exterior. It has been described as an 'architectural tour-de-force', as Wren arranged the stresses so that the Dome stands on four plain walls without the need of any buttressing. It was painted in 1708 by William Snow, and depicts the worship of heaven.
A bomb hit St Mary in 1940, and typically the greatest damage was to the church's greatest treasures - the Dome, and Gibbons' reredos. Godfrey Allen repaired the church, lowering the Victorian floor level and consequently revealing some grave slabs which remain on display. It was restored to look as much like Wren's original as possible: the Dome, repainted by Hoyle, now looks as though it were never damaged and the reredos, smashed into 2000 pieces, was painstakingly restored in an operation that took five years.
This is one of the smallest of Wren's church interiors, and it is the one that took me by surprise the most. I spent longer in this place, gazing at the minutae of detail on offer, than in many other churches twice the size. I felt completely manipulated by Wren, taken in by the casual way in which he confounded any expectations I had when approaching the building. Its opening times are limited, more's the pity, but if any visitor should ever take a shortcut from Cannon to King William and happen to notice the dors are open, then they should certainly not continue passing by. St Mary Abchurch is a rare treat indeed!
Author Mark McManus
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