Say St Pancras to most Londoners and they will think of St Pancras station, gateway to Europe. In the Cultural Wednesday household it means St Pancras Old Church where Mr CW’s parents got married. Tucked away behind the more famous train station the old church of St Pancras is well worth exploring.
ST PANCRAS OLD CHURCH LONDON
Why Old church? Two reasons ….. first there is a newer St Pancras church on the other side of St Pancras station on the Euston Road. Second St Pancras Old Church is thought to be the oldest site of continuous Christian worship in London. Christians have been worshipping here since the fourth century AD.
Not that the building we see today dates back to the fourth century. Parts of the present day church, well a wall in the nave, dates back to the 11th or 12th century. The pretty bell tower and handsome stonework you see date back to extensive remodelling in 1847.
ST PANCRAS OLD CHURCH GRAVEYARD
Old graveyards in London are fascinating places, full of stories. St Pancras Old Church graveyards abounds with literary connections. Mary Wollstonecroft, author of The Vindicaton of the Rights of Woman and mother of Mary Shelley (author of Frankenstein) is buried here. Legend has it that is was here that Mary Godwin and Percy Bysshe Shelley planned their elopement whilst visiting her mothers grave.
Charles Dickens mentions St Pancras Old Church graveyard in The Tale of Two Cities, it is named as the location where Jerry Cruncher brings his son to teach him bodysnatching. Whilst Mr Cruncher and son were fictitious bodysnatching was not.
A few years later it was modern technology that disturbed the rest of dead. The outer edges the graveyard lay in the way of the proposed path of the new railway lines. Architect, Arthur Bloomfield was hired to ensure that occupants of the graveyard were removed in suitably decorous manner. Mr Bloomfield delegated the task of sorting out the gravestones to his junior, Thomas Hardy, who is better known now as the author of The Mayor of Casterbridge and Far from the Madding Crowd. Hardy come up with the idea of arranging the displaced stones in concentric circles around a tree, known as ‘The Hardy Tree’.
Architect Sir John Soane is buried here, he designed his own rather fine tomb. I did a double take when I first saw it as I though it looked a little like London’s famous red telephone boxes. Turns out that this is where Sir Giles Gilbert Scott got the inspiration for his iconic telephone box design. Sir Giles was a trustee at the Sir John Soane museum and plainly a big fan.
WHO WAS ST PANCRAS?
Pancras was born in Roman occupied Turkey, when he was very young his parents died and he went to live with an uncle in Rome. Once there he converted to Christianity but the Emperor Diocletian wasn’t so keen on Christians and embarked on the persecution of them. When he was 14 Pancras was rounded up and asked to make a sacrifice to the Roman gods, he declined. Diocletian was so impressed by his demeanour that he offered him wealth and power if he renounced his faith, still Pancras refused. Enraged Diocletian had him beheaded. His youth at the time of martyrdom led him becoming the patron saint of children.
The cult of St Pancras started when miraculous things started happening around his tomb. At the end of the 6th century Gregory, archbishop of Tours noted that anyone making a false oath around St Pancras tomb would become seized by a demon and die. From then on it was thought that if a witness was to make an oath on the saints bones what they said must be true. Bits of St Pancras body began spreading out across the Chirstian world. It is thought St Augustine bought relics of St Pancras to England.
The Venerable Bede mentions relics of Pancras. He recounts how Pope Vitalian wrote to King Oswiu of Northumberland in 660, or thereabouts, that he was sending relics of St Pancras to England. Should you wish to celebrateSt Pancras day it is May 12th.
St Pancras Old Church is small but very beautiful and its churchyard more interesting than most. Well worth a visit and a special place to remember my parents in law, Marian and Roy.