Historic Places: St Helen’s Church

Hello, dear readers! You will recognize my guest today, because she has been here before. One of my favorite book series is by the fabulous Toni Mount, and she is here to talk about the newest installment, The Colour of Bone. If you haven’t fallen in love with Seb Foxely yet, it’s time for you to start this series!

Welcome, Toni!

~ Samantha


St Helen’s Church, Bishopsgate: Life and Death in Tudor London

Guest Post by Toni Mount

This blog evolved following a research trip to St Helen’s Church in Bishopsgate, checking out details and searching for inspiration for my next Sebastian Foxley Medieval Murder Mystery, The Colour of Bone. St Helen’s and its near neighbour, St Andrew’s Undershaft – ‘undershaft’ refers to the maypole kept at this church in medieval and Tudor times ready for the annual May Day celebrations – having survived the Great Fire of London in 1666 and the Blitz of World War II, were both badly damaged by terrorist bombings twice in the 1990s but remain as the two medieval churches in the city still in use today.

St Helen’s in particular has a wealth of history and is said to be second only to Westminster Abbey in the number of funerary monuments it contains. It is these monuments which have some intriguing stories to tell concerning those who lived – and died – in Bishopsgate in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. 

View of St Helen’s Church with its gigantic neighbours,
taken from the ‘churchyard’ [GRM 2022]
Today, St Helen’s is overshadowed by the modern tower-blocks of the Gherkin and the Cheese-grater and isn’t far from the Shard but, even five centuries ago, its nearest neighbour was reckoned the most imposing secular building in London: Crosby Place. St Helen’s churchyard is now paved over and a solitary tomb stands there, that of a jeweller, Robert Dingley, dated to 1741.
Inside St Helen’s, there is a superb monument tomb of Sir John Crosby and his first wife, Agnes. He is in armour with a Yorkist Suns-and-Roses collar and she wears a fashionable late fifteenth-century headdress with her lap-dogs at her feet. Agnes had predeceased Sir John in 1460 and he designed their joint tomb. 
The tomb of Sir John and Agnes Crosby
in St Helen’s Church [GRM 2022]

Sir John also bequeathed 500 marks to St Helen’s Church, money which was used to redesign the interior of the nave. The church had a double nave: the original parish nave and, to the north, a second, parallel nave exclusively for the nuns, constructed in the early thirteen century when William Goldsmith founded the Benedictine convent next door. A row of arches and a screen shielded the nuns from the common folk but Sir John’s bequest was used to build taller, more elegant arches and a new screen in 1480. [This rebuild is the first crime scene in The Colour of Bone.]
Sir John’s four new arches viewed from the Nun’s Choir [GRM 2022]

In 1538, St Helen’s Priory was surrendered to King Henry VIII, along with all other abbeys, priories and religious houses at the Dissolution of the Monasteries. However, because the church was also the parish church, it was left intact.  
A near-neighbour in Bishopsgate was Sir Thomas Gresham. He was Queen Elizabeth I’s financial whizz and built the Royal Exchange – which he’d intended to name The Gresham Exchange but the queen had other ideas. Even so, Sir Thomas’s badge of the Grasshopper was all over the building and is also on his grand tomb in St Helen’s Church. After his death in 1579, in his will, Sir Thomas left money to set up and pay for Gresham College as a London institute of learning which still exists today as the Gresham Institute.
Sir Thomas Gresham’s marble tomb in St Helen’s Church [GRM 2022]

Other important citizens and Tudors of note buried in St Helen’s include Sir Andrew Judd who was Lord Mayor in 1550-51 and died in 1558. Sir William Pickering was Queen Elizabeth’s Ambassador to Spain who died in 1574. He also has a splendid marble tomb with his effigy and an elaborate canopy, all protected by wrought iron railings.
Sir William Pickering’s effigy lies secure behind railings [GRM 2022]

Another man of interest, although he only has a wall-mounted plaque, is Captain Martin Bond. He lived until 1643, so his monument isn’t Tudor, but in 1588, at the time of the Spanish Armada, he was the commander of London’s Trained Bands – a sort of Elizabethan Home Guard – based at Tilbury in Essex. It seems likely that Bond may have heard Queen Elizabeth making her famous speech to the troops there: ‘I have the heart and stomach of a king, etc’.
Despite the Cavalier fashions, Capt Bond in his tent with the army (1643) [GRM 2022]

Another man of note at St Helen’s is Sir Julius Caesar Adelmare – what a name! He was Master of the Rolls to Queen Elizabeth and lived on to become a Privy Counsellor to King James I, dying in 1636. His wall-mounted monument shows a legal document with the seal broken off in which he has promised to ‘pay the debt of nature’ as soon as God pleases. The debt is, of course, ‘death’, so having died, Sir Julius has fulfilled the agreement and the document becomes obsolete, as shown by the broken seal.
Sir Julius Caesar Adelmare’s fulfilled agreement with God [GRM 2022]

