St Helen’s is an interesting church in that it is one of the only the mediæval monastic buildings in the City of London which is still standing, the other being St Bartholomew the Great. The others such as Holy Trinity, Blackfriars, Greyfriars, Austin Friars and the like are all long gone, have only small fragments of the mediæval structure remaining, or have been completely rebuilt. It is also unusual because it was initially a parish church which was converted to a monastic house, whereas other monastic houses at this time were typically built from scratch on greenfield sites.
The church was dedicated to Helena, the mother of Constantine, who was the first Christian emperor of Rome. Nobody knows when St Helen’s was established as a parish church, and the earliest reference dates from 1010, when the relics of King Edmund the Martyr were moved here from East Anglia, to prevent their desecration at the hands of the Danes.
In 1210, the Dean of St Paul’s gave permission for William Fitzwilliam, a goldsmith, to establish a Benedictine priory at St Helen’s. The priory was never rich. In mediæval times it was common for rich people to leave money to the church in return for the church praying for their souls after they had died, and the priory relied on these chantries as well as ‘papal indulgencies’, or money from the pope.
The Basing family was a prominent London family who were major benefactors in late 13th and early 14th centuries, and they funded much of the building of the new priory. Another generous benefactor was Adam Francis – a Mercer, and Lord Mayor of London 1352-1353, who left enough money for the building of two chantry chapels: Holy Cross and St Mary.
In the 15th Century, the priory leased a parcel of its land to Sir John Crosby, a wealthy merchant from the Grocers’ Company. He built Crosby Hall, a big mansion, which he rented to Richard III when he was Duke of Gloucester, who used this as his London home. When he died, Crosby left St Helen’s the sum of 500 marks, or £100, a huge sum of money at the time. Of this money, £60 was spent on some much needed improvements whilst the remaining £40 was used to clear debts run up by the naughty nuns!
So what did the naughty nuns get up to? Well – in 1385 John de Appleby, the Dean of St Paul’s, wasn’t happy: he thought the prioress owned too many dogs, so limited her to two; he caught some on the nuns “kissing secular persons”, so banned that; and he also pulled them up for wearing what he called “ostentatious veils”.
Nearly fifty years later, in 1432, things hadn’t improved when the Dean Reginald Kentwode paid a visit: he found that secular women had been sleeping in the crypt, so he banned that; the prioress was told to keep the keys to stop the “much coming and going at unlawful times”; the nuns would no longer be allowed to look out onto the street, speak to secular persons or receive gifts or letters from them without permission from the prioress; strangers should not be able to see the nuns or vice versa at the services in the church; and no dancing or revelling would be allowed except at Christmas and other suitable times, and then only in absence of seculars.
The same Dean also issued further injunctions after a visit seven years later, in 1439. The impression given by all these injunctions is that the priory was treated as a kind of boarding-house, and it seems likely that the rich City families saw the priory as a convenient place where they could place their unmarried daughters with an allowance, regardless of whether they had a religious vocation.
The priory was dissolved in 1537, and this was a bit of a non-event: the nuns and officers were pensioned off; the convent buildings were sold to the Leathersellers’ Company; and the partition between the two naves was removed.
St Helen’s is the final resting place of Sir Thomas Gresham, founder of the Royal Exchange, and there are also lots of interesting memorials and artefacts inside the church. Some say that St Helen’s is the Westminster Abbey of the City
The church survived the Great Fire of London and the Blitz, but suffered extensive damage from the Baltic Exchange terrorist bombing in 1992, and Quinlan Terry was appointed to architect its restoration. The church is definitely worth visiting.
Left: Sir Thomas Gresham’s Tomb (with the Nuns’ Squint to the left)
Right: the Shakespeare Window
Left: the Nuns’ Quire
Right: the Nave of the parish church
The two naves from outside the church