St Foster’s Church
‘Bloody ’ell! It’s so quiet. It’s bloody quiet in ’ere.’ ‘Yes, son, it’s very quiet. You really shouldn’t swear. ‘After all, this is a place Where people come to pray: A c-h-blank-blank-c-h. What’s missing, by the way? ‘What are you doing? Put that back! That’s Our Lord’s thorny crown. What’s your name? Bardolph? Heavens! If it isn’t nailed down!’ ‘Pardon me for lookin’. It ain’t like When in Rome. “Oh, Father! Please forgive me!” ’Oo’s Bardolph when at ’ome?’ ‘Never mind. Forget it. Come on, honeybunch. I think that it’s stopped raining. Let’s go and get some lunch.’ ‘Ah! I got it! Clever! Dad, “you are” on form today. ’Ere … the pulpit is impressive. Well, I fink, anyway.’ ‘Gibbons, I should imagine, Judging by the carving.’ ‘Cor! You know yer stuff, don’tcha? Come on. Let’s go. I’m starvin’.’
The uniquely named church of St Vedast-alias-Foster stands in the shadow of the mighty dome of St Paul’s Cathedral. St Vedast (also known as Vedastus, Vaast, Waast and Gaston) was a sixth-century bishop of northern Gaul and an advisor to the Frankish king Clovis. There is a St Vedast church in Lincolnshire and there was one in Norfolk. But somehow, in London, the name morphed into Foster.
The first church on ‘Foster Lane’ was built in the twelfth century. Remodelled several times in the medieval period, it was badly damaged in the Great Fire of London. It was rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren in 1673. The spire, thought to be by Christopher Wren’s assistant, Nicholas Hawksmoor, was added in 1712.
The church was badly damaged again during the Blitz. After the war, a rebuilding programme was supervised by the newly installed rector Canon Charles Mortlock. St Foster’s initially adopted the parishes of no fewer than thirteen former city churches that had either been destroyed or demolished: St Alban Wood Street, St Anne & St Agnes, St Lawrence Jewry, St Mary Aldermanbury, St Michael-le-Querne, St Matthew Friday Street, St Peter Chepe, St Olave Silver Street, St Michael Wood Street, St Mary Staining, St Mary Magdalene Milk Street, St John Zachary and St Michael Bassishaw. Of these, only three were re-established: St Anne & St Agnes and St Lawrence Jewry in London, and St Mary Aldermanbury in Fulton, Missouri.
St Foster’s became a place of refuge for the orphaned furniture of ruined churches including St Anne & St Agnes, St Christopher-le-Stock in Threadneedle Street, and St Bartholomew-by-the-Exchange. It even managed to salvage a section of Roman mosaic flooring discovered when St Matthew Friday Street was torn down in 1884. The exquisite seventeenth-century pulpit came from All Hallows, Bread Street. It was carved by Grinling Gibbons and features his idiosyncratic ‘logo’, open peapods.
Mortlock is a fascinating character. It was he who was responsible for uniting and accommodating the other parishes. He also ensured St Foster’s was reconstructed within its seventeenth-century shell. He was an advocate of the preservation of religious heritage, writing an article for the Daily Telegraph in 1947 entitled ‘Restoring the City’s War Damaged Churches’. He was also a member of the Parochial Church Council, an influential architectural body which included John Betjeman, himself a churchwarden at St Fosters.
A relief in the cloister garden depicts the head of Mortlock. It was carved by the famous sculptor Jacob Epstein in 1936. The two were great friends. Indeed, Mortlock conducted Epstein’s memorial at St Paul’s Cathedral in 1959.
In his will, Epstein left Mortlock his huge biblical sculpture Ecce Homo. The artist could never find a permanent home for it, and Mortlock had similar difficulties. After his death, it was donated to Coventry Cathedral.
