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St Mary-le-Bow
St Mary-Le-Bow 01.jpg
Exterior of St Mary-le-Bow
Location London, EC2
Country England
Denomination Church of England
Heritage designation Grade I
Designated 4 January 1950
Architect(s) Sir Christopher Wren
Style Baroque
Years built 1683
Parish St Mary Le Bow Cheapside
Diocese London
The spire, St Mary-le-Bow
The spire, St Mary-le-Bow

St Mary-le-Bow is a church of Saxon origins, with a Norman crypt, that was rebuilt after the Great Fire of 1666 by Sir Christopher Wren in the City of London on the main east–west thoroughfare, Cheapside. It was badly bombed in 1941, and restored between 1956-1964.


The sound of the bells of St Mary's is credited with having persuaded Dick Whittington to turn back from Highgate and remain in London to become Lord Mayor.

Details of the bells:

Bell Weight Nominal Note Diameter Cast Founder
1 5-3-21 1565.6 G 27.75" 1956 Mears & Stainbank
2 5-3-10 1389.5 F 29.00" 1956 Mears & Stainbank
3 6-1-7 1298.5 E 30.00" 1956 Mears & Stainbank
4 6-2-17 1170.0 D 32.00" 1956 Mears & Stainbank
5 7-3-27 1046.5 C 34.00" 1956 Mears & Stainbank
6 8-3-27 978.5 B 35.00" 1956 Mears & Stainbank
7 10-0-20 869.0 A 38.00" 1956 Mears & Stainbank
8 12-1-11 778.0 G 41.00" 1956 Mears & Stainbank
9 17-3-17 694.0 F 46.00" 1956 Mears & Stainbank
10 21-2-23 649.5 E 49.00" 1956 Mears & Stainbank
11 29-1-5 585.0 D 54.00" 1956 Mears & Stainbank
12 41-3-21 521.2 C 61.25" 1956 Mears & Stainbank

Weights in hundredweights, quarters and pounds.

The previous "great bell at Bow", the tenor bell of the peal installed in 1762 and destroyed in an air raid of 1941, weighed 58 hundredweight, with six tons of ironwork braces cut into the inside walls of the tower as reinforcement. Earlier still, the first great bell was a byword for having a sonorous tone as, in 1588, pamphleteer Robert Greene sarcastically likens the verse of Christopher Marlowe to the bell's "mouth-filling" resonance.

Ordinarily, distances by road from London are now measured from Charing Cross but, before the late 18th century, they were measured from the London Stone in Cannon Street, or the Standard in Cornhill. However, on the road from London to Lewes, the mileage is taken from the church door of St Mary-le-Bow. To note the reference used, mileposts along the way are marked with a cast-iron depiction of a bow and four bells.


St Mary-le-Bow Church as shown on Agas map of 1561
St Mary-le-Bow Church as shown on the "woodcut" map of the early 1560s (shown as "Bowe church")
St Mary-le-Bow Church Interior 1, London, UK - Diliff
The interior, facing the altar

Archaeological evidence indicates that a church existed on this site in Saxon times. A medieval version of the church had been destroyed by the London Tornado of 1091, one of the earliest recorded (and one of the most violent) tornadoes in Britain, although the newly completed arched crypt survived. During the later Norman period the church, known as “St Mary de Arcubus”, was rebuilt and was famed for the arches (“bows”) of stone. At that period the 12 feet 6 inches (3.8 m) high vaulted crypt—although only accessible from within the church—had windows and buttresses visible from the street. However, the anecdotalist and historian John Stow dates the titular arches, made of Caen stone in the form of a crown steeple and supporting a lantern, to no earlier than 1515. This is the form of the steeple in the Agas woodcut of 1561 (right). This erroneous explanation for the source of the name gained some traction in the centuries to follow, including an endorsement by Palace of Westminster architect Augustus Pugin.

From at least the 13th century, the church was a peculier of the Diocese of Canterbury and the seat of the Court of Arches, to which it gave the name. The “bow bells”, which could be heard as far away as Hackney Marshes, were once used to order a curfew in the City of London. This building burned in the Great Fire of London of 1666.

Cheapside and Bow Church engraved by W.Albutt after T.H.Shepherd publ 1837 edited
St Mary-le-Bow in an 1837 engraving

The church with its steeple had been a landmark of London. Considered the second most important church in the City of London after St Paul's Cathedral, St-Mary-le-Bow was one of the first churches to be rebuilt after the fire by Christopher Wren and his office. The current structure was built to the designs of Wren between 1671 and 1673; the 223-foot (68 m) steeple was completed in 1680. The mason-contractor was Thomas Cartwright, one of the leading London mason-contractors and carvers of his generation.

In 1914, a stone from the crypt of St Mary-le-Bow church was placed in Trinity Church, New York, in commemoration of the fact that King William III granted the vestry of Trinity Church the same privileges as St Mary-le-Bow vestry, the forerunner of lower-tier local government. Since the early 1940s, a recording of the Bow Bells made in 1926 has been used by the BBC World Service as an interval signal for the English-language broadcasts. It is still used today preceding some English-language broadcasts.

Much of the current building was destroyed by a German bomb during the Blitz on 10 May 1941, during which fire the bells crashed to the ground. Restoration under the direction of Laurence King began in 1956 (with internal fittings by Faith-Craft, part of the Society of the Faith). The bells as listed above, cast in 1956, were eventually installed to resume ringing in 1961. The church was formally reconsecrated in 1964, having achieved designation as a Grade I listed building on 4 January 1950.

In the church is a memorial to members of the Norwegian resistance who died in the Second World War, which is in two parts; a commemorative plaque and a relief of Saint George and the Dragon.

In the churchyard is a statue of Captain John Smith of Jamestown, founder of Virginia and former parishioner of the church.

Since 1989, there has been a restaurant in the crypt: Café Below.

Services today

The elaborate pendant cross, St Mary le Bow
The pendant cross, St Mary le Bow

St Mary-le-Bow ministers to the financial industry and livery companies of the City of London. Consequently, services feature weekday morning and evening led prayers lasting just a quarter of an hour generally at 08:15 (except Tuesdays) and 17:45. There is a memorial in the church to the first Governor in Australia, Admiral Arthur Phillip, who was born in the parish. Through this connection the Rector of St Mary-le-Bow is the Chaplain of the Britain–Australia Society.

It is still home to the Court of Arches today.


St Mary-le-Bow Church Interior 2, London, UK - Diliff
The organ

The organ is a two-manual and pedal design by Kenneth Tickell and Company, with design and construction initiated in 2004. It occupies the case of the previous Rushworth and Dreaper organ (from the 1960s). The inaugural recital was given by Thomas Trotter in September 2010. The resident organist is Alan Wilson.

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