St Clement Danes in London
St Clement Danes is a church in the City of Westminster, London. It is situated outside the Royal Courts of Justice on the Strand. The current building was completed in 1682 by Sir Christopher Wren and it now functions as the central church of the Royal Air Force.
The church is sometimes claimed to be the one featured in the nursery rhyme Oranges and Lemons and the bells do indeed play that tune. However, St Clement Eastcheap, in the City of London, also claims to be the church from the rhyme. St Clement Danes is known as one of the two 'Island Churches', the other being St Mary-le-Strand.
The first church on the site was reputedly founded by Danes living nearby in the 9th century. The location, on the river between the City of London and the future site of Westminster, was home to many Danes at a time when half of England was Danish; being a seafaring race, the Danes named the church they built after St Clement, patron saint of mariners. King Harold I "Harefoot" was buried here in March 1040 after his body was disinterred by his briefly usurped brother Harthacnut, and thrown into the marshes bordering the Thames.
The church was first rebuilt by William the Conqueror, and then again in the Middle Ages. It was in such a bad state by the end of the 17th century that it was demolished and again rebuilt from 1680–1682, this time by Christopher Wren. The steeple was added to the 115 foot tower from 1719-1720 by James Gibbs.
William Webb Ellis, often credited with the invention of Rugby football in 1823 was once rector of the church, and is commemorated by a memorial tablet.
Saint Clement is commemorated every April at St Clement Danes, a modern clementine custom/revival. Reverend William Pennington-Bickford initiated the service in 1919 to celebrate the restoration of the famous church bells and carillon, which he’d had altered to ring out the popular nursery rhyme. This special service for children ends with the distribution of oranges and lemons to the boys and girls. Formerly William Bickford, William Pennington-Bickford (died 1941) was Rector from 1910 to 1941 and he and his wife Louisa became known for their devotion to the welfare of the parish. (He had succeeded his father-in-law in the benefice.)
The church was almost destroyed by German bombs during the London Blitz of 10 May 1941. The outer walls, the tower and Gibbs's steeple, survived the bombing, but the interior was gutted by fire.
In 1844 St. Clement Danes School was constructed on land on Houghton Road, Holborn which the churchwardens had purchased in 1552. It opened in 1862 and remained there until 1928, then moved to Shepherd's Bush until 1975, when it was finally re-established as a comprehensive school in Chorleywood, Hertfordshire.
Royal Air Force
Following an appeal for funds by the Royal Air Force, the church was completely restored and was re-consecrated on 19 October 1958 to become the Central Church of the Royal Air Force.
Services are regularly held to commemorate prominent occasions of the RAF and its associated organisations. There are also features throughout and outside the building commemorating people and units of the RAF.
As part of the rebuilding, a Latin inscription was added over the main door of the church, translating as: "Built by Christopher Wren 1682. Destroyed by the thunderbolts of air warfare 1941. Restored by the Royal Air Force 1958."
Outside the church stand statues of two of the RAF's wartime leaders, Arthur "Bomber" Harris and Hugh Dowding.
The erection of the statue of Harris was controversial due to his responsibility for the bombing of Dresden and other bombing campaigns against German cities. Despite protests from Germany as well as some in Britain, the Bomber Harris Trust (an RAF veterans' organisation) erected a statue of him outside the RAF Church of St. Clement Danes in 1992. It was unveiled by Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother who looked surprised when she was jeered by protesters. The line on the statue reads "The Nation owes them all an immense debt". The statue had to be guarded by policemen day and night for some time as it was frequently sprayed with graffiti.
The floor of the church, of Welsh slate, is inscribed with the badges of over 800 RAF commands, groups, stations, squadrons and other formations. Near the entrance door is a ring of the badges of Commonwealth air forces, surrounding the badge of the RAF.
A memorial to the Polish airmen and squadrons who fought in the defence of the United Kingdom and the liberation of Europe in World War II is positioned on the floor of the north aisle.
Books of Remembrance listing the names of all the RAF personnel who have died in service, as well as those American airmen based in the United Kingdom who died during World War Two.
Near the altar are plaques listing the names of RAF and RFC personnel awarded the Victoria Cross and the George Cross.
Donations and artefacts
In the gallery hang Queen's Colours and Standards which have been replaced, along with standards of several disbanded squadrons (most standards of disbanded squadrons hang in the rotunda of the RAF College Cranwell).
The church's organ, situated facing the altar in the gallery, was a gift from the United States Air Force. Pulpits, pews and chairs in the body of the church have been presented by various people, including past Chiefs of the Air Staff, Sir Douglas Bader, the Guinea Pig Club. The lectern was a gift from the Royal Australian Air Force, the Cross from the Air Training Corps, the altar from the Dutch embassy. Also from the Netherlands is the font in the crypt, donated by the Royal Netherlands Air Force. The Paschal Candle was given by the Royal Belgian Air Force.
The church has set up a primary school and a secondary school. The primary school is placed around the corner from the church on the Strand in London. The secondary school is in Hertfordshire, built in 1976 in Chorleywood.
The statue of Dr Samuel Johnson at the eastern end of the church land, comes to life as the character 'Dictionary', in Charlie Fletcher's children's book about unLondon Stoneheart.
The novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four has the protagonist encountering a picture of the church and is subsequently told how it once stood in the area in front the Palace of Justice before being demolished in the revolution.
Notable people associated with St. Clement Danes
- John Layfield (theologian), one of the translators of the King James Version of the Bible, Rector from 1602 to 1617
- Anthony Young, organist at the church from 1707–1747
- Charles Christian Reisen, gem-engraver, born in the parish of St Clement Danes in 1680
- List of churches and cathedrals of London
- List of Christopher Wren churches in London
- Eirwen E.C. Nicholson, "The St Clement Danes Altarpiece and the Iconography of post-Revolution England" in Jonathan Clark and Howard Erskine-Hill (eds.), Samuel Johnson in Historical Context (Palgrave, 2002) pp55–77
- Richard Sharp, "The Religious and Political Character of the Parish of St Clement Danes" in Jonathan Clark and Howard Erskine-Hill (eds.), Samuel Johnson in Historical Context (Palgrave, 2002), pp44–55
- Mystery Worshipper Report at the Ship of Fools website
- St Clement Danes church website
- 1984 - Analysis at Gradesaver