St Botolph’s Day

BotolphToday, 17 June, is the feast of St Botolph: a fact which prompted me to visit his church in Cambridge, inside which, in the 45 years I have lived in the city, I have never previously ventured. Pausing only at the market for raspberries and asparagus (hedonist, moi?) and at the CUP bookshop to check out today’s offerings in the great Cambridge Library Collection sale, I headed down King’s Parade to the Silver Street junction.

I parked the bike in Botolph Lane, noticing that the little shoeshop which had a brilliant pair of metal tongs which could stretch shoeleather for people (like me) with embarrassingly wide feet is now a patisserie, with a photographer’s next to it. This currently has huge placards with small prints of the Bumps and May Balls propped up against the church railings, and I would have photographed them for you, but for the dozens of warnings of breach of copyright scattered among them. Anyway, here is the church tower with its regilded sundial (showing no shadow on this rather overcast day).

The fifteenth-century tower of St Botolph's, showing the sundial. (The street lamp is also a historic piece of Cambridge architecture.)

The fifteenth-century tower of St Botolph’s, showing the sundial. (The street lamp is also a historic piece of Cambridge architecture.)

Inside, there were no immediate signs of a patronal feast happening – though I see that, oddly, Botolph’s feast day in Scotland is 25 June – but perhaps it happens next Sunday. The church’s web page has a useful history of the fourteenth-century building, which stood by the long-gone south gate of Cambridge. It replaced Saxon and Norman churches on the same site, and was originally rectangular, the tower (from which four bell ropes promisingly descend – the four bells were cast in 1460) being a fifteenth-century addition; the present chancel, beyond the medieval rood screen, was restored in the nineteenth century, and most of the glass is relatively modern. The two most spectacular items inside this light and tranquil space are the font and its cover, constructed in 1636 and painted in 1637, according to a notice, and the memorial to Thomas Playfere, in a side chapel which was locked today. Playfere was Lady Margaret’s Professor of Divinity in the university at the end of the sixteenth century, dying in 1609. His sculpted figure, upright in a classical niche with obelisks on either side, is almost the archetype of a Jacobean funerary monument: I wonder if his robe, now a purplish red, was originally the bright scarlet of the professorial gown?

The 'Laudian' font and cover.

The ‘Laudian’ font and cover.

Playfere, according to the ODNB, was a lecturer in both medicine and Hebrew before being elected to the Lady Margaret chair in 1596. A Calvinist in outlook, he was not universally popular, and failed in efforts to become Master of Clare or Pembroke. He seems also to have suffered from mental illness: contemporary gossip has ‘Dr. Plaifer … lately crackt in the headpeece’ or ‘halfe frantike again’. His widow had the memorial (and Latin encomium) erected.

Playfere's memorial in the side chapel.

Playfere’s memorial in the side chapel.

The church is close to Queens’ College (of which the predecessor, St Bernard’s College, was founded by its rector, Andrew Dokett, in 1446, and from where many of the rectors over the years have since derived). It contains an unusual monument to a college butler, ‘in which Station diligence, exactness, & fidelity distinguished his service’, placed in the church by the Master and Fellows in 1783.

Memorial to John Sharp, butler of Queens' College

Memorial to John Sharp, butler of Queens’ College

Another wall monument, said confusingly on the website to be to ‘Darwin’, is in fact to Charles Darwin’s grandson Charles Galton Darwin, son of Sir George Darwin and mischievous younger brother of Gwen Raverat. Newnham Grange, the home of Sir George’s family, was in the parish of St Botolph, though Raverat records that when they went to church on Sundays, it was to King’s College chapel. The generosity of other, earlier, parishioners to the church and to the poor is a notable feature of many of the monuments. The ancient parish chest, with its two shiny modern padlocks (one for the rector, one for the churchwardens) must over the years have contained significant amounts of money.

The parish chest

The parish chest

A painted board under the tower records three such benefactions: in 1575 the will of John Johnson, citizen and haberdasher of London, entrusted 40 shillings a year to be paid by the mayor to the churchwardens, to buy coals or wood for distribution to the poor of the parish. In 1651, John Canham, a labourer of the parish (not, therefore, