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  • Writer's pictureLucy Walker

A Brief History of St Dunstan-in-the-East Church Garden

What is St Dunstan-in-the-East?

A St Dunstan-in-the-East is a picturesque garden and churchyard located among the ruins of a former parish church first built during the Middle Ages.

St Dunstan-in-the-East

St Dunstan-in-the-East History

The City of London – the territorial extent of the old medieval city and its governing Corporation – was once home to 97 parish churches. This seems an extraordinary number, but in the 17th century around 80,000 people lived within the square mile, and most of them were regular churchgoers. From the mid-16th century church attendance was compulsory for the best part of 300 years, and though this wasn’t always enforced with uniform strictness, the majority of London’s inhabitants were practising members of the Church of England.

In 1666 the Great Fire of London destroyed the medieval city, including 87 of its ancient churches. St Dunstan-in-the-East was badly damaged in the fire, but its ruins weren’t demolished like many other churches. Instead, acclaimed English architect Sir Christopher Wren designed a new gothic tower that was in-keeping with the pointed style of the 12th-century original, and the rest of the damage was repaired. Sadly, parishioners neglected the surviving medieval structure in the ensuing decades. In 1817 the church was rebuilt, again in a medieval gothic style not dissimilar to St Dunstan’s first medieval incarnation. Only Wren’s tower and steeple would survive into the modern age.

St Dunstan-in-the-East garden

St Dunstan’s central location and proximity to the river created a congregation that included many wealthy merchants and professionals. Samuel Pepys, the naval civil servant immortalised by his diary, lived and worked nearby in Seething Lane. Before the Great Fire Pepys regularly attended services here. On the evening of St George’s day in 1668, Pepys was walking through the ruins of St Dunstan’s on his way home from the tavern. He was approached by ‘two rogues with clubs’ who forced him to take a rather roundabout route, meaning Pepys returned home ‘weary, but pleased with [his] day’s pleasure, but yet displeased at [his] expense, and time’ he lost.

Not much is known about the medieval life of the church. It was built around the year 1100 and was named after an Anglo-Saxon saint, Dunstan, who served as Abbot at Glastonbury Abbey in Somerset; later he became Archbishop of Canterbury. He was apparently a powerful but humble man, as well as a talented silversmith. In his youth he spent time living as a hermit in a small, sparse cell. One day, Dunstan was playing the harp that he’d made, and the Devil appeared to tempt him away from his monastic life. Dunstan immediately banished Satan from his cell with the hot forging tongs he used for his metalwork.

As you may have read on the memorial plaque at the east corner of St Dunstan’s Alley, the church was all but destroyed by German bombs in 1941, at the end of the 1940-41 bombardment of London known as ‘the Blitz’. Rather than rebuild the church for a third time, the Corporation of London created a beautiful garden in the churchyard. The site of St Dunstan’s has, in a number of different forms, consistently served the public as a place of peace and respite from the outside world. Although St Dunstan’s is no longer a functioning church, a traditional Palm Sunday procession is held here every year.

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