St Etheldreda's Church

London, England

For many years, St Etheldreda’s Church was the oldest Roman Catholic Church still in use in England.

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St Etheldreda's Church 6
- Fr Lawrence Lew, O.P.

Discover St Etheldreda's Church in London

St Etheldreda's Church is a beautiful and historic Roman Catholic Church on Ely Place, in Holborn, London. Dating back to between 1250 and 1290, it is one of the few surviving buildings in London from the reign of Edward I. The church, comprising an upper chapel and a crypt, both of which are actively used for Masses, baptisms, weddings, and funerals, is dedicated to Etheldreda, or Æthelthryth.

Etheldreda, was an Anglo-Saxon saint who founded a monastery at Ely in 673. From its inception until 1570 this ancient church was the town chapel of the Bishops of Ely's London residence. It then briefly served as an embassy chapel for the Spanish Ambassador in the early 17th century, becoming a place where prosecuted English Catholics could worship safely. Today, it welcomes all.

St Etheldreda's Church 3
- Eric Parker

The History of St Etheldreda's Church

Mediaeval to Tudor Era

St Etheldreda’s Church was built in 1290 by John De Kirkeby, Bishop of Ely and Treasurer of England under Edward I. Holborn was chosen due to its convenience during parliamentary sessions in London. The estate, once spanning 58 acres, included a palace, orchards, vineyards, and gardens. Figures like John, Earl of Warenne, who swore his loyalty to Edward II in the church, and John O’Gaunt were connected to St Etheldreda’s, the latter of whom Shakespeare immortalised in "Richard II". The Black Prince also celebrated the Feast of Trinity here in 1357.

During the reign of Henry VIII, St. Etheldreda’s Church was affected by the Reformation. The King's quest for an annulment from Catherine of Aragon led to the creation of the Church of England, severing ties with Rome. The period saw the execution of many who opposed the King, including Prior John Houghton and his fellow Carthusian monks. However, despite the English Reformation, the Bishops of Ely continued to oversee the chapel, which had become used for Anglican worship.

St Etheldreda's Church 4
- Kate Tann

The Elizabethan Period and Catholic Persecution

Under Elizabeth I, the persecution of Catholics intensified, even though, to gain her crown she had sworn to her half sister Queen Mary, daughter of Catherine of Aragorn, that she was Catholic. After Mary’s death Queen Elizabeth I made herself Governor of the Church in England, but to support Catholic practices was to admit that she was illegitimate and she was not prepared to do that.

Therefore, Elizabeth and her Chief Minister William Cecil shortly continued her father’s destruction of the church. Taking mass would result in hanging—and all Catholic priests or supporters, including Swithin Wells who allowed Father Edmund Gennings to hold mass at his home, were executed for their faith. Today, statues along each side of the upper chapel at St Etheldreda’s honour the martyrs of the time, men and women who remained loyal to their faith.

In 1576, Sir Christopher Hatton, favoured by Elizabeth, acquired a lease on a section of the lands and house surrounding St Etheldreda's from Bishop Cox. The rent cost just £10, a few loads of hay, and one red rose a year. He then built Hatton House and took over the gardens. During his lease part of the crypt, or undercroft, of St. Etheldreda's served as a tavern, disrupting the church services above.

St Etheldreda's Church 8
- David Sheales

The Stuarts and Civil War

The Spanish Ambassador, the Count of Gondomar, resided at the Bishop’s Palace on Ely Place from 1620, and James I allowed mass to be held at St. Etheldreda’s Church once more. In spite of the dangers, more people attended mass here than anywhere else at the time.

When James I wanted his son Charles to marry the Infanta of Spain he released all imprisoned Catholics throughout England. However, as soon as negotiations for the marriage match broke down, the Spanish Ambassador left and mass was no longer held at St Etheldreda’s.

During the Civil War, the church was reclaimed and used as a prison and hospital. Bishop Matthew Wren, imprisoned for his "Popish practices," attempted to reclaim the Ely lands from the Hatton family but to no avail. In a good twist of fate the Great Fire of London that ravaged the city in 1666 spared St Etheldreda’s Church, with the winds changing just as the fire was approaching.

St Etheldreda's Church 5
- Fr Lawrence Lew, O.P.

