A Holy Trinity

A walk through the City of London provides chance encounters with its deep history.

St Katherine Cree and 30 St Mary Axe. James Grady/Alamy.

With travel restricted and holidays on hold, many will have explored their localities anew during lockdown. Lucky are those with access to rural expanse, though urbanites can find rewards, too, in cityscapes altered, for better and worse, by the pandemic.

The City of London has long been a walker’s delight, with its quirky medieval street patterns revealing hidden treasures at every corner. Normally, such outings are confined to weekends, when the City’s manic energies are switched off. Now that every day is like Sunday, there is more time to reflect on a history dating back to Roman times.

My last wander through the City threw up a juxtaposition to savour. I had gone to look at St Katherine Cree, rebuilt in 1628 and consecrated in 1631 by the then Bishop of London, William Laud. Those dates are significant: in 1629, Charles I’s Personal Rule began, the king ruling without Parliament. Laud became his principal ally in the Church of England and his future Archbishop of Canterbury. The ‘catholic’ ritual of his services there, his ‘bowings and scrapings’, were lethally held against him by a Puritan Parliament in 1645.

At the other end of Creechurch Lane is a small plaque one might miss. It reads: ‘Site of First Synagogue After the Resettlement 1657-1701.’ England’s first Jewish community since the 13th century was given this site of worship by John Sadler, Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge, to whom the land belonged. Sadler was a Hebraist who argued for the return of Jews to Britain, believing their conversion would herald the establishment of Christ’s kingdom on earth. Oliver Cromwell, who had been the enemy of Laud and his king, employed Sadler as his secretary when he was Lord Protector and took a similar view on Jewish resettlement.

All this lies in the shadow of 30 St Mary Axe – the ‘Gherkin’ – and here lies a third wonder: the body of a Roman girl found during work on its foundations. She was reburied in its shade and an engraving – in clumsy English and, scholars tell me, elegant Latin – marks the site.  A deep history of contention, return and rest is to be found within yards of one another.