Home Tours Private booking Your guide Blog Contact
Home Tours Private booking Your guide Blog Contact

Magnus Martyr

12th October 2021

Morning, Vicar! Would you tell my group a little about the history of St Magnus Martyr church, last stop on the TS Eliot Waste Land Tour?   

The church of Magnus Martyr is around 
the corner from the baker's which caught fire 
in sixteen sixty-six and set alight 
the whole metropolis. The church burned down. 
It stood here for six hundred years.
Sir Christophorus Wren rebuilt it with
round arches, coffered vault and fluted columns
topped with scrolls, which TS Eliot 
described: 'inexplicable splendour of
Ionian white and gold'. He meant perhaps
the incongruity of stepping from 
the noisy market streets that reeked of fish
(old Billingsgate is neighbour to the church)
into the hallowed purity of Wren's
attempt to mimic Christian Rome. 

St Magnus is a Viking and he's dressed
as one in this his statue here. He is
the same St Magnus as for the cathedral
Kirkwall on the Orkney Islands, a 
Norwegian martyr, King of Orkney who
for piety refused to fight. His cousin 
staged a coup and had him executed
by his cook whose skill was chopping meat.
This was around eleven hundred when 
in fact St Magnus's in London was 
already built and dedicated to
a previous St Magnus, an Ital'an
martyred by the Romans in their pagan
days. This must have been forgotten as 
no fuss was made when in the nineteenth cent'ry
Danish archaeologist Professor 
Worsaae claimed the church for Orkney's saint
to fit his the'ry of the Viking Age
in his best-selling book about 
the Scandinavians in England published 
eighteen fifty-two. The guide books followed
suit and so it has remained. The martyr 
made the headlines when his bones were found 
in nineteen nineteen in a wooden box
on. Orkney, just when TS Eliot 
was coming here and when the new incumbent
Henry Joy Fynes-Clinton, as an ardent
anglo-catholic was showing great 
enthusiasm for the saints. They have 
such juicy stories. Peter Maxwell Davies 
the composer, wrote an opera 
on Magnus and his martyrdom. A statue 
of the saint in Viking helmet stands 
beneath his south aisle window. Candles may
be lit for a small contribution. He
was carved by Martin Travers, specialist 
in furniture for anglo-catholics,
who also made the crucifixion scene 
atop the reredos. (In Paris nineteen
twenty-five he won first prize for stained
glass at the exhibition of les Arts 
the international 
trade fair whence 'deco'.)
                                             On the north side of
the church there is a shrine to Mary as 
she once appeared at Walsingham in Norfolk, 
favoured pilgrim destination of 
these saintly anglicans. More real is 
the wordy tablet on the east wall to 
Miles Coverdale, translator of the Bible
A.D. fifteen thirty-five, whose bones 
are here. He'd had an up-and-down career. 
His English Bible was the reason for 
the King's divorce essentially - the English
church. But ten years previously, Tyndale 
had been hung for what Miles Coverdale
is celebrated for. The movement for
an English church - the Germans had one - was
the lever which prised Rome and us apart. 
We paid with excommunication which
cannot have done much for our mental health.
Suddenly the nation's bound for hell. 
The Pope, the representative of Christ 
on Earth, had banished us. For Coverdale
it was a vindication. Edward, Henry's son,
was very pro the English church and made
Miles Coverdale a bishop for his pains. 
But Edward died and Bloody Mary brought
back Latin so the bishop made excuses 
and departed for the Netherlands
where God was still a protestant. Then Mary
died and Queen Elizabeth the First
said she'd not be a window on men's souls
and let us worship as we wished (at first
at least). So Coverdale came back though this 
time not as bishop, but as rector here
from fifteen sixty-three to -six. He died 
incumbent at another church not far
away where he was first interred. That church
was pulled down in the eighteen forties
and his bones brought here to rest by thus
Victorian monument. It has his bishop's
mitre underneath a ref'rence from 
the letter to the Romans by St Paul
who warns his readers to beware of frauds. 

Now I beseech you brethren mark them which
provoke divisions and offences counter to
the doctrine ye have learned; avoid them..... 
sixteen seventeen, selected on
Miles Coverdale's behalf by Magnus Martyr's
nineteenth century priest and congregation.