St Mary’s Axe, EC3
One of the most iconic images of modern London is Sir Norman Foster’s 180-metre tall Gherkin which is to be found at 30, St Mary’s Axe. I have visited the bar on the 40th floor, open to tenants and their guests, on a number of occasions and can confirm that on a clear day it affords wonderful views of Greater London. Because of its position and height, it can be seen from as far away as the M11 motorway in the north and Great Windsor Park in the west. Alas, its architectural merits leave me cold.
The street of St Mary’s Axe runs from Houndsditch to Leadenhall Street, deriving its name from a church which was sited where Fitzwilliam House can now be found. The full name of the church was a bit of a mouthful – St Mary, St Ursula and her 11,000 Virgins – and, doubtless, the locals were pleased to give it a shorter appellation. According to John Stow in his A Survey of London of 1603, the shortened version of the church’s name derived from “the signe of an Axe, over against the East end thereof”.
More recent and diligent research has uncovered a document dating back to the early 16th century which, perhaps, sheds more light on the church’s peculiar name. It states that the name came from a holy relic that was kept inside the church, “an axe, oon of the iii that the 11,000 Virgyns were be hedyd with”. Legend had it that St Ursula had been traipsing around Europe with a contingent of 11,000 handmaidens when they were attacked by the Huns. The virgins were all beheaded, whilst Ursula was shot by an arrow fired by Attila. One of the three axes used in the slaughter seems to modern eyes to be a particularly gruesome relic to have adorning the walls of a church but even in mediaeval times when the trade of religious bric-a-brac was at its height, you had to make do with what relics you could get your hands on.
The church was patronised by the Guild of Skinners for whom an axe was a tool of trade. Their patronage may have given the church its name or they may have been favourably disposed to the church because of the prominence of the axe. We are in danger of getting into a vicious circle as we are when noting there was a pub nearby called the Axe which, surely, took its name from what was around it rather than the other way round.
The church, although associated with the nearby Priory of St Helen’s, seemed to have escaped the worst of the Dissolution but its fortunes went into a steep decline. By 1562 was offered to Spanish Protestant refugees as a place of worship, going under the name of Santa Maria de Hacqs. This proved only a temporary respite and around 1566 in a poor state of repair it was knocked down and the parish amalgamated into that of St Andrew Undershaft.
The Jews were another group of refugees to be found in the area, giving rise to this mildly amusing lampoon, “Jews from St Mary Axe, for jobs so wary/ that for old clothes they would even axe St Mary“.
Butchery and destruction seem to have haunted the area. In the late 18th century an elephant was dissected in the courtyard of number 12, a carpet hung over some railings shielding any passer-by from the sight. Its skeleton was donated to the museum at St Thomas’ Hospital. More recently in 1992, the Baltic Exchange was destroyed by a bomb probably planted by the IRA, killing three people. The rebuilt Exchange moved up the road to number 38 but its former site, number 30, is now occupied by the Gherkin.