St. Giles-in-the-Fields, London

St Giles is one of the most venerable London churches outside the City itself. The earliest church here was a chapel attached to a monastery and leper hospital which was founded by Matilda of Scotland, Henry I’s wife, in 1101. At that time the foundation was well beyond the boundaries of London – hence “in the Fields”, although it was one the main road to Oxford (now best known as Oxford Street). A small village grew up around the hospital and the Chapel began to be used as a parish church.

For two hundred years the Crown supported hospital and church. In 1299 Edward I transferred administration to the Order of Saint Lazarus (known as Lazar Brothers). During the 14th Century their order was accused many times of putting the affairs of their monastery before the care of the lepers. The King, several times throughout this period, had the head of the hospital replaced.

In 1391 Richard II, possibly with a view to making a point to the Lazar Brothers, sold the hospital, church and lands to the Cistercians. The Lazars returned to their military roots and used force to make the King change his mind whilst the City of London withheld the King’s rent in protest. Eleven years later the Lazars were returned their property and the hospital continued until the mid-1500s when leprosy began to abate across Europe.

In 1414 St Giles was the headquarters of Sir John Oldcastle’s Lollard rebellion and three years later he was executed here. In the end it was Henry VIII, as usual, who broke the continuous monastic presence here when he Dissolved the Monastery in 1539. The church survived as parish church and the first rector was appointed in 1547.

By 1623 the early structure of the church was in particularly poor repair so the whole was rebuilt between 1623 and 1630. In 1665 the first victims of the Great Plague were buried in the churchyard… by the end of that year there were 3,216 deaths in the parish – a parish with less than 2,000 households.

In the same period the twelve Roman Catholic martyrs who were killed on the false testimony of Titus Oates were buried in the church. All twelve have subsequently been beatified, making this one of the highest concentrations of saints in England!

By 1711 St. Giles was in poor condition once more, and after continuous petitioning from the parishioners a new church was built between 1730 and 1734. This was designed by Henry Flitcroft and was the first English church in the soon to be common Palladian style.

A hundred years later and the parish had reached a population of 30,000 including two of London’s most notorious areas, The Rookery and Seven Dials – both were famous as the haunt of criminals and prostitutes. As the population continued to grow the church could no longer cope and burials were transferred to cemeteries around St. Pancras.

St Giles was also the last church between Newgate Prison and the gallows at Tyburn and the churchwardens traditionally gave the condemned their last drink (at the Angel pub next door), a custom begun in the 15th Century and which became known as “St Giles’ Bowl”.

Charles Dickens describes the area around St. Giles and St. George Bloomsbury in lurid detail in “Sketches by Boz”.

Despite some Victorian fiddling and loss of glass thanks to the Luftwaffe, the church has come down to us today largely as Flitcroft designed it and today is perhaps not given the attention it deserves being tucked down a non-descript side street.

Photo - Andrew J. Müller

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