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St Etheldreda’s Church

St Etheldreda's Church, Ely Place.

St Etheldreda’s Church, Ely Place.

Great fun yesterday – those who follow me on twitter will know that I have been celebrating the feast days of various saints, as they are prescribed in Alban Butler’s Lives of the Saints, about which I am writing a study. Yesterday was the feast day of St Etheldreda, and I happened to be in Holborn so I was able to visit the church in Ely Place which bears her name.

St Etheldreda was born in 630, and was a prominent member of the ruling family of the Kingdom of East Anglia. She wanted to be a nun, but was married off to Tondberct, chief or prince of the South Gyrwe (the Fens) and, on his death, to King Ecgfrith of Northumbria. Both marriages were approved on the condition that her husband would respect her vow of perpetual chastity. When King Ecgfrith attempted to consummate the marriage, Etheldreda fled back to Ely. The King followed, but Etheldreda evaded capture when God either made the tide rise around her, or hid her under an ash tree grown miraculously from a staff she placed in the ground. Free from her marriage, she established a religious community in Ely, later destroyed by the Danes.

The church that bears her name was the town chapel of the bishops of Ely from 1250 to 1570, when bishops were required to come to London to attend Parliament and is the oldest Catholic church in England, and the only building in London surviving from the reign of Edward I. Despite it’s Popery, it felt like a thoroughly Holborn church – situated on the last privately owned street in London, and hemmed in by grand houses. Book-ended by two huge windows, it is a two-tiered church, with a magnificent upper chamber, possibly the bishop’s private chapel, and a crypt downstairs, which may have been used for services for the locals. Along the walls of the upper church run statues (now made of polystyrene!) of locals who died for the faith during the reformation – these are simple memorials, eschewing grandeur and showing the martyrs in, as it were, their civvies. The simplicity somehow makes it moving.

This is, of course, one of the joys of London – the way that history leaks around corners, and pools in places where you least expect it. I’ve walked past Ely Place many times (usually on my way to Ye Olde Mitre pub, an equally fascinating place of worship!) with no idea the church was hidden away three doors up. So here’s to St Etheldreda and her vow… Today’s feast day is John the Baptist, which may be a little harder to commune with. Thanks for nothing, Salome…

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