Down Your Alley: Guildhall Yard

Peering around the east end of the church of St Lawrence Jewry brings into view one of London’s most distinguished buildings; this is Guildhall Yard and directly ahead is the Guildhall itself. For near on a thousand years the governing body of the City.

The present Hall is of the early 14th century but the sparkling white south frontage, added in 1789, is the work of George Dance the younger.

[H]IGH ABOVE the central doorway, between two soaring pilasters, is the Arms of the City; a shield bearing the cross of St George, in the left upper quarter is the sword of St Paul, patron saint of this great City of London. On either side, the supporting dragons rest on the scrolled motto: ‘Domine dirige nos’ which means O Lord guide us.

Through the gothic doorway is the partly medieval Great Hall, restored in 1670 after being seriously damaged in 1666. As the Great Fire swept its course through the alleys and courts to the east it quickly took its toll on the tightly packed wooden houses of Guildhall Yard. Two taverns on the west side of the Yard, the Three Tuns and the White Lyon, closed their doors on the night of Monday, 3rd September and never opened again. Highly charged with fuel, it then attacked the Great Hall, but this was of solid stone and only the tremendous heat from without caused the ignition of the timbers within. Gog and Magog, the elaborately painted famous giants, fell casualty and were reduced to ashes. Saved from the flames were the treasured historic records of the City; they were stored in the heavily armoured stone crypt beneath the Hall.

Further restoration work was completed in 1866 by Sir Horace Jones who at the same time added a long-awaited new timber roof. For almost two centuries the outstanding architecture of the Hall had remained spoilt by a hideous flat roof; the design by Sir Horace was closely in keeping with that of the original and was crowned with a lantern and slender spire.

Unfortunately, it lasted for less than 80 years; destroyed in a 1940 air raid and repaired in 1954 by Sir Giles Scott, it now features a panelled ceiling and stone arches. After their fete in 1666, the two giants were remodelled and there stood firm until the tragic day in 1940 when they were so badly disfigured by fire. New figures were created by David Evans in 1953 and once again they stand ever watchful from their pedestals.

Today the Great Hall is used for Council meetings, conferences of importance to the City, it yearly hosts the gathering for the election of the Lord Mayor, it is the venue for many Corporation banquets, and in November of each year the Lord Mayor’s Banquet, attended by the Sheriffs of the City, members of the Cabinet, and the Prime Minister is held within these great walls. But it has not always been the scene of such splendid ceremonial; the Great Hall has also witnessed a fair share of the most tragic moments in history.

Here in 1554 was held the pointless trial of Lady Jane Grey, her fete already decided, and for assisting in her cause Thomas Cranmer was here found guilty and sentenced to his doom at Tyburn.

In 1546 the Protestant martyr Anne Askew was told of her end; frail from previous torture, she was too weak to stand and so had to be chained to the stake while her spectators, the Duke of Norfolk and the Lord Mayor watched the flames consume her body. Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, accused of stealing the coat-of-arms of Edward the Confessor for his own use, unsuccessfully attempted to defend his case and was sentenced to death on Tower Hill. There were much more and whilst the Hall of today is a cheerful place, it holds numerous sorrowful memories.

The modern Guildhall Library, to the west of the Great Hall, houses a collection of almost 150,000 books, pamphlets, and manuscripts dealing with every aspect of London, its history, and its inhabitants. If you need to delve deep into the antiquity of this fascinating City then look no further. The Library is open Monday to Friday, 09.30 – 17.00.

At the entrance to Guildhall Yard is the church of St Lawrence Jewry, standing on the site of an earlier church probably built in the 12th Century. In 1294 the patronage of the church was transferred to Balliol College, Oxford and the Master of the College still retains a stall in the front pew. The old church was burnt down in the Great Fire and rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren between 1671 and 1676 largely at the expense of Sir John Langham, Sheriff in 1642. Incorporated into the parish of the new church was the parish of St Mary Magdalene, Milk Street, also burnt down but never replaced. Extensive war damage in 1940 caused the church to be closed until the restoration was completed in 1957 by Cecil Brown.

With the exception of the eastern facade, the exterior is plain and architecturally uninspiring with a tower of similar character supporting a square pedestal and topped with a slender octagonal spire with weather-vane. The interior, however, is typically Wren and has a single aisle on the north side separated from the nave by Corinthian columns and a fine wooden screen. The panelled ceiling with flowers representing the gridiron of St Lawrence’s martyrdom is spectacular and the suspended ornate multi-armed chandeliers are all that we would expect. The oak reredos, containing a painting by the restorer, although new is of very fitting proportions. Remains of the old roof from the Guildhall have been worked to form the covering for the 17th-century font, a relic from Holy Trinity, Minories.

Since the Guildhall was deprived of its chapel in the 14th century St Lawrence Jewry has served as the official church of the City Corporation. The Lord Mayor has the privilege of a private pew, with sword rest, on the front row. A special service, attended by the retiring Lord Mayor, is held here every year prior to the election of his successor.

Featured images: Looking towards the Guildhall, looking down this tiled pavement towards the Guildhall and interior of the banqueting room in the Guildhall by Christine Matthews (CC BY-SA 2.0).

CabbieBlog-cabMuch of the original source material for Down Your Alley has been derived from Ivor Hoole’s GeoCities website. The site is now defunct and it is believed Ivor is no more. Thankfully much of Ivor’s work has been archived by Ian Visits and Phil Gyford.

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