My welcome to London this time includes fourteen days of “self-isolation.” The “self” part implies that it was of my own choosing. No, but under the shadow of the Covid-19 pandemic, I understand the reasons, and I complying.
I rented a small apartment in Covent Garden, on New Compton Street. It’s on the sixth floor. In the back, it has a balcony overlooking Shaftsbury Avenue, which has a respectable view.
In the front, overlooking New Compton Street, is a broader terrace, which is communal among the four apartments on the sixth floor, but everyone seems to have staked out the “turf” in front of their apartment with benches, chairs, and planters. To their credit, they have divided it equitably, and it encourages caretaking, so all in all, it works.
St. Giles-in-the-Fields, known as the Poets’ church, is in the London Borough of Camden in the West End, and is part of the Diocese of London, part of the Church of England. The present building was built between 1731-1733 in the Palladian style, the first Palladian style church in England.
The first recorded church on this site was a chapel attached to a monastery and leper hospital founded by Matilda of Scotland, wife of Henry I, in 1101. At that time, the hospital, monastery, and church were well outside the City of London, along the main road to Tyburn and Oxford.
During its first two hundred years, it was supported by the Crown and administered by the City of London, but this changed in 1299, when Edward I ordered that St. Giles would be administered by the “Military and Hospitaller Order of Saint Lazarus,” one of the chivalric orders that survived the Crusades. By 1539, leprosy had abated, and the monastery ministered to the indigent until closed by Henry VIII. Henry closed all monasteries that year, and took over whatever assets they held.
In 1547, the first rector was appointed, and “in-the-Fields” was added to the name. The church building was in deep disrepair, and the succeeding structure was Gothic in style, built 1623-1630 by the Duchess of Dudley.
Another hundred years, and that building was replaced with the current one, which is 290 years old. Apparently, maintenance has improved. It was a major site of burial for the Great Plague victims of the 17th century. Burials of the first victims were in 1665. By the end of the plague year, the poor parish of St. Giles listed 3,216 deaths from plague out of their 2,000 households. Can you imagine?
As for why it was known as the Poets’ Church, John Milton’s daughter, Mary, was baptized here in 1647. The online history of the church says that the children of Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Shelley were baptized here also. It didn’t give the year.
I was curious about the phrase, “the children of Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley,” so I did some research. It seems that Lord Byron fathered two daughters (no sons,) and the Shelleys had a daughter and a son. Lord Byron was married to Anne Isabella (Annabella) Milbanke. Anne was a highly educated and very religious woman, an English mathematician. Their daughter, Ada, was born in 1815. It was probably this child of Lord Byron that was baptized at St. Giles, although it does not specifically say so.
The church is still active, with, in normal times, a regular schedule of services. The Poetry Society holds their annual meeting in the Vestry House. No doubt, that contributes to the church’s nickname.
Saint Giles, the historical person, was a Greek Christian hermit from Athens, born in 650 AD. He spent most of his life in Provence and Septimania, France. He founded the abbey in Saint-Gilles-du-Gard, presumably named after his death in 710 AD. The tomb became a place of pilgrimage. His feast day is September 1.