Nowadays, looking eastward up the Strand, the eye is caught by the two churches of St. Mary-le-Strand and St. Clement Danes, standing isolated in the centre of the roadway, whilst the traffic roars past on either side. In the Middle Ages you would still have seen St. Clement’s, though half engulfed in a rookery of ill-smelling, crazy old timbered houses, with so narrow a passage between that coachmen called it the “Straits of St. Clement’s.”But on the site of St. Mary’s stood a maypole, one hundred feet high, dear to the heart of the city youth for the merrymakings that took place around it. Such giddy proceedings vexed the Puritans, who swept it away in an outburst of righteous indignation, but old customs die hard, and at the Restoration another and still lordlier pole was set up with royal approval, and dancing and junketings went on around it for many a long day.
The church of St. Clement’s takes us back to very ancient history. Some say that beneath it lie the bones of King Harold and other Danish invaders. What is pretty certain is that the original church was built, after the expulsion of the Danes, by the few settlers who, having married English wives, chose to remain behind, on condition that they did not stir out of the strip of land that lay between the Isle of Thorney, now Westminster, and Caer Lud, now Ludgate.
Travellers from all over the world who have shared the common traditions of childhood, feel a queer sense of kinship when they pass along the Strand and suddenly hear the old bells ringing out the familiar tune of “Oranges and lemons, say the bells of St. Clement’s.”The bells of the nursery-rhyme are not those of St. Clement Danes, but of the St. Clement’s, Eastcheap, which for centuries has been in the centre of the dried fruit trade.
The bells were famous even in Shakespeare’s day. “We have heard the chimes at midnight, Master Shallow,”says Falstaff in Henry IV. Those chimes are gone, but the present peal of ten bells, cast in 1693, is as famous for its music.
One might write a whole history of church bells, from the time when Turketul, Abbot of Croyland in Lincolnshire, in the ninth century, presented his abbey with the great bell GUTHLAC, and added six others with the rhythmic names Of PEGA, BEGA, BETTELIN, BARTHOMEW, TATWIN and TURKETUL, to make a peal.
In the early monkish days they looked upon bells as the voices of good angels: they were blessed and dedicated: the passing bell was tolled to keep off evil spirits from the dead. Henry VIII., that ruthless iconoclast, cared little for superstition, and in the general destruction of the religious houses hundreds of old bells were sold or melted down. But the pious people of those days would point out how the Bishop of Bangor, who sold his Cathedral bells, was shortly afterwards stricken with blindness, and that Sir Miles Partridge won the Jesus Bells of St. Paul’s from King Henry at play and, proceeding to remove them and have them melted down, was hanged soon after on Tower Hill.
The bells of St. Clement’s were added after the church had been rebuilt in 1692, under the supervision of Sir Christopher Wren, who gave his services for nothing in his usual generoushearted way.
St. Clement’s is dear to all true Londoners as Dr. Johnson’s church. You may see the very pew where he sat, and there is something about the solid, handsome structure that seems to fit the thought of the ponderous great man who worshipped there Sunday by Sunday, striving “to purify and fortify his soul and hold real communion with the Highest.”It is a fine and a prosperous church, and so richly endowed that at one time all the paupers of the neighbourhood used to flock there for the sake of what they could get. That they were well looked after, the carefully kept parish registers bear witness as far back as 1558. There are other interesting entries in the old registers. You may read of the baptism of Master Robert Cicill, the sonne of ye L. highe Threasurer of England, and of the marriage of Sir Thomas Grosvenor with Mary Davies, the child heiress of Ebury Manor, who brought to her husband all those lands of Pimlico and Belgravia from whose rents the Dukes of Westminster draw the bulk of their colossal fortune. Her life story has been published recently by Mr. Charles T. Gatty in his two – volumed Mary Davaes and the Manor of Ebury.