After many months of arranging, I finally managed to access St Andrew Undershaft, which is located in St Mary Axe, at the foot of the Swiss Re building, aka The Gherkin. This early 16C church is normally closed to the public, but the good people of St Helen’s Bishopsgate, who administer the building, kindly gave me and three fellow historians the run of the place for well over an hour. It is not especially remarkable as old churches go, but is notable for a number of reasons: it is one of the few surviving pre-Restoration churches in the City; it survived the Great Fire of London, the Blitz and an IRA bomb in 1992. But most important of all, it was the parish church of John Stow, who in 1598 published the Survey of London, an invaluable document which tells us much about life in late-Tudor London. He is commemorated in an alabaster monument to the left of the altar, holding a quill pen. The quill is replaced every three years in a solemn ceremony run by the Merchant Taylor’s Company. The next service is on 6 April in a few weeks’ time.
Like many of the City’s churches, there is the business of the strange name. The shaft that the church was under was, in medieval times, an adjacent may pole, which by all accounts was huge, possibly taller than the church tower. Festivals were celebrated here until in 1517, the apprentices of London staged a violent riot at the site and the City authorities had the pole removed. It eventually perished entirely the following century when the Puritan administration of the Commonwealth ordered it cut up and burned, it having pagan rather than Christian significance.