St Bride's: History

Chapter I: Intro

Stepping into 2,000 years of history. The story of St Bride's is woven into the fabric of the City of London.
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Chapter II: AD43 - 1000

The dawn of our history: a Roman house near Lud Gate. Brigid: saintly teenager & default bishop
Photo Credit: Peter Dazeley
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Chapter III: 1000 - 1500

An accident of medieval geography brings importance
Photo Credit: Paul Freeman
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Chapter IV: 1500 - 1665

Wynkyn de Worde came to St Bride's and it was time to start the presses
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Chapter V: 1665 - 1666

Plague pits, nosegays, brokers of the dead & a torrent of flame.
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Chapter VI: 1666 - 1730

'Will you rebuild our church, Mr Wren?'
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Chapter VII: 1730 - 1940

The rise and rise of the Fourth Estate
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Chapter VIII: 1940 - 1957

The night St Bride's luck ran out
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Chapter IX: 1957 - 1989

Wynkyn de Worde's revolution ends in tears
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Chapter X: 1989 - 2014

St Bride's: a church for the 21st century
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Chapter IV: 1500 - 1665

In the year 1500 the church had impressive neighbours - the many members of the clergy who were unable to afford the high cost of living in the very centre of the medieval city, where there was greater protection from thieves. However, they possessed their own powerful insurance against burglars - the fear of excommunication, which freed them to live outside.

So while rich merchants huddled together in the centre for safety, the area around St. Bride's became a haven for the eminent divines who were involved in national life. Salisbury Square, Peterborough Court and Ely Place are among names which have come down through history to remind us of great houses in the vicinity.

Since the clergy possessed almost a monopoly of literacy in those days, they were the printers' best customers. Thus Fleet Street became the cradle of the transformation of the medieval art and mystery of printing into the most influential industry man had yet known.

William Caxton

William Caxton
1422 - 1491

In the early 1470s, William Caxton had learnt the recently-invented technique of printing in Cologne. He returned to London in 1476 and set up a press by Westminster Abbey. In all, he printed about 100 books, some 20 of which were translated from French or Dutch, on subjects that included history and geography, the lives of saints, fables, and instructional books (for example, on good manners and learning French). His output also included most of the works of Chaucer.

As a well-to-do cloth merchant, Caxton had no need to make his press commercially viable. But after he died in 1491, his apprentice Wynkyn de Worde, who acquired that press, was in different circumstances. Having no other income, printing was his livelihood. So he followed commercial principles and took his goods to the buyer, setting up England's first printing press with moveable type in the churchyard of St Bride's in 1501.

It was a period in history when churchyards were hives of activity, boasting inns, taverns and commercial premises, and Fleet Street proved the perfect place for de Worde's new enterprise.

Wynkyn de Worde grave

Coffin on left discovered during excavations believed to be that of Wynkyn de Worde

The publishers of playwrights and poets soon set up competing presses in other local churchyards, and the connection between St Bride's and world of printing and journalism was cemented. Wynkyn de Worde was buried in the church in 1535.

By the 17th century Fleet Street had become an irresistible attraction for the great writers and diarists of the day. A trio of Johns - Milton, Dryden and Evelyn - lived in the vicinity; Samuel Pepys was baptised at St Bride's, and Richard Lovelace buried there.

But then, in the space of 16 terrible months, it all changed.

From boy apprentice in Fleet Street to sailing with the Pilgrim Fathers

Governor Edward Winslow

Governor Edward Winslow
1595 - 1655

St Bride's long connections with the colonies in America began when the parents of Virginia Dare, the first child born to English emigrants to North Carolina in August 1585, were married at the church. The event is commemorated in a touching bust of a little girl which can be found by the font in the south-west corner of the church.

St Bride's reredos

Photo Credit: Peter Dazeley

One of the most striking features of today's St. Bride's also owes its inspiration to the church's American links. The great canopied oak reredos which enshrines the church altar is a memorial to the Pilgrim Fathers. This connection was made 35 years after Virginia Dare's birth when Edward Winslow (1595-1655) became one of the leaders of the Mayflower expedition in 1620. Winslow, who was three times elected governor of Plymouth, Massachusetts, had served as a boy apprentice in Fleet Street and would have known St Bride's well. His parents were also married there.

Original Virginia Dare Bust

At the same time, St. Bride's parish was busily helping to populate yet another English colony. One hundred girls and boys from the Bridewell Hospital orphanage were sent to Virginia in 1619. The project was so successful that the governor requested 100 more. All the youngsters received grants of land on coming of age.