Peace Be With You

14th February 2009

Geraint Jones reveals the secrets of a hidden London church, with a peaceful atmosphere that belies its troubled past.

Amid the bustle of modern Holborn and the expensive jewellery shops of Hatton Garden it is almost impossible to spot the tiny spiritual oasis that is St Etheldreda's Church. Yet this was once at the heart of one of the grandest estates in the country.

The London traffic drones and beeps on its way by, shoppers and office workers hurry along the major thoroughfares and all but a few miss one of the hidden jewels of the capital's vast tapestry. Yet those who do step off High Holborn into the cul de sac of Ely Place are at once transported into what seems like a different world.

Pass the guarded entrance to the street – itself a symbol of its old influence – and the Georgian terraces speak of understated elegance. Hiding demurely amongst their coat tails is the church itself and its exterior gives little hint of the rich history that lies within.

This largely unheralded building is one of a handful in London to date from the reign of King Edward I. It has survived the Great Fire of 1666, centuries of persecution and the worst that Hitler's Luftwaffe could hurl at it. The oldest Catholic Church in England, it now fulfils a modest yet significant function in the spiritual life of the nation, yet when it was built, around 1250, it was to serve as the town chapel of the hugely powerful Bishops of Ely. The residence was once one of the most influential places in London, with a palace and vast grounds and its chapel took its name from one of England's most popular saints of the day, Etheldreda.

Princess Etheldreda, daughter of King Anna, a prominent member of the ruling family of the Kingdom of East Anglia, was born in 630. She wanted to be a nun but agreed to a political marriage with a neighbouring King, Egfrith, on condition that she could remain a virgin. When the King tried to break the agreement, she fled back to Ely, where, as well as founding a religious community, she also built a church on the ruins of one founded by the efforts of St Augustine
Etheldreda was quite a revolutionary by all accounts. She set free all the bondsmen on her lands and for seven years led a life of exemplary austerity. After her death, in 679, devotion to her spread rapidly, as people received help and favours through what they were convinced was her powerful intercession in heaven.

For the first 300 years of its existence her church was a symbol of anything but the austerity she espoused, as part of an estate administered by the See of Ely and outside the jurisdiction of the City of London. From 1316 were added a palace, orchards, vineyards, gardens and ploughlands until it spread over an area of 58 acres. It attracted kings as guests and inspired poets, including William Shakespeare, whose John of Gaunt is at Ely House when he utters the famous lines in Richard II:

'This royal throne of kings, this scepter'd isle,
This Earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-Paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This blessed plot, this Earth, this realm, this England.'

Ely Place, and the chapel, might have remained at the heart of the nation… but the marital problems of Henry VIII along with the conversion to Protestantism in 16 and 17th century England marked the end of the influence of the estate and its chapel.

For three hundred years, until the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829, it was illegal for Catholics to have churches or to say Mass. Under Henry and then Elizabeth I priests were arrested, tortured and executed and the Ely estate was broken up. By Victorian times the gardens of Hatton, once famed for their fields of saffron, had turned into one of the city's most notorious slums.

Salvation came, surprisingly, from abroad in the form of the Italian Rosminian order. The Rosminians had worked successfully in the Nottingham and Leicester areas and were encouraged to turn their attention to the slums of the capital. They bought the run-down church at auction in 1873 for £5,400, and launched a restoration appeal. There followed five years of painstaking work to restore the building to its former glory. The work was difficult and dirty – centuries of grime and plaster to be removed – but worthwhile, as workers discovered that beneath later additions, the original medieval ceiling had survived virtually intact.

In the late 19th century, therefore, St Etheldreda's became a thriving religious and artistic community with poets, artists and playwrights mingling with priests and worshippers.

In 1925, the Royal Commission on Historical Monuments recommended it as especially worthy of preservation and it was scheduled as an Ancient Monument. Even at that time, Ely Place remained like an independent state, under the jurisdiction of Ely, Cambridge, and not part of London. Beadles guarded the entrance and closed the gates to all strangers. Even the police had to ask permission to enter.

That may no longer be the case but for the modern visitor, St Ethdreda's still represents a world within a world. Its modest exterior, squashed somewhat by the press of urban development around it, reveals Tardis-like qualities once you step inside its doors.

The main chapel is at once a living, modern place of worship and an extended shrine to the Catholic priests who gave their lives for their faith during the Reformation. Statues of martyrs line the walls, an evocative reminder of the violence which blighted the building, while the 19th century restoration work on the eerily atmospheric crypt uncovered no fewer than 18 bodies.

Yet it is much more than an historical relic. Visit on any day of the week and you will witness a steady stream of people who come to worship or to carry out church business or for lunch in the cafe overlooking the cloister gardens; an interesting menu with wine and champagne available. Others simply absorb the church's unique atmosphere or enjoy the opportunity to experience the peace it affords in the heart of London's hubbub.

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