Stephen Platten Rector of St Michael on Cornhill and Assistant Bishop in the Diocese of London
The City of London is an architectural palimpsest. Written over the straight lines of Roman streets and city walls are the patterns of medieval life; these too are overwritten with Baroque, Georgian and Victorian patterns of buildings; the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have added their own towering structures in different modern styles. Angelo Hornak’s richly illustrated book of London’s Baroque churches focuses on one important architectural strand in this remarkable palimpsest.
The period covered here owes almost everything to the devastating impact of the Great Fire of London of 1666. Ironically, that fire offered a unique opportunity to the burgeoning capital in a number of different ways. First it opened up the possibility for a fairly late flowering of the Baroque in England, with the work of Wren, Hooke, Hawksmoor and others. It did so at a particularly intriguing time both religiously and intellectually. English religion was in the midst of tumultuous change. The Restoration of the Monarchy under Charles II was accompanied by the publication of the Book of Common Prayer in 1662. This presaged the ‘Great Ejection’ of hundreds of Presbyterian divines which would be followed only twenty five years later with the beginnings of toleration in the Glorious Revolution and the accession of William III to the throne.
Evidence of so much of this history is there in the extraordinary period of church building in the fifty years following the Great Fire, the apotheosis of which was the completion of Christopher Wren’s great Cathedral of St Paul. Other more modest churches, however, also tell something of this unfolding story, writing still more layers into this architectural palimpsest.
Take, for example, St Michael on Cornhill. Tucked discreetly behind the frontages of Victorian and Edwardian buildings, this church tells its own tale of the City. The church stands directly over the basilica of the forum of the Roman city of Londinium – so there has probably been worship on this site for two thousand years. That worship would originally have been of the Emperor, of Caesar. Following the Roman retreat c.ad 400, it is most likely that the basilica was converted into a Christian church; that was the advice Pope Gregory the
AFTER THE FIRE