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As part of this year’s Arts and Humanities Festival, several of us at King’s College London decided to address the theme of ‘Underground’ by inviting people to experience the three remaining medieval crypts in London. The participants included Kathryn Maude (@krmaude), Gabriela Cavalheiro (@gabccavalheiro), Francesca Brooks (@Frangipancesca), Charlotte Knight, Mami Kano, and myself (Hana Videen, @beoshewulf), PhD students from the Centre of Late Antique and Medieval Studies at King’s College London.
Our day began at 10 AM with a site specific performance in the atmospheric crypt of St Etheldreda’s Church (Ely Place). The performance repeated every 15 minutes, but visitors could drop in at any point to watch and listen. Irish artist Ceara Conway was joined by King’s College London students on the MA in Theatre and Performance with Dr Theron Schmidt: Caroline Johnson, Cheryl Lee, Francesca McLoughlin and Sofia Talon-Johnson. The four students, dressed all in black, circled the pillars of the crypt, wrapping strands of lace around the grey stone. Ceara sat to the side, playing a Shruti box with a low, droning, undulating sound. The crypt was dimly lit, emphasising the colours of the stained glass windows. There were two projections: one was a video of a woman turning round and round with lace around her neck, unwinding it until she is free; the other showed close-up stills of a woman’s mouth.
After they finished winding the lace around the pillars, the women approached the walls, standing so that their faces were only inches away from the stone. They began whispering, but their voices grew louder.
Am I whitewash against the roughness of stone?
Ceara began to sing a beautiful, wordless melody, while the other women continued to chant disjointedly, each repeating a different phrase.
Who can find a virtuous wife…
Sometimes I feel that there are only two relationships for women in the Church: with God, as wife and mother… I am single. Who am I?
What is purity?
How do I see?
Francesca began reciting seven words while unwinding the lace from the central pillar.
Bold. Fearless. Worthy. Royal. Valued. Loved. Unique.
The women performed a chant, which Ceara told us later was an old Orthodox Thread Ritual Chant with a Persian influence and would have been sung as a thread was wrapped around a church three times. The three symbolised the trinity, with three voices coming together in harmony. Thread symbolised a great number of things, a connection between worlds, between life and death.
The Fates have the subtle but awesome power of deciding a man’s destiny. They assign a man to good or evil. Their most obvious choice is choosing how long a man lives.
There are three Fates. Clotho, the spinner, who spins the thread of life. Lachesis, the measurer, who chooses the lot in life one will have and measures off how long it is to be. Atropos, she who cannot be turned, who at death with her shears cuts the thread of life.
Etheldreda: queen, abbess, saint
St Etheldreda, a.k.a. Æthelthryth (Æþelðryþe), a.k.a. Audrey, was an Anglo-Saxon woman of the seventh century, an East Anglian princess who became a Fenland and Northumbrian queen and later Abbess of Ely. Despite being twice married, Etheldreda remained a virgin. She ran away from her second marriage, taking shelter at the cloister of Ely. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, she founded a double monastery at Ely in 673.
The story goes that Etheldreda suffered later in life from a tumour of the neck. In her vita (life) written by Ælfric, Etheldreda says (in my translation from the Old English):
I certainly know that I am well deserving that my neck should be afflicted with such an illness, because when I was in my youth, I adorned my neck with many necklaces, and it seems to me now that God’s mercy may cleanse me of that sin, since now for me this swelling shines in place of gold, and this heat burns in place of precious gemstones.
Etheldreda’s body was moved years after her burial, to be moved to a sarcophagus of white marble. Her body was uncorrupted, indicating her sanctity.
In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, admirers of St Etheldreda/Audrey wore lace around their necks, a cheap version of a necklace. (This still doesn’t make a lot of sense to me, since didn’t Audrey decide wearing necklaces was a bad idea?) The contraction of St Audrey’s lace led to the creation of the word ‘tawdry’, a word that today means ‘showy but cheap and of poor quality’.
We gave two one-hour crypt tours: one at 12 PM and one at 5 PM. The tours were extremely well attended…over 90 people! Below are some images and facts from the tours. Kathryn Maude, Gabriela Cavalheiro, Charlotte Knight, and Francesca Brooks were the tour guides. Credit must also be given to Mami Kano, who did a tremendous amount of research even though she was unable to attend the event. (Thanks, Mami!)
St Etheldreda’s (Ely Place) – Tour by Kathryn Maude
St Etheldreda’s is one of the few medieval churches in England that are Catholic; it was bought back by the Catholic Church at an auction in 1874.
