Sunday, August 16, 2009

Shakespeare's Churches

Saint Andew By The Wardrobe, London

When he was working in London, William Shakespeare mostly worshipped at just two churches because of their proximity to his theatres and whilst I was in London last week, I made a point of visiting both of them. The more famous is Southwark Cathedral which was just a short walk from the Globe Theatre, or as the church was known then, St. Saviours. The present building has been repaired and reconstructed a few times since the 16th century, the nave having been replaced at least twice, which means, like the best medieval churches, the history of the place is held within the fabric of its structure.

The church had an uneasy connection with local actors; though it was the place were the company worshipped (their names appearing on the parish registers and many would be buried within its walls) the chaplains would denounce the theatre from the pulpit. These days, it’s this connection which is the main tourist feature, and Shakespeare is commemorated by a monument in the south aisle, above which is a stained glass window depicting scenes from the plays including a very resolute Hamlet. There’s also a plaque offering thanks to Sam Wanamaker, whose determination led to the Globe reconstruction just down the Thames.

When Shakespeare and company decamped to Blackfriars Theatre (set up in a monastry), their church became St Andrew-by-the-Wardrobe. Its curious name derives from a house purchased by Edward III in 1361 which he used as the storehouse for his accoutrements, the “Royal Wardrobe”. That original church, the one Shakespeare would have known (and the wardrobe) were destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666. The shell of what exists now was one of the fifty-one baroque churches designed by Sir Christopher Wren in its wake, the interior a 1950s reconstruction after the original was gutted during the Blitz (in 1940).

Off the main road, hardly sign-posted, it’s not an easy place to find; by then Leo, or the person with the sense of direction, had gone home, and I took a few false turns and was given directions to the wrong church before I gave in and caught a taxi with a driver who only had a vague notion. As you can see from the photograph, it’s a forbidding place, the kind of gloomy edifice you’d expect to see an Ingmar Bergman film when the main character (played by Max Von Sydow) is falling out of love with God and is clamouring for answers but finds none. Look at this crucifix which is in the grounds. I can’t imagine you’d find much comfort here:

Crucifix at Saint Andew By The Wardrobe, London

But them I’m not a religious person, and I know that people visit churches for different reasons. Perhaps the interior is different; though the church is closed during August, I was able to glance inside a bit, and saw some rather jolly wood panelling and the impression that as with many baroque churches, there is more than initially meets the eye. Like Westminster Cathedral, this could be another of London's secrets waiting to be rediscovered.

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