Despite all these grand tombs and intriguing monuments, the prize for the tomb that tells the most fascinating story must go to Sir John Spencer and his family. Sir John was another wealthy merchant in the textile trade – so wealthy that they called him Rich Spencer, making his money from trade with Spain, Venice and Turkey. In 1591, he came under suspicion of becoming extraordinary rich … by falsifying and monopolising of all manner of commodities
Being wealthy had its dangers and a story is told later of a plot by a Dunkirk pirate to abduct Spencer and hold him to ransom for £50,000. Leaving his ship with six of his men in Barking Creek, the pirate and the other six crew members made for Islington, intending to seize Spencer on his way to his country house at Canonbury. Luckily for him, the merchant was detained in London on business and the plot came to nothing. How the failed plan became known isn’t revealed but it was recorded in Vanity of the Lives and Passions of Men, published in 1651, long after the event, if it actually happened at all. Queen Elizabeth is said to have visited Spencer at his Canonbury estate in 1581.
In 1583-84, Spencer served as one of the two Sheriffs of London and was required to search out papists in the Holborn area. Among those he arrested were Antonio Bassano and his colleagues, the Queen’s Musicians. He had a lot of explaining to do in this case. Spencer served as Lord Mayor of London in 1594-95. Obviously, his falsifying and monopolising didn’t hold back his political career. At the time, he was living at Crosby Place, although it had needed expensive renovation before it was smart enough to be the Lord Mayor’s official residence. John Stow described Crosby Place in 1598, in his Survey of London as ‘of stone and timber, very large and beautiful and the highest in London’, so Spencer succeeded.
Spencer didn’t have an easy term as mayor. Following years of poor harvests, that of 1594 failed badly and England suffered famine. Spencer managed to persuade the City Companies to send any spare grain in their warehouses to Bridge House, on London Bridge, for distribution to the poor and starving. Hearing of this grain store, Admiral Sir John Hawkins tried to requisition Bridge House and its supplies for the use of the queen’s navy and baking ship’s biscuits for the fleet. Spencer refused and managed to keep the grain to feed the poor. The queen must have approved his actions because she knighted him soon after.
His only child by his wife, Alice Bromfield, [who shares his tomb] was a daughter, Elizabeth, and she has another story to tell. In 1598, William, Lord Compton, proposed marriage to Elizabeth but her father refused to allow the match. Compton used his powerful friends at court and had Spencer arrested and thrown into the Fleet Prison, accused of ill-treating his daughter – we don’t know if he did treat her badly or whether it was a trumped-up charge. Compton then resorted to desperate measures to secure his beloved, having her smuggled out of Canonbury House in a large baker’s basket used for carrying loaves. The couple wed immediately but her father withheld Elizabeth’s dowry, unsurprisingly, and refused to forgive her elopement, even when she gave birth to his first grandchild in 1601. Fortunately, reconciliation was brought about by no lesser person than Queen Elizabeth herself. 
Sir John continued to serve in a civic capacity into the reign of James I, serving as President of St Bartholomew’s Hospital from 1603 until his death ‘at an advanced age’ in March 1610. His wife died just three weeks later and both rest in St Helen’s most colourful tomb. His funeral was sumptuous, his fortune estimated to be between £500,000 and £800,000 – a sum so vast that the inheritance was said to have ‘turned the brain’ of his son-in-law, Lord Compton, temporarily. However, despite such wealth, Spencer bequeathed nothing to the city or people of London. 
The Spencer Tomb [GRM 2022]

His and Lady Alice’s tomb shows the fashionable Elizabethan couple in full colour with their repentant daughter, Elizabeth, kneeling at their feet, wearing a French farthingale. Their monument, severely damaged by the bomb-blasts of the 1990s, was fully restored from photographs, including the paintwork. The whole is topped by a skull and an hourglass as a memento mori. That concludes my tour of the church where the dead of long ago rest in peace. 
[This article first appeared in Tudor Life magazine]
In my new novel, St Helen’s isn’t the peaceful haven in the midst of a noisy city that it is today because it’s a building site. Neither are the nuns contemplative quiet souls. All is not as it should be… and you can discover what’s going on in Seb Foxley’s latest medieval murder mystery, The Colour of Bone.

It’s May 1480 in the City of London. 

When workmen discover the body of a nun in a newly-opened tomb, Seb Foxley, a talented artist and bookseller is persuaded to assist in solving the mystery of her death when a member of the Duke of Gloucester’s household meets an untimely end. Evil is again abroad the crowded, grimy streets of medieval London and even in the grandest of royal mansions.
Some wicked rogue is setting fires in the city and no house is safe from the hungry flames. Will Seb and his loved ones come to grief when a man returns from the dead and Seb has to appear before the Lord Mayor?
Join our hero as he feasts with royalty yet struggles to save his own business and attempts to unravel this latest series of medieval mysteries. 
Get your copy of The Colour of Bone on Amazon US or UK!
Or start the Seb Foxely series at the beginning with
The Colour of Poison on Amazon US or UK.

Toni Mount is a best-selling author of medieval non-fiction books. She is the creator of the Sebastian Foxley series of medieval murder mysteries and her work focuses on the ordinary lives of fascinating characters from history. She has a first class honours degree from the Open University and a Master degree by research from the University of Kent however her first career was as a scientist which brings an added dimension to her writing. Her detailed knowledge of the medieval period helps her create believable characters and realistic settings based on years of detailed study. 

Connect with Toni at ToniMount.com.