St. Sepulchre is the largest Parish Church in the City of London, described by Sir John Betjeman as “high, wide and handsome”.
There is no saint called “Sepulchre”. The church which stood on this site was originally dedicated to St. Edmund the Martyr – King of East Anglia. At the time of the Crusades the church was known as “St. Edmund and the Holy Sepulchre” and eventually “St. Sepulchre” – after the Holy Sepulchre of Christ in Jerusalem.
As the church of the Holy Sepulchre, the benefice was granted by Rahere, the Prior of St. Bartholomew’s, to Hagno the Clerk in 1137.
The Porch together with the tower and outer walls were built about 1450. The main body of the building was gutted by the Great Fire of London in 1666, and rebuilt in 1670-71. The present layout dates from 1875 with a re-modeled interior in 1932 by Sir Charles Nicholson. The roof and plaster ceilings were made in 1834.
“Bells of Old Bailey”
The 150 feet high tower contains a ring of twelve bells, restored in 1985, famous in the nursery rhyme as “The Bells of Old Bailey”. Most of these were made in 1739 and replaced bells brought from the Priory Church of St. Bartholomew in 1537.
The fan groining of the Porch, with its seventeen magnificently carved bosses, is the oldest part of the church and dates from about 1450.
In the North Aisle is a war memorial of the sixth Battalion City of London Rifles known as the “Cast Iron Sixth”. On the North Wall is a rough wooden cross placed on the battlefield at Loos in 1915 where one hundred officers and men perished. It was later replaced with a permanent memorial.
One celebrated yet tragic Rector, John Rogers, was burnt at the stake in Smithfield in 1555, the first Protestant martyr of Queen Mary’s reign. He was killed for assisting William Tyndale to translate the Bible into English.
The Musicians’ Chapel
This chapel on the north side of the church was formerly called St. Stephen Harding’s Chapel and has a window, designed and presented by Archibald Nicholson in 1932, dedicated to St. Stephen Harding. It was here, in St. Stephen Harding’s chapel that young Henry Wood learnt to play the organ. At the age of fourteen he was appointed Assistant Organist. He went on to found the famous Promenade Concerts which still run in London every summer. When Sir Henry died in 1944 it was to the Musicians’ Chapel that his ashes were brought. They now lie beneath the central, St. Cecilia, window. In this window Henry Wood is shown as a young boy at the organ and as the mature Sir Henry conducting a Promenade Concert at the Queen’s Hall. In the Musicians’ Chapel there are also fine modern windows by Brian Thomas depicting the renowned singer Dame Nellie Melba and the composer John Ireland, and above the altar the ‘Magnificat’ window in memory of Walter Carroll. On the south wall of the chapel is a case containing the Musicians’ Book of Remembrance.
In the north wall of the sanctuary are what may be the remains of an Easter Sepulchre. The most notable person known to have been buried in this chapel was Roger Ascham, the beloved tutor of Queen Elizabeth I who died in 1568.
The Executioner’s Bell
In a glass case on a pillar at the south east of the nave is the Execution Bell, a grim reminder of the connection between this church and old Newgate Prison which stood, until 1902, on the site now occupied by the Central Criminal Court – “The Old Bailey”. In 1605 Robert Dowe gave fifty pounds for the ringing of the great bell on the mornings of executions, and for “other services concerning condemned prisoners” including the ringing of this hand-bell at midnight outside the condemned cell.
Royal Fusiliers’ Chapel
The south aisle contains the Regimental Chapel of the Royal Fusiliers, the City of London Regiment and now part of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers. This chapel was dedicated in 1950. The Royal Fusiliers still hold their Remembrance Day service in this church. At the west end of the Chapel are the books of Remembrance for Fusiliers who lost their lives in the first and second world wars.
Also on the south wall is a relic of the 1450 church, a Piscina for rinsing communion vessels. This appears to be darkened by fire and is thought to still bear the traces of the Great Fire of London in 1666.
The font with its finely carved octagonal cover showing cherubs heads was presented by a parishioner in 1670, the year that the church reopened after the Great Fire. There is a second font cover in the West end of the church which came from the neighbouring parish of Christchurch Greyfriars. It was rescued by a postman from the burning church during the Blitz.
Captain John Smith
In the south aisle of the church lie the remains of Captain John Smith who died in a house nearby on 21st June 1631. The exact position of his tomb is no longer known but the brass plaque is a copy of the one which originally marked the spot. It tells us of his adventures as a soldier in Hungary where he was granted a coat of arms with “three Turks’ heads coued” after defeating three Turkish champions in single combat. But John Smith is best known for his adventures in Virginia in 1607, his rescue from death by the Princess Pocahontas and his subsequent honours as President of the Council of Virginia and Admiral of New England.
The John Smith Window
He is remembered in a handsome window designed by Francis Skeat and given by Bradford Smith in 1968. Captain Smith is shown in the central panel with his navigational instruments around his feet. The outer panels show his patrons, Robert Bertie and Samuel Saltonstall. Above are the three little ships in which the pioneers crossed the Atlantic.
Beyond the Choir is the sanctuary and high altar. The kneelers and one of the altar frontals were given in 1969 in memory of Sir Malcolm Sargent. Above is the great East Window designed by Gerald Smith in 1949 to replace one destroyed in the war. It shows Christ crucified but victorious above the City of London. Old St. Paul’s and Wren’s New St. Paul’s stand side by side with spires of City Churches, Roman Temple Tudor houses and the river flowing beneath. It shows London past and present and is a paradigm of the Holy City.
Archibald Nicholson Memorial Window
The Archibald Nicholson Memorial Window, also designed by Gerald E.R. Smith, bears the following inscription: “To the glory of God. In memory of Archibald Keightley Nicholson, Master Glass Painter, who worshipped at this church. This window is designed and carried out by the craftsmen of his studios as a thank offering for his life and friendship. 1871 – 1937.”
Archibald Nicholson’s two brothers, Charles and Sidney, also have strong links with St. Sepulchre’s Church. Sir Charles, architect and preserver of so many churches old and new, was the principal arranger and adorner of the church as it is today. Dr. Sidney Nicholson was founder of the School of English Church Music (now the Royal School of Church Music) whose first London base was St. Sepulchre’s.