The Church of St Benet Paul’s Wharf

St BenetSt Benet has been the Church of the College of Arms since 1555, when Philip and Mary gave Derby House, standing at the north-east corner of the Churchyard, to the Heralds. Since that time they have had their own seats in the church and their heraldic badges are fixed to the lower part of the gallery, from which their banners are usually hung. The burial of at least twenty-five Officers of Arms, starting with Sir Gilbert Dethick in 1584, is recorded in the Registers, together with a large number of Domestic Staff. There are several relevant Memorials in the church – one to the memory of John Charles Brook, Somerset Herald, who was one of sixteen people crushed to death when George III and Queen Charlotte visited the Haymarket Theatre in 1794. Another victim of that accident was Benjamin Pingo, Rouge Dragon Pursuivant, who received severe injuries when crushed underfoot. The body of Mr Brook, on the other hand, was recovered standing up, with a smile on his face.

Notable services held for the Heralds in the Church included a splendid Memorial Service (pictured above) for Sir Anthony Wagner upon his death in 1975. There is a large memorial to him at the East end of the North aisle. There was also a thanksgiving on the occasion of the Quincentenary of the Heralds’ Incorporation as a College in 1484.

There is a good deal of heraldry in the church. Over the richly carved doorway on the West wall there is a superbly carved and painted Royal Arms of the Stuart period, said to have been presented by Charles II. There is a seventeenth century carved and painted Coat of Arms of the College at the East end of the South wall. Around the lower edge of the front of the galleries there are small square plaques bearing the badges of the heralds. A framed scroll of the arms of the heralds buried in the environs of the church is on the South wall behind the pulpit. This was painted by Andrew Jamieson to a commission from the White Lion Society and presented in 1999, complementing the nearby Memorial Boards to College staff who have died since 1984, also presented by the Society. On the North wall behind the font can be seen the Garter Board, bearing the personal Arms of each Garter Principal King of Arms since the inception of the Office in 1398 up to Sir Colin Cole (Garter from 1978 to 1992).

As well as its connection with the College of Arms, St Benet was the Parish Church of Doctors’ Commons, which stood at the north-west corner of the churchyard where Faraday House now stands. It was a large complex of buildings rather like an Inn of Court, housing lawyers expert in the Civil Law. They practised in the ecclesiastical Courts, the High Court of Admiralty, and the High Court of Chivalry. The Commons occupied the North gallery in the church, paying five pounds per annum per household for its upkeep, as well as paying for the Lector (a curate). Doctors’ Commons was demolished in 1867 to make way for the construction of Queen Victoria Street, and its specialisms (apart from the High Court of Chivalry matters) were transferred to the mainstream legal system. On the front of the North gallery are three elaborate carved cartouches painted with (from West to East) the Admiralty badge of a fouled anchor, the Royal Arms as used between 1816 and 1837, and the arms of the See of Canterbury. It is believed that these cartouches were made in 1837, the end of the Hanoverian period.

The Parish Church of St Benet, Paul’s Wharf has a much older history, of course. A church building dedicated to St. Benedict (founder of the Benedictine Monastic Order) has stood on this site since the year 1111 A.D. The name was abbreviated to St Benet in common parlance (or “Bene’t” in writing) and formally changed to that in the early part of the nineteenth century. Paul’s Wharf was the main landing stage for this part of the City since Roman times and was used for the unloading of building materials for St Paul’s Cathedral. A little to the west stood the Watergate of Baynard’s Castle, frequently mentioned in church records and part of the sad story of both Queen Anne Boleyn and Lady Jane Grey. Both Church and Castle were destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666.

The present church by Sir Christopher Wren was built by his Master Mason Thomas Strong and completed in 1683. It is a particularly valuable example of Wren’s work, for it is one of only four churches in the City that escaped damage in the 1939-45 war, and remains basically as Wren built it. From the outside it is seen that it is built of red and blue bricks (unusual for Wren) with stone quoins, and with carved stone garlands over the windows. It has a hipped roof on the north side. The Tower, built on the site of the original, contains the base of the old Tower to a height above ground of some twelve feet, but encased by new brick and stone, This is surmounted by a dome and cupola, topped by a Ball and Weathervane, and rises to a height of 115 feet to produce an elegant and attractive edifice.

The interior of the church is practically square, and it still retains its galleries, West and North. The Reredos, the Altar (very baroque and of Dutch origin), the pulpit by Grinling Gibbons, originally marked on its panels with the Royal Cypher and “Donum (given) 1683”, the Altar rails, the attractive marble font and its carved wood cover, are all part of the original furniture of the church. Vandals set fire to the interior of the church in 1971 but damage was confined to the north-east corner. The whole of the interior was however affected by the intense heat. During the ensuing restoration the organ built by J.C. Bishop in 1833 was rebuilt in its original position in the west gallery by Messrs Hill Norman and Beard, and is a fine example of a small organ of the period.

Apart from heralds and Civil Law lawyers a number of other interesting people were buried in the church or churchyard. In 1652 Inigo Jones ‘the king’s architect’ was buried in St Benet, with his father and mother. A copy of the inscription on the original memorial, which perished in the Fire, has been placed above the site of the original vault. In the centre aisle there is a ledger stone commemorating Delarivier Manley, known to fans of eighteenth century literature as the authoress of rather racy material.

With the depopulation of the Parish the future of St Benet’s in the nineteenth century became questionable. It ultimately found a non-parochial role in 1879 as the London church of the Welsh Episcopalians. In 1954 with the re-grouping of City churches it was designated as a Guild church with that continued role. The Parish Records, which go back to the reign of the first Elizabeth contain many references to the Welsh, stretching back probably to about 1320 when they were evicted from the Tower Hill area by a Papal Bull. Elizabeth settled her “Imbroyderers” in the parish, in which they had their Alms Houses. The Broderers City Livery Company probably started here, the Dyers also were strongly connected with the church, and later the Royal College of Physicians came into being in the parish.

Services in Welsh are held in the church on Sunday mornings at 11 am. The building is open to the general public every Thursday between 11 am and 3 pm, superintended by church watchers belonging to the Friends of the City Churches.

Melvyn Jeremiah
Friends of the City Churches