London, St Etheldreda

In London for a family wedding. By myself as the church and crypt are inaccessible to Julie (a wheelchair user). I know it is an ancient building, and I know money is always tight, but nothing has been done. Their website – stetheldreda.com – makes no mention of access (and the news page has not been updated for the last decade). Surely there must be rich parishioners who get too old to attend, and yet no one seems to care. Welcome to church!

The church is dedicated to Sy Etheldreda and stands on Ely Place, a private road, just round the corner from Hatton Gardens. Etheldreda was the daughter of a King of East Anglia, born in Exning in AD 630. She founded the double monastery at Ely in 673 and died six years later.

Around 1250 John le Franceis, Bishop of Ely, obtained a licence to build a chapel on land owned by St Paul’s. It was completed by 1290, part of the 58 acre palace site – orchards, vineyards, gardens and ploughlands included. In 1531 Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon attended a banquet in the great hall, which lasted five days. At the sumptuous feast the King and Queen dined separately – one of the first indications he was thinking of taking a new wife. (I did wonder if that was a good omen for our newly-weds!). We forget what an upheaval the Reformation must have been in some places – the Catholic mass, sung by all 21 Bishops of Ely, was banned. The windows and statues in the church remind us of the blood that was spoilt.

Elizabeth I was instrumental in the demise of the chapel, due to her passion for the courtier Sir Christopher Hatton. She intimidated Bishop Cox, now (of course) an Anglican bishop, to rent him for house for £10, ten loads of hay and one red rose a year – the guidebook does not make it clear whether the Queen or the Bishop got the rose!

In 1620 the Count of Gondomar, Spanish ambassador to James I, moved into Ely Place so Catholic Mass was allowed here as they were officially in Spain,  but his successor was not allowed to stay here – Mass was too popular. Matthew Wren, uncle of Christopher, was Bishop of Ely, but during the Civil War he was accused of being too Catholic, and ended up in the Tower. The Great Fire almost destroyed the church, and over the next century the Bishops of Ely let the place deteriorate. Ely Place was built at the end of the C18 on the site of slum dwellings and the remains of the palace buildings. The church was remodelled in the style of the time.

In the 1870s the chapel was up for sale, and the Catholics purchased it. Father William Lockhart was the son of a well-connected Anglican clergyman who came under the influence of John Henry Newman and the Oxford Movement, becoming a Catholic priest in 1846. The first Mass was said in the Crypt in 1876, three years later (on the Feast of St Etheldreda) the first Solemn High Mass was held in the church. The Duke of Norfolk has a piece of Etheldreda’s hand, which was installed in a reliquary next to the altar (I missed it!).

On 10 May 1940 an explosive bomb landed on the church, destroying much of the roof and all the stained glass. A number of people were in the crypt, but no one was killed.

The East Window was installed in 1952, designed by Edward Nuttgens. Christ in the centre, the dove above him. God the Father at the apex, surmounting the choirs of angels. Four evangelists, Mary and Etheldreda, Joseph and Bridget of Kildare.

The West Window (Charles Blakeman, 1964), is dedicated to the English martyrs. Five of them stand under Tyburn gibbet and the cross.

We have Old Testament scenes in the windows on the south side, and New Testament scenes in the windows on the north. Here are a selection of them.

I liked this window outside the chapel too. An interesting collection of statues, pictures, etc.

Let us finish with the posh soap in the gents – you don’t get Baylis and Harding in Derby!

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