St Clement Danes Church is an isle of humility in a sea of architectural ostentation in the centre of London. This small church is surrounded by the grandiose eloquence of such buildings as Bush House, Australia House, the Law Courts and the London School of Economics. The church is actually centred on something that is little more than a traffic island on one of London's busiest thoroughfares which connects Fleet Street and Aldwych to the Strand.
The history of the name of the church is a little sketchy. Clement of Rome was Pope until 100 AD when the Emperor Trajan tied him to an anchor stone and threw him into the sea. For this reason he became the Patron Saint of Sailors. During the reign of King Alfred (871 - 899), England was incessantly ravaged by Danish seafarers, though some came to adopt the English way of life. Some believe that it was these Danes who built the church and adopted St Clement as patron due to their - and his - ties to the sea. They were to be known as the St Clement Danes. The church was dedicated to the Royal Air Force in the 1950s and holds daily prayers and memorial services for members of the air forces.
The church is not the only feature of this little corner of London. Indeed, you will be struck by three statues which face west onto the Strand. By far the largest of the three is the statue of Liberal Prime Minister Gladstone (1809 - 1898), who is surrounded by four statues representing courage, aspiration, brotherhood and education. Gladstone is famous for providing education to children and disestablishing the Church of Ireland. He was also a great opponent to the Victorian Age's other great PM, Disraeli.
If you look to the right of Gladstone you will see a smaller statue of - brace yourselves and take a deep breath - Air Chief Marshal Lord Dowding, Baron of Bentley Prior and Commander-in-Chief of the Fighter Command of the RAF. Such a pompous title belies the sterling character of one of the heroes of World War II. Dowding was responsible for preparing the British Air Force for the Battle of Britain by recognising the importance of radar. It is largely thanks to Dowding that the RAF remained united and wasn't torn apart by the various government departments requiring its services. His epithet reads:
To him the people of Britain and of the free world owe largely the way of life and the liberties they enjoy today.
To the left of Gladstone is one of the more controversial figures of RAF history - Sir Arthur 'Bomber' Harris, Commander-in-Chief of Bomber Command from 1942 to 1945. In the fight for freedom and the Battle of Britain, Bomber Command lost 55,000 men. It is maybe for this reason that the epithet under Bomber Harris addresses his team rather than their leader as it simply reads:
The Nation owes them all an immense debt.
Harris is the most revered (by veterans) and reviled (by pacifists) of the figures of the Second World War and was responsible for the flattening of Dresden, Germany. This polarity of affection is evidenced by the flowers and stickers that adorn his statue and the discussion he still generates today. Did Bomber Harris make the right decisions? That is a subject for another entry.
The two statues of the RAF heroes were sculpted by Faith Winter in the 1990s and unveiled by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother.
Behind the statues - and behind some pretty impressive trees - lies the church itself. Be careful when walking across to the church from the statues as there is a thoroughfare for taxis which pass through at frequent intervals and frightening speeds.
The original church was built on its present site in the 10th Century AD and was rebuilt by William the Conqueror after his successful invasion in the 11th Century. It was rebuilt, again, in the 14th Century, pulled down and is the only church outside the City of London to have been rebuilt by Wren (1681). The steeple was added in 1719 and the vast majority of the church was destroyed by German bombing in 1941, leaving the steeple and walls extant. The interior of the church was entirely rebuilt and dedicated to the RAF in 1958.
The Crypt Chapel
As you enter the church, you will see to your left a set of spiral stairs leading to the crypt chapel. For 284 years the crypt was the burial chamber for the church but in 1956, after the bombing and during the restoration, the remains of all those there were cremated and reinterred in the chapel. Their plaques now adorn the walls of the crypt chapel and are a chronicle of the first years of the Protestant faith, detailing as they do the lives of many families fleeing persecution from abroad - including a whole French family who were forced to flee during the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes (October 1685) by Louis XIV.
The Main Chapel
Heading back up the stairs and into the main chapel, the visitor is confronted with a view of elegant simplicity rarely witnessed in a church rebuilt in the 20th Century. There is light, there is charm and there is a sense of reverence that is lacking in so many churches in the City of London. This is the only Christopher Wren church that has a circular apse and when he designed it, he designed it with plain glass in mind. This feature has been maintained and as a result the space is bathed in light, is airy and does not suffer from the claustrophobia inherent in other churches and the gilt of the apse shines through.
Other survivors of the bombing are the cherubs adorning the apse and the pulpit. These were stowed in the crypt at St Paul's Cathedral (Wren's masterpiece which survived the raids) where, ironically enough, they sustained some superficial bomb damage. The cherubs stand at about a foot high and the pulpit is almost certainly the most ornate feature of the church, sporting an intricately carved panel. The pews, like the rest of the woodwork, are made of mahogany and sport a particularly groovy feature - they are telescopic. They can extend in order to seat a further ten people per pew.
Looking at the floor of the church, you will see hundreds of black badges of air forces around the world which form a beautifully classic and simple mosaic, contrasting against the white tiles. You can see which badge belongs to which regiment/air force by consulting the map which is located on a panel to the left of the exit. The big badge located at the entrance/exit is the Commonwealth Air Force logo. These badges are all reminders to future generations that there were many nationalities who battled for air supremacy during the Second World War. The church is a testament to their bravery.
Embedded in the walls of the church are the books of remembrance for the RAF personnel who died during the war. To consult the books in order, you need to start at the bottom left hand side of the church and work your way round. If you are looking for a relative, you can consult the hand manuals under each book or you can even ask the warden who is more than happy to help.
The other cabinets store silver and gold plate that has been given to the church by the families of those that have fallen in the various conflicts since aviation has played a role in warfare. Among the items you can see are:
- Rings and bibles of former priests
- A copy of the Tudor Rose Dish of St George's Chapel, Windsor
- Music scores of Thomas Smart who was organist at the church in 1782, when Samuel Johnson was a parishioner