Friday, 9 July 2010

Who's This Young Whipper-Snapper? And of St Etheldreda's Chapel

The photograph is of me in the Davies & Son morning dress, at a wedding reception in the crypt of St Etheldreda's Roman Catholic Chapel, in Ely Place, off High Holborn (the photograph is dated 1995). The Chapel is named after Saint and Queen, Etheldreda of East Anglia, who lived in the seventh century AD. It was the Chapel of the Bishops of Ely, between 1250 and 1570. It is the oldest Roman Catholic Church in England and one of only two buildings in London dating from the reign of Edward I (the other is parts of the Tower of London). The current structure was built in 1290 and was part of the See of Ely and therefore outside the jurisdiction of the Lord Mayor of London. It originally comprised a Chapel, palace and house and estate where saffron (commemorated in nearby Saffron Hill) and strawberries were cultivated. It was in Ely House that Shakespeare had John O'Gaunt make his famous speech, in Richard II:

"This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle,
This Earth of majesty, this seat of Mars....
This blessed plot, this Earth, this realm, this England."

The delightful Mitre Tavern (in a court off Hatton Garden), dates from 1546 and (after remodelling of the building), built into it is a cherry tree which marked the boundary of lands let by the Bishop of Ely to Sir Christopher Hatton (one of London's first property developers) and legend has it that Queen Elizabeth danced around this tree.

After the bloody reformation, Roman Catholic masses were banned and it was not until the Spanish Ambassador took Ely House and the Chapel as his residence in 1620, that such services were held there again (legally on Spanish soil). The Great Fire of London missed the Chapel in 1666 (as, although hit, it also substantially survived the 1940 Nazi Blitz), and for a while it served as an Anglican Church. Roman Catholic Emancipation was provided for in an Act of Parliament in 1829 and, in 1873, despite the fact that a Welsh tycoon was bidding for the building, with unlimited funds, there was a happy confusion at the auction and the building was sold back to its founders. St Etheldreda's re-opened for Roman Catholic worship in 1878. It is, unsurprisingly, listed as an ancient monument but, for many people, it remains one of London's hidden gems.