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Camden’s medieval churches: Landmarks to rival Westminster?

PUBLISHED: 16:52 20 December 2018

St Pancras Old Church. Picture: Wikimedia Commons

St Pancras Old Church. Picture: Wikimedia Commons

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When you think of London’s most striking medieval architecture it can be easy to consider Westminster Abbey and ignore gems further north, but Dr Ellie Pridgeon reckons Camden has ecclesiastical history – some still standing – that blows Westminster out of the water.

A map of St Giles' leper hospital from 1585. Picture:  Courtesy of Camden Local Studies and Archives CentreA map of St Giles' leper hospital from 1585. Picture: Courtesy of Camden Local Studies and Archives Centre

Dr Pridgeon splits her time between teaching at the University of Leicester and consulting for the Camden Local Studies and Archives Centre (CLSAC) in Holborn.

At a talk at the Theobalds Street centre last week she told the audience of three particularly impressive Camden examples.

Speaking to the Ham&High, Dr Pridgeon described three sites of special interest – one that has been built on, one that remains in small part, and another that is thankfully still standing.

The building lost to the ravages of time is the St Giles leper hospital, which stood where the church of St Giles-in-the-Fields now is in Holborn.

St Pancras Old Church, pictured in 1800. Picture: Courtesy of Camden Local Studies and Archives CentreSt Pancras Old Church, pictured in 1800. Picture: Courtesy of Camden Local Studies and Archives Centre

“It was founded by Queen Matilda, of course back then it was really in the fields, not in the heart of London, which is important given it was a lepers’ hospital and people wouldn’t want that next to homes.

“Giles was was the patron saint of lepers, so lots of leper hospitals in the medieval period were dedicated to him.”

The old hospital was a grand building, Dr Pridgeon explained, but after it was turned into a monastery, Henry VIII’s famous dissolution spelled trouble.

The chapel remained as a parish church, but was built over in the 17th century.

Ely House. Picture: Courtesy of Camden Local Studies and Archives CentreEly House. Picture: Courtesy of Camden Local Studies and Archives Centre

One of the medieval treasures that eagle-eyed Camden visitors can still see is the chapel of St St Etheldreda’s Church in Ely Place.

The chapel is all that survives of a grand estate that once stood on the site in the far south of Camden.

Dr Pridgeon added: “It was built in about 1290. It was part of the parish of the Bishop of Ely,.

“It was ruled separately from the City of London. The rest of estate was pulled down at the end of the 18th century.”

And why did the rest of the estate fail to stand the test of time?

Dr Pridgeon explained the reason would be familiar to Camden’s modern-day planners: it was about finding space for housing.

She said: “After the reformation in the 16th century there was not much church building going on. and in the 17th and 18th century, with the expansion of London, lots of sites like St Ethel’s were built on for private housing.”

One of the more garlanded medieval sites in Camden still stands in St Pancras.

Although many of its medieval features have disappeared, Dr Pridgeon said St Pancras Old Church still captures the imagination.

A wall there bears incredible hallmarks of medieval design.

Dr Pridgeon added a number of rounded arches on the north wall of the building are well worth seeing.

She said: “It’s probably the best known.

“There’s quite a lot of the medieval building left there. It goes back to about the Norman conquest.”

Elsewhere in the borough, there are buildings that speak to the vast range of what was built.

“I also spoke of the other buildings,” said the historian. “Kilburn Priory for example is a wonderful building.

“In terms of London, particularly at St Ethel’s, the architecture is on a scale that rivals Westminster Abbey.

“And it’s under the radar, perhaps because it’s not always open to the public so it can be difficult to get into.”

Having extant medieval churches to gawp at is less common than you might imagine in London.

Dr Pridgeon added: “Quite a lot of the medieval churches in London, especially in the east, were caught up in the great fire, or have otherwise disappeared.

“Camden is lucky. I think, to have these two really important buildings in it.

“It’s almost as impressive, maybe more impressive, than Westminster Abbey, which is of course the key surviving medieval building in London that everyone knows about!”

The Camden Archives holds a number of historical talks each month, while it is currently home to an exhibition charting the development of Highgate Cemetery. Find it above Holborn Library at 32-38 Theobalds Road, London.

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