Sir Christopher Wren’s 17th century masterpiece, the small church of St. Stephen Walbrook, is the parish church for the Mayor of London. It’s an ancient site – before the mediaeval church there was a Saxon church on the site, which in turn had replaced a Temple of Mithras from the second century AD.
In more recent times, the Samaritans, an organisation offering support and help to those suffering from depression or at risk of suicide, was founded at St Stephen in 1953, as was the international arm, Befrienders Worldwide.
This post is about the four different religious buildings which have been built on this same site, the founding of the Samaritans charity in the Church, and finishes with pictures, taken yesterday, of the breathtakingly beautiful church built by Sir Christopher Wren after the Great Fire of London.
The Roman Temple of Mithras
A statue of Mithras slaying a bull. This sculpture is in the British Museum.
During the 400-year Roman occupation, the Temple of Mithras was built on the banks of the Walbrook, a small stream then running through the centre of Londinium. (Like many other London rivers and streams, it now runs in a culvert underground – see this post on the River Fleet for information about London’s largest buried river).
The Mithraic Mysteries / Mysteries of Mithras / Mithraism was a Roman Cult. It had 7 levels of people in the cult, in a type of gnostic progression, and engaged in ritual slaughter of bulls, and ritual meals. Not much else is known about the cult, which was highly secretive, albeit wide-spread throughout the Roman Empire.
After the Fall of Rome, the stones from the Temple seem to have been taken away for other buildings, leaving only the foundations.
These were re-discovered during building work in the 1950s, and are preserved in the courtyard of a rather nasty modernist office block.
The Saxon Church
At some unknown time between the 7th and 10th centuries, a Christian church was built on the site of the Roman temple. This often happened, in order to “hallow” the sites of pagan temples. The Saxon church used the foundations of the Roman Mithras Temple. It is mentioned in records in the late 11 century, when it was given to a monastery. What it looked like is a mystery.
The Mediaeval Church (15th century)
By the 15th century, the church was too small for the parish’s needs, and it was re-built on the east side of the Walbrook, now a road rather than a river. One of a staggering 100 churches in the City of London, also known as “the square mile”, the mediaeval church was built of flint, and had both a tower and a cloister.
Like much of the City, the Church burned in the Great Fire of London, in 1666.
Christopher Wren and the Rebuilding of the City of London
A portrait of Sir Christopher Wren, by Godfrey Kneller (1711)
More than three-quarters of the City had been destroyed in the Great Fire. One of those charged with getting London back on its feet as soon as possible was Christopher Wren, the King’s Surveyor.
Wren designed and supervised more than 50 churches, among other buildings both in London and elsewhere. Under the Rebuilding Act 1670, he supervised a vast programme of building work.
St Stephen Walbrook was Wren’s local church – he lived on Walbrook, and was in the parish. The work on the church began in 1672. By 1679, the church was finished, apart from the steeple, built 12 years later.
The Architecture of St Stephen Walbrook
Sir John Sommerson described the church of St Stephen as “the pride of English architecture, and one of the few City churches in which the genius of Wren shines in full splendour”. Nikolaus Pevsner thought it one of the ten most important buildings in England.
The building was, in effect a series of experiments for the ideas Wren had for the rebuilding of St Paul’s Cathedral. The dome was very unusual in English ecclesiastical architecture at the time.
As the building materials were lighter than those used in the much larger St Paul’s, the sense of light and space inside St Stephen Walbook is wonderful.
The location is an extremely hectic one – the Mansion House, the Bank of England, and the City of London Magistrates’ Court are all within sight from Walbrook. And yet, stepping inside the church, there is a simple oasis of calm and beauty.
Music at St Stephen Walbrook
The church is well-known for music recitals. In particular, it has organ recitals on Fridays, at lunch time. For a list of upcoming events, see here.
This important and valuable charity was founded in 1953 by the then Vicar of St Stephen Walbrook, Chad Varah. He thought there wasn’t enough support for people undergoing a traumatic emotional time, and was particularly moved after burying a 14 year old girl who had thought that the onset of menstruation was a disease, and had killed herself. He wanted to set up what he called a “999 for the suicidal” (999 being the UK’s emergency number). What was needed, in Chad Varah’s view, was “a man willing to listen, with a base and an emergency telephone”. And so it came to pass.
The phone was set up in the Crypt of St Stephen Walbrook and this, the first telephone helpline in the UK, achieved a great deal of publicity in the press. Volunteers came forward to help man the phone. The service grew – today, there are 201 branches and 17,000 trained volunteers in the UK and Ireland who answer phone calls, have drop-in centres, and receive emails and texts. For more information about this important charity, see their website. The Samaritans also run Befrienders Worldwide, an international service doing much the same work.
Photographs of St Stephen Walbrook today
The interior of St Stephen Walbrook, showing the dome and windows beneath
Detail of the dome
The east end, and altar, at St Stephen Walbrook
The organ at the west end of the church
The austere western exterior of St Stephen Walbrook
The entrance to St Stephen, from Walbrook