St. Dunstan-in-the-West has a long and illustrious history. Visitors are often struck by how St. Dunstan’s differs in appearance and style to other Anglican churches. The church looks traditionally Neo-Gothic on the outside, yet is octagonal inside.
Dunstan was one of the foremost saints of Anglo-Saxon England: he was also one of the most venerated before the cult of St Thomas Becket took hold of the popular imagination. He was born in 909 and was taught by Irish monks at Glastonbury Abbey, Somerset, where he developed a reputation as a formidable scholar. He also learnt metalworking, and was later adopted as the patron saint of Goldsmiths. Dunstan became a companion to King Aethelstan’s stepbrothers, Edmund and Eadred, although he was banished after the king died in 939. He then lived at Glastonbury as a hermit, before being appointed Abbot there in 945. He was appointed as the Bishop of Worcester and then the Bishop of London, before being elected Archbishop of Canterbury in 960. Dunstan sought peace with the Danes and promoted monastic living, as well as establishing the library at Canterbury Cathedral, where he was buried in 988. St Dunstan’s feast day is the 19th May and is still celebrated at this church.
The Original Church
The original St Dunstan-in-the-West stood on the same site as today, spilling in the past onto what is now the tarmac of Fleet Street. It is not known exactly when the original church was built, but it was between 988 and 1070 AD. It is not impossible that St Dunstan himself, or priests who knew him well, decreed that a church was needed here. The church narrowly escaped the Great Fire of London in 1666. The quick thinking of the Dean of Westminster saved the church: he roused forty scholars from Westminster School in the middle of the night, who extinguished the flames with buckets of water.
The Church is Rebuilt
The wear and tear of time took its toll, however, and St Dunstan’s was rebuilt in 1831. The architect, John Shaw, died in 1832, leaving his son, who bore the same name, to complete the task. The tower was badly damaged by German bombers in 1944, and was rebuilt in 1950 through the generosity of newspaper magnate Viscount Camrose. In 1952, St Dunstan-in-the-West became a Guild Church, dedicating its ministry to the daytime working population around Fleet Street.
The Church Today
The Clock and Giants
St Dunstan-in-the-West was a well-known landmark in previous centuries because of its magnificent clock. This dates from 1671, and was the first public clock in London to have a minute hand. The figures of the two giants strike the hours and quarters, and turn their heads. There are numerous literary references to the clock, including in Tom Brown’s Schooldays, the Vicar of Wakefield and a poem by William Cowper (1782):
When labour and when dullness, club in hand,
Like the two figures at St. Dunstan’s stand,
Beating alternately in measured time
The clockwork tintinnabulum of rhyme,
Exact and regular the sounds will be,
But such mere quarter-strokes are not for me.
The courtyard also contains statues of King Lud, the mythical sovereign, and his sons and Queen Elizabeth I, all of which originally stood in Ludgate. The statue of Queen Elizabeth I dates from 1586 and is the only one known to have been carved during her reign. (Please note: we regret that, due to building works, the statue of Queen Elizabeth I is not on view until the autumn of 2013.)
Inside the Church
Much of the internal fabric pre-dates the rebuilding of the church in the 1830s. The high altar and reredos are Flemish woodwork dating from the seventeenth century. There are also a large number of monuments from the original
church. Some of the earliest are two bronze figures thought to date from 1530.
The original church has an organ dating from 1674-75 made by Renatus Harris. However, none of the original parts are likely to have remained as over the years it has had to be entirely rebuilt. Much of the present organ dates from 1834, when a Joseph Robson organ was bought at the same time as the Church was being rebuilt. Many distinguished organists have played here, including John Reading, the composer of Adeste Fideles, who died in 1764. Handel was even invited to play here, although whether the great composer ever accepted the invitation remains unknown.
The Romanian Orthodox Church
As well as being an Anglican church, the building of St Dunstan’s is home to the Romanian Orthodox Church in London. The beautiful iconostasis (altar screen) was brought here from a monastery in Bucharest in 1966.
St Dunstan-in-the-West is home to the Anglican and Eastern Churches Association, and is a centre of prayer for Christian Unity. It is therefore appropriate that the side chapels contain altars dedicated to various traditions, including the Lutheran Church in Berlin (EKD). There is also an altar of the Oriental Churches (Armenian, Coptic, Ethiopian, Syrian, Syro-Indian) and a shrine of the Lutheran and Reformed Churches. St Dunstan’s continues in its special role of promoting good relations with Churches outside the Anglican Communion, including through its role as the Diocese of London’s Church for Europe.
Other Famous Connections
The poet John Donne held the benefice here from 1624-31, while he was Dean of St Paul’s. William Tyndale, who pioneered the translation of the Bible into English, was a lecturer here. The famous diarist Samuel Pepys worshipped here a number of times. Lord Baltimore, who founded the State of Maryland in the USA, was buried here in 1632, as was his son. The church has been associated with the Worshipful Company of Cordwainers (old English for shoemakers) since the fifteenth century. Once a year the company holds a service here to commemorate the benefactors John Fisher and Richard Minge, after which children used to be given a penny for each time they ran around the church!
The Hoare Bank
The church has long had an association with C. Hoare and Co., whose bank has been situated opposite the church since 1690. The Hoare family donated the four stained glass windows behind the high altar and the carved canopies of the altar-piece. The windows show Archbishop Lanfranc; St Dunstan beside a roaring furnace into which he has thrust his pincers ready to pull a devil’s nose; St. Anselm and Archbishop Langton with King John at the signing of Magna Carta. Members of the Hoare family, as well as being generous benefactors, have maintained a tradition of service as churchwardens over the centuries. Two have been Lord Mayors of London and a family vault still lies in the church crypt.
The staple of Victorian penny shockers, the story of Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, stalks the no-man’s land between urban myth and historical fact. According to some sources, Todd, a barber, tooth-puller and surgeon, did actually exist, and in 1785 set up shop at 186 Fleet Street. It is claimed that he murdered over 100 of his clients, before selling their flesh on to Margery Lovett, who owned a pie shop in nearby Bell Yard!
A booklet outlining St. Dunstan’s history in more detail, compiled by Robbie Millen, is available from the back of the church (price: £2.50 – please put money in the Church of England donations box)
Life and Times of St Dunstan in the West, Sylvia I. Bogdanescu, St Dunstan-in-the-West Guild Church Cncl, 1986
Dunstan – Saint and Statesman, Douglas Dales, 1999
St Dunstan: His Life, Times and Cult, Nigel Ramsay et al, 1992
Shepherd and Servant: the Spiritual Legacy of St Dunstan, Douglas Dales, 2001
Literary References to St Dunstan-in-the-West
The Diary of Samuel Pepys: 1662 and 1667
Tom Brown’s Schooldays, Thomas Hughes
The London Spy (Studies in Literature, 1500-1800), Ned Ward
The Vicar of Wakefield, Oliver Goldsmith
The Fortunes of Nigel, Sir Walter Scott
Barnaby Rudge and David Copperfield”, Charles Dickens
Elia and the Last Essays of Elia, Charles Lamb
The Compleat Angler, Izaak Walton (originally published in St Dunstan’s churchyard in 1653)