St Katharine Cree | Inside a Unique City Church

St Katharine Cree survived the Great Fire of London and the Blitz. Today it’s a unique example of ecclesiastical Jacobean architecture in the City.

Although it has 13th century origins, it was rebuilt 1628-31 so to step inside is to be transported into the 17th century.

St Katharine Cree | Inside a Unique City Church

History of St Katharine Cree

The first record of a parish church comes in 1280, originally part of the Augustinian Holy Trinity Priory.

The unusual name Creechurch is a corruption of Christ Church, a name used for the Priory. Over the centuries it was shortened further to St Katherine Cree though it still stands on Creechurch Lane.

St Katherine Cree appears on the 16th century Agas map and the tower, built 1504, still survives. The majority of the present building was constructed 1628-31.

St Katharine Cree on the Agas Map as outlined on the MoeML map

The architect is unknown but the official church website speculates it could be Inigo Jones, England’s first classical Architect who designed Covent Garden and Queen’s House in Greenwich.

Inside St Katharine Cree

The rose window of the church dates to the 17th century and is beautiful, thought to have been inspired by the Old St Paul’s Cathedral rose window. It is also said to be a nod to the wheel on which the Saint Catherine of Alexandria was martyred aged 18 on a spiked breaking wheel. 

Catherine was spared the brutal death of being tied to the wheel and struck until her bones broke. Thanks to her devout Christian faith, the wheel itself broke under her touch and so she was beheaded instead. Lovely.

The organ was built in 1686 but then rebuilt in the 19th century. It was played by both Henry Purcell and George Frederic Handel.

Historic England says the organ case is 17th century and might even be the work of master wood carver Grinling Gibbons.

The pulpit also dates to the late 17th century.

The church is home to a number of old and surprising monuments. The most grand being that of Sir Nicholas Throckmorton, ambassador for France and Scotland who died in 1571. 

He lived during a time of huge religious upheaval, successfully escaping execution after his trial in 1554, accused of plotting against Queen Mary I. Surviving Bloody Mary, he would go on to serve Queen Elizabeth I acting as envoy to Mary, Queen of Scots but his true allegiance was always in doubt and he was imprisoned in Windsor again, narrowly avoiding a death sentence. 

His nephew, Francis Throckmorton would later be executed for his involvement in a Catholic plot again Queen Elizabeth I in 1584.

Next to this tomb appears to be a statue of a saint but look closer and it’s King Charles I, axe at his feet acting as a reminder of his beheading outside Whitehall Palace in 1649.

The connection comes from the William Laud, Bishop of London during the rebuilding of the church 1628-1630. Laud was a staunch supporter of Charles whom appointed him Archbishop of Canterbury in 1633. Laud would eventually be beheaded on Tower Hill in 1645.

Continuing the theme of death and tragedy is an incredibly moving stained glass commemorating the sinking of Lancastria during the Second World War.

On 17 June 1940 as part of Operation Aerial to evacuate the Allies from Western France the Lancastria set sail with over four times its regular capacity of 1,300.

It was hit by at least three bombs from the Luftwaffe, one falling down the funnel and the entire ship carrying between 4,000-7,000 passengers sank in 20 minutes. There were only 2,477 survivors.

The news was so horrendous and came at such a pivotal point in the Second World War that Winston Churchill attempted to hide the truth from the public. However, the New York Times eventually broke the story five days later.

It is the largest single-ship loss of life in British maritime history. The bell of the ship, rescued from the sea bed is also on display in the church.

The stained glass window was designed by John Hayward and unveiled in 1963. It shows Jesus walking on water, a serenely calm face amidst a panicking crowd.

In the bottom left corner a small life boat shows survivors consoling one another, pulling a fellow soldier out of the water or simply succumbing to exhaustion.

The Secret Garden

As well as its stunning interior, St Katharine Cree has another surprise. A secret garden, hemmed in by offices.

Site of the former churchyard, some of the memorials are still visible, most notably William Avenon, Citizen and Goldsmith who died 1631. His skeletal form, wrapped in a shroud is contained within the pediment of a newly restored 17th century gateway.

Today the little oasis is known as the Fitch Garden in memory of Fitch & Son, a local grocers which was established as a cheesemongers in 1784 by James Fitch. The company gained a Royal Warrant from 1863 and offered provisions like ‘celebrated breakfast bacon’.

In 1965 Fitch & Son funded the reordering of the 13th century garden into its present form.

Taking a closer look at the gateway again, the lion’s head over the fountain is a reference to the most famous ceremony that occurs at St Katharine Cree, the Lion Sermon.

Established by a former Lord Mayor of the City Sir John Gayer, this Cornishman who became a Governor of the East India Company was travelling through Syria in 1643 when he became separate from his group and was stalked by a lion.

Gayer eventually fell asleep, alone in the desert and was found by his friends the next morning, encircled by lion footprints. He attributed his survival to fervent prayer and promises of charity. The Lion Sermon is preached every year in the church themed on Christian struggles and a descendant of Gayer’s family reads the bible story of Daniel in the lion’s den.

Inside the church you can find a surviving 17th century font, a gift from John Gayer.

public domain

Today St Katharine Cree is a guild church, meaning it doesn’t have the same responsibilities of a parish church but has a main mission to “serve and minster to the non-resident day-time population of the City”.

The church is usually open Tuesday to Saturday from 9.30am til 4pm. You can find out more on their website.

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