St Leonards Church, Shoreditch
George Dance the Elder
- Original design
- George Dance the Elder, 1740
The 2019 programme is now past. We will be launching the 2020 programme mid August 2020.
St Leonard’s Shoreditch is a Grade I listed Church. The church, along with its Clerk’s House are the oldest buildings in Shoreditch.
Dedicated to St Leonard, the patron saint of prisoners and those who are mentally ill, it is also the site of continuous worship in Shoreditch, at least from the 1100s onwards. There has been a church here for many centuries. The first Christians in England were probably soldiers in the Roman army. The church stands on the site where all the Roman roads joined. You can travel from here to Chester, Bath, Lincoln, York, Chichester and Colchester along their old routes. The Wallbrook river rises outside the front door which made it a perfect site for the army camp. It is just possible, although hopeful, that Christians were here while Claudius was still emperor and Luke was writing his gospel.
We know little of those early days but there is some description of an Anglo-Saxon church which was demolished when the Normans built a replacement. This had its first vicar in 1185. It was this church which became the Actors’ Church. The first English theatre was close by in New Inn Yard where several of Shakespeare’s plays had their initial performance. Whilst Shakespeare was a worshipper at nearby St Helen's Bishopsgate, inside the city boundary, his actors frequented St Leonard's in the slightly dingier quarters of Sewre Ditch, with its bear pits and inns.
It was enlarged over many years until it had three aisles and became a substantial building. This however was a problem, for the river outside regularly overflowed and eventually damaged the foundations.
When the medieval church finally collapsed in the eighteenth century, the present building, the third, was erected over and across its floor, maintaining its structure underneath the current crypt; it was designed by George Dance the Elder and opened in 1740. Although as a student he had worked on the cathedral, and subsequently repaired and reordered several churches, this was the only church he designed and built from an original design. His main work was with public buildings, for example he built the Mansion House for the Lord Mayor. However, this new church caused a scandal when first opened. It was very unlike the chunky and ornate Hawksmoor style so popular in the late Baroque period. The slender columns and subtle colonnades, and bright windows were an innovation that was hard to accept as a church. Luckily tastes have changed.
Nowadays St Leonard's is seen as a national treaure, renowned for its association with actors of the Tudor period, with many buried in the churchyard or memorialised inside the church, including three Burbages; James who built the first English theatre, his son Cuthbert who built the Globe Theatre and his other son Richard who was the first to play Macbeth, Hamlet, Richard III, Othello and especially Romeo.
‘Perhaps nowhere in all London have rooms echoed oftener with Shakespeare’s name than those of Shoreditch...’
The first part of the building seen by the public is the tower.
The plain Tuscan portico is surmounted by a square clock-tower and belfry. These then support the stone octagon of the gallery with its fluted cupola. This is raised on Corinthian columns topped by a gallery reflective of the lower one. Above them rises the elegant obelisk. It is one of the most important architectural structures in England.
The building is of classical English Palladian design and its most important external features are the Portland stone front portico and the elegant steeple, reminiscent of Sir Christopher Wren’s St. Mary-le-Bow. The tower is one of few to boast a ring of twelve bells. They form part of the English psyche featuring in the traditional nursery rhyme Oranges and Lemons: ‘When I grow rich, say the bells of Shoreditch…’ Originally the church was probably more imposing as it was approached by ten steps, now reduced to four. The general treatment of the exterior is of brick with stone dressings, the north and south elevations having two stages of semi-circular headed windows and recesses divided by a plain stone band.
The timber roof structure is mostly covered with slates, although the vestibules to the north and south of the steeple have lead-covered flat roofs. The nave roof is gabled, while the roofs over the galleries are hipped. The nave is rectangular in plan, erected slightly wider and significantly longer than the footprint of the old medieval church. Internally it is separated from the aisles by Doric columns resting on pedestals and supporting block entablatures. Springing from these are semi-circular arches supporting the clerestory walls, in which, above a moulded string course, are segmental-headed windows. The walls are plastered, with timber softwood panelling up to dado level. The galleries are timber with softwood panelled fronts. The ceiling is divided into flat panels and has a moulded cornice.
In 1870, the Victorians led by Butterfield damaged it, stripping out the galleries and bricking up the ground floor windows. The faculty of that year has Butterfield stating that the galleries are “inconvenient and little used”
He built a raised chancel for a robed choir and moved the central pulpit to a side position. Then he rebuilt the sanctuary table to make a large altar.
He had changed a Georgian preaching church into a Victorian sacramental church. He did not realise, though, that they had dangerously compromised the structural integrity of the building. Twentieth century war damage hastened its problems. It was apparent by 1990 that the building was becoming unsafe, so eventually it was closed for nearly two years to be rebuilt nearer to its original form. The galleries over the aisles were reinstated in 2000-2. The two storey church hall on the south side was erected in 1902, refurbished in 2000-2.
The East window was redesigned following war damage and includes a beautiful tree of life, slightly raised from the facade of the window, a tiny ladder to escape to heaven in the top left corner and some notable historical figures along the bottom such as Thomas Fairchild kneeling in his gardener's workclothes, as well as a Pearly Queen and the architect responsible for restoring the church back to its pre-war glory.
The crypt is accessible only with our guidance and is a prime example of use and layout. During the era of Burke and Hare many churches had to be aware of coffins being replaced with sand as a substitution for a missing body, and St Leonards was no different. There are some biohazards of lead coffin leakage and in future years the crypt will need to be reordered sympathetically. In 2018 we were awarded a small grant to excavate a couple of metre square sections to moot the possibility of finding the floor of the medieval church carefully hidden below by George Dance, with promising results.
Being a church of historical significance means we are honoured to had some noteworthy congregants in our midst. Not least of these were three generations of the Burbage family; William Somers, court jester to Henry VIII; Richard Tarlton, Elizabethan comic actor; Gabriel Spencer, actor at The Rose Theatre; William Sly and Richard Cowley, actors at The Globe Theatre; all contributing to the Shakespearean theatre tradition and memorialised in a large granite monument on the upstairs gallery lobby.
Also on the gallery is a beautiful memorial to Elizabeth Benson by the notable Restoration sculptor Francis Bird, a student of virtuoso sculptor Grinling Gibbons, of an oak tree being ripped in half by two grinning skeletons. Downstairs, a placard to commemorate James Parkinson, the surgeon first describing the disease bearing his name; in the nave, a box containing the drums and flag of WW1 20th Shoreditch Battalion, placed there never to beat again; and in the portico lobby, various memorials and commemorations of peals of bells from the The Royal Cumberland Youths, bellringers still here today.