From Bow Fair to Bow Church, 1311–1719

This 1806 painting shows how the church was at the very heart of the village of Bow.
This 1806 painting shows how the church was at the very heart of the village of Bow.
Grace Wylford memorial 1551 | Joy Wotton
Brass to Grace Wylford, 1551, the oldest monument in Bow church
Joy Wotton
Medieval font | Joy Wotton
Medieval font
Joy Wotton
Map of Bow in 1703
Map of Bow in 1703

Chaucer’s Prioress in The Canterbury Tales, spoke French ‘full daintily with the accent of Stratford atte Bowe’.

A community, known as Stratford-Atte-Bowe (after the bow shape of the bridge) grew up by Bow bridge. By the end of the 13th century, local people, fed up with having to go all the way to St Dunstan’s Stepney to church – especially in winter, felt confident and rich enough to petition for their own place of worship. On 17 November 1311, Bishop Ralph Baldock of London licensed the building of a ‘chapel of ease’ in the hamlet.

It took several years to find a site for the new chapel, but finally, King Edward III granted a piece of land ‘in the middle of the King’s highway’ and the church was built. It was still part of St Dunstan’s parish and served by a curate. In 1381 the Essex rebels in the Peasants’ Revolt swept over Bow Bridge and past the new church on the way to meet King Richard at Mile End.

By the late 1400s the church needed major repair and, probably, enlargement and work began on what was known as ‘the Great Work’. By about 1490 the church as it now is had taken shape. For hundreds of years the church’s site in the middle of the road was cluttered with other buildings. To the east was a market hall (and the village stocks!) and right by the west door several tenements and an inn would be built. In 1500 the inside of the building would have been very colourful with lots of altars and statues, including ones of Jesus, Mary, St Anthony and St Clement (on the altar sponsored by the local Bakers’ Guild).

Time of Great Change

The Reformation, which was to change the Church from Catholic to Protestant in the mid 1500s, was strongly supported in Stepney and Bow. On 3 August 1553, Mary Tudor rode through Bow in triumph to become Queen and the Catholic faith was restored. But bitter religious conflict continued and in 1555 thirty-six Protestants were arrested at a house in Bow churchyard and one of them, Elizabeth Warren, was condemned for heresy and burned at the stake just outside the church.

During the English Civil War, the Church of England was abolished and the minister of Bow dismissed and replaced by a series of Presbyterian ‘interlopers’. In 1648 the War came literally to the church door when 600 Royalist troops crossed the Thames and marched up to Bow Bridge. For about a week they occupied Bow, beating off Parliamentary attacks. The local Trained Bands were disarmed and locked up in the church until they promised to go home quietly.

With the Restoration of Charles II and the Church of England in 1660, St Dunstan’s asked for the arrears of the 24 shillings a year Bow Chapel was supposed to pay to its mother church. They claimed over £59. St Mary’ disputed this enormous sum, and for six years they argued, with Bow agreeing in 1666 to pay £16. But, from now, on Bow was seen as virtually independent of Stepney.

In 1701 Prisca Coborn, the daughter of the Bow minister and the widow of a rich local brewer, died and left money for the founding of a school. She was buried in the church, by the west door and her magnificent memorial is on the south wall of the nave.

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