The surviving chapel belonged to the London palace of the bishops of Ely. (Bishops had important roles in government as advisors and nobles, so they needed a palace in London from which to conduct their business.) At the time that St Etheldreda’s was built, it was the bishop of Ely that managed civil and financial affairs for Edward I.
The walls of the crypt may go back as far as the 6th century – we cannot be sure, as there are no building records. It’s possible that the structure was a house or feasting place prior to becoming the lower level of the church. Although primarily a chapel, the crypt at St Etheldreda’s does have bones interred in it but not medieval bones. In 1621 Catholics celebrating mass in secret at the home of the French ambassador were crushed when a ceiling fell in on them. The Bishop of London refused to bury them (since Catholicism was illegal at the time), but 18 of them were smuggled to St Etheldreda’s and buried under the floor of the crypt.
In more recent history, St Etheldreda’s was used as an air raid shelter during WWII.
Whitefriars (Fleet Street) – Tour by Gabriela Cavalheiro
In 1247 a Carmelite friary was founded on the site where the crypt lies today. it was a relatively large area, extending from Fleet Street down to the river Thames. The first medieval church was erected on that site in 1253, and it was further enlarged in the fourteenth century. The crypt is thought to date from late thirteenth to fourteenth centuries.
When the priory was dissolved by Henry VIII in 1538, the monarch donated parts of it to his armourer and to his doctor William Buttes. In 1610 the old priory refectory was converted to a theatre, but it didn’t last long, closing its doors in 1629. Later on the site was slowly occupied by housing and workhouses, that gave the area a bit of an ugly reputation over the years. The area south of Fleet Street, between Blackfriars and Temple, was known as Alsatia, serving as a sanctuary for villains on the run, infamous for lawlessness and violence. It was known as Alsatia, after Alsace, the disputed no man’s land between France and Germany. Daniel Defoe hid out here after he spotted ‘wanted’ posters of himself in taverns on Fleet Street.
In the late nineteenth century the City authorities tried to clean up the area, selling off freehold parcels of land, and this attracted companies that wanted to build their own factories, particularly newspaper companies drawn by Fleet Street’s printing experience. In 1895 the crypt was discovered in the area then called Britton Court; it had been used as a coal cellar. Excavations took place and very little was writtenabout this crypt, most literature dating from the 1920s and early 1930s. In 1980s a law firm discovered the crypt was in the middle of the construction site of their expanding development. The solution? The crypt was transported from its original location on the site, the east side, to its current location. The crypt is now at the heart of the same law firm, surrounded by modern buildings and housed in a glass room.
On the way to our last stop…we saw a sign for Hanging Sword Alley. I tried to find out more about this evocative street name but still lack a completely satisfactory explanation. Apparently it takes its name from the sign of one of its houses, which is mentioned as early as 1574. This website says ‘Hanging Sword Alley was once known as Blood-bowl Alley, which uneuphonious name it took from a notorious house known by this title, the cellar of which is reproduced by Hogarth in the ninth plate of his Industry and Idleness series. It will be remembered that the Jerry Cruncher of A Tale of Two Cities resided here.’ Curious indeed. But on to our final stop…
St Bride’s (Fleet Street) – Tour by Charlotte Knight and Francesca Brooks
St Bride’s Church was built on a Roman site of worship, and the excavation in 1953 revealed the remains of six different structures, the earliest dating back to the sixth century. The excavation also revealed the crypt, which contained hundreds of skeletons from the medieval period, the great plague, and a cholera outbreak, and which were able to provide a lot of medical and forensic evidence.
No one is quite sure why the church is dedicated to St Bride, an Irish saint. St Bride was a young holy woman who prayed to God to be blinded in order to avoid marriage. This evidently worked since she then became an abbess. At the ceremony to confirm her as such, however, the service for consecrating a bishop was accidentally read and could not be reversed. St Bride and seven centuries of her female successors were therefore female bishops. St Bride was also a great poet, and one of her most famous lines involves her wishing for a ‘great lake of ale’. (Note: St Bride is my new favourite saint.) The literary heritage of the church continued with Wynkyn de Worde setting up his printing press in the churchyard. Later, Milton, Dryden, and Pepys were all associated with the church, and it also has strong ties with the foundation of the modern press.
The distinctive tiered spire, designed by Wren after the church was destroyed in the Great Fire of London, is the inspiration for the modern wedding cake.
We hope you enjoyed this virtual tour of London’s medieval crypts. If you were on one of the actual tours or attended the performance, please do comment and let us know what you thought.