18th Century Decline

By the 18th century, the Bishops of Ely had allowed Ely Place to deteriorate. An Act of Parliament in 1772 allowed the site to be sold to the Crown, leading to the construction of Georgian houses and the modernisation of the chapel. During this period London became overcrowded, it went from housing 40,000 people to over 3 million and the landscape quickly reflected that growth. The big herb gardens and vineyards that once surrounded St Etheldreda’s were now a thing of the past. The church was later used by the National Society for the Education of the Poor but fell into disuse.

Catholic Emancipation and Victorian Restoration

The Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829 allowed Catholics to worship openly once more. In 1873, Father William Lockhart of the Rosminians acquired St. Etheldreda’s for £5,400 and initiated extensive restoration work. During the renovation of the crypt and upper chapel, which was carried out by George Gilbert Scott, the remains of 18 victims from the Fatal Vespers of 1623 were discovered.

The restoration work was completed in 1878 and a Catholic Mass was celebrated in St Etheldreda’s for the first time in over 200 years. The upper chapel was opened a year later on 23rd June with the Feast of Saint Etheldreda.

By the mid-19th century, the town of Ely, with approximately 600 families, had a small Catholic community of about 30-40 people but no resident priest. The only missionary rector, Canon Thomas Quinlivan, was based in Cambridge. When the London to Norwich railway line opened in July 1845 it aided his occasional travels to St to celebrate mass in a private house.

St Etheldreda's Church 7
- Fr Lawrence Lew, O.P.

World War I and the American Connection

During the First World War, St Etheldreda’s Church gained a special place in the hearts of American soldiers passing through London on their way to and from the Western Front. This was because the Catholic Chapel at the United States Military Academy at West Point was modelled after St Etheldreda’s.

Post War in Ely Place

In 1925, the Royal Commission on Historical Monuments recognised St Etheldreda’s as particularly worthy of preservation, scheduling it as an ancient monument. At that time, Ely Place operated almost like an independent state under the jurisdiction of Ely, Cambridge, rather than London. Beadles guarded its entrance, closing the gates to strangers and even requiring police to seek permission to enter.

St Etheldreda's Church 1
- Fr Lawrence Lew, O.P.

World War II: Blitz and Reconstruction

The German bombing Blitz of World War II brought devastation to London, and St Etheldreda’s Church was no exception. A particularly destructive raid occurred on the nights of May 10th and 11th, 1941.

"St Etheldreda’s was hit by an explosive bomb which tore a hole in the original roof about six feet in diameter, stripped a good part of the tiling off the roof and sent three beams hurtling to the floor of the Church. The explosion also blew out what was left of the stained glass windows …a number of people were in the Crypt when the bomb fell but mercifully no one was injured."

Father Baines, the parish priest at the time.

After the war, it took seven years to repair the extensive bomb damage to St Etheldreda’s. A significant highlight of this restoration was the creation of the great East window by Joseph Edward (Eddie) Nuttgens, completed in 1952. This window features Christ enthroned as King, flanked by His mother Mary, St Joseph, St Etheldreda, and St Brighid, with the four Evangelists observing from above.

Survival and Restoration Through the Ages

The restoration efforts at St Etheldreda’s have been continuous. In the early 1990s, parts of the ancient stonework were found to be crumbling, necessitating an expenditure of £300,000 for further restoration. During archaeological digs in the pantry area, colourful Flemish tiles from the original 13th-century cloister were uncovered, adding to the richness of the site.

St Etheldreda's Church
- Fr Lawrence Lew, O.P.

St Etheldreda’s Literary Connections

Charles Dickens vividly depicted the slums surrounding St Etheldreda's Church in his novels, with characters like the Artful Dodger and David Copperfield making their way to Ely Place. The church also holds a significant place in Shakespearean lore, as it is here that John of Gaunt is said to have made his famous speech, "This blessed plot, this Earth, this realm, this England."

Visiting St Etheldreda’s Today

Today, St Etheldreda's remains a busy parish and a cherished part of London’s national heritage. It continues to serve the purpose for which it was built over 700 years ago, offering daily Mass and welcoming visitors from around the world. The church is open to visitors from 8 am to 5 pm Monday to Saturday, and from 8 am to 12:30 pm on Sundays, providing an opportunity to explore this ancient and sacred space.

St Etheldreda's Church 2
- Eric Parker

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What you need to know

St Etheldreda's Church
14 Ely Place, London EC1N 6RY
51.518784, -0.107340
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