Mortlock was also an admirer of the German Jewish painter Hans Feibusch. The mutual respect is manifest in that artist’s largest mural in St Alban’s church, Holborn, where Mortlock is depicted alongside its incumbent vicar.
Mortlock wrote several books, including Famous London Churches (1934). As a journalist, he contributed pieces to a number of wide-ranging journals including the Daily Telegraph, Punch and Country Life. He was also a respected drama and ballet critic.
He penned a series of articles for the Church Times under the pseudonym ‘Urbanus’. Many carried psychogeographic undertones, such as ‘A Strange Week’, published in the Church Times on 1 September 1939, just two days before the outbreak of World War II:
To one attuned to the life of a city … nothing is more characteristic than its customary sounds. The good Londoner waking in the night can generally tell the hour from the noises drifting from without into his bedroom. The murmur of a great city by night is comforting to those who lie abed in its midst.
A fellow of the Society of Antiquarians, Mortlock was a passionate student of archaeology. As a correspondent, he covered the work of the British Egyptologist Sir Flinders Petrie during his 1920s Palestinian project. In 1935, he accompanied Petrie’s former assistant James Leslie Starkey as Starkey made one of the most important discoveries in the history of Biblical archaeology, the Lachish Letters. Written on shards of pottery or ostraca, these texts shed light on events described in the Old Testament. Mortlock was there to proudly record the moment.
Mortlock’s passion for antiquities enabled St Foster’s to forge a fascinating link to the world’s bestselling mystery writer, Agatha Christie. Born Agatha Miller in 1890, the daughter of a foster child, she married her first husband Archibald Christie in 1914. Her first novel was published in 1920.
In 1928, after a bitter and public divorce, Christie decided she wanted to travel more extensively. She packed her trunk, said goodbye to the media circus, and off she went on the Orient Express. After staying a while in Istanbul, she moved on to Baghdad, where she was invited to join a party of British archaeologists excavating the site of Ur.
In 1930, she returned to Iraq, where she fell in love with the twenty-six-year-old archaeologist Max Mallowan, almost fourteen years her junior. Within six months they were married. Mallowan was a frequent visitor to Mortlock at St Foster’s.
Over the years, Christie often accompanied her husband on archaeological expeditions, making a considerable contribution to their recording and documentation. Her novels were also greatly influenced by her Middle Eastern adventures. They included They Came to Baghdad, Murder in Mesopotamia, and perhaps her most famous work, Murder on the Orient Express, which was dedicated to her new husband.
During the 1950s, Mallowan, now a field director for the British Museum and the British School of Archaeology in Iraq, led an excavation at the Nimrud palace. It was a well-publicised expedition, thanks to the fact that the Daily Telegraph’s special correspondent on the dig was Mortlock.
During the dig, an ancient stone tablet was discovered by Mallowan’s team. It had once been part of the wall of a ziggurat in the city of Kalhu (biblical Calah, modern-day Nimrud). Inscribed in cuneiform script, it reads:
Shalmaneser the great, king of Assyria, ruler of the universe, son of Ashurnasirpal the great, king of Assyria, ruler of the universe, son of Tukulti-Ninurta the great, king of Assyria, ruler of the universe. The wall of the ziggurat of Kalhu.
Shalmaneser III reigned between approximately 858 and 824 BC. Much was already known about him thanks to the discovery in 1846 of the ‘Black Obelisk’. Now on display at the British Museum, this well-preserved slab of limestone records many of his deeds and conquests. Significantly, it also bears the earliest mention of a biblical character in history: Jehu, king of Israel. The tablet discovered by Mallowan’s team was passed to the Syrian government, who in turn gave it as a gift to Mortlock. Today, it is found on the wall of St Foster’s garden cloister near the Roman mosaic. A small number of similarly inscribed stones have been discovered at the Nimrud site, and each should be treasured, as it’s doubtful we will learn any more about King Shalmaneser III; the archaeological remains at Nimrud were destroyed by Islamist militants between 2015 and 2016.
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