Tuesday, July 22, 2014

St Giles' Cripplegate

St Giles' Cripplegate is one of the few remaining medieval churches in the City of London and, after surviving devastating bombing during the Blitz, it sits at the heart of the modern Barbican development. It is thought that there has been a church on this spot for one thousand years. We know nothing about the early Saxon church, which was probably a little chantry or chapel made of wattle and daub. In 1090, a Norman church stood on this site, built by Alfune, Bishop of London, who afterwards assisted Rahere, the founder of nearby St Bartholomew's, in building the neighbouring church of St Bartholomew the Great.



Some time during the Middle Ages, the church was dedicated to St Giles. The church's full name is "St Giles' without Cripplegate". The name "Cripplegate" refers to one of the gates through the old City wall, which had its origins in Roman times as a fortification to protect the Roman city from attackers. There is no definitive explanation of the origin of the word 'Cripplegate'. It is thought unlikely that it is referring to cripples, although no doubt there would have been plenty of cripples by the Cripplegate, wanting alms from travellers as they entered and left the City. It is more likely that the word comes from the Anglo-Saxon "cruplegate" which means a covered way or tunnel, which would have run from the town gate of Cripplegate to the Barbican, a fortified watchtower on the City wall.



Sections of the old wall can still be seen near the church. The foundations are generally Roman but higher up, the structure dates from various times as it was regularly strengthened and rebuilt. In 1760 the Cripplegate, which up till then had been used as a storehouse and a prison, was sold to a carpenter in Coleman Street for £91 (a huge amount at that time). The church was situated outside the wall at the Cripplegate, hence its name of "St Giles' without Cripplegate". As the population of the parish increased, the church was enlarged and it was rebuilt in the Perpendicular Gothic style in 1394, during the reign of Richard II. The stone tower was added in 1682. The church was damaged by fire on three occasions – in 1545, 1897 and 1940.



St. Giles is thought to have been a hermit, who lived in southern France in the 7th century AD: his feast day is 1 September. He is traditionally depicted with a hind and there are various stories as to why that should be so. According to a 10th-century biography, Giles was an Athenian from a wealthy family who gave away his inherited wealth, fled to France and made himself a hermitage in a forest near the mouth of the Rhone, where, we are told, he lived on herbs and the milk of a hind. This retreat was finally discovered by the hunters of the King of the Franks (one version gives the King's name as Flavius Wamba, another as Charles Martel), who had pursued the hind to its place of refuge. An arrow shot at the deer wounded Giles instead, as he put out his hand to protect the deer and was himself speared by the arrow. The king was so impressed by Giles' holiness that he built him a monastery on the site of the hermitage and made Giles its first abbot.

Giles later became the patron saint of cripples, beggars and blacksmiths. We are told that Giles was one of the most popular saints of Western Europe in the later middle ages. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church describes Giles as one of the 14 Auxiliary Saints or "Holy Helpers", venerated for the supposed efficacy of their prayers on behalf of those in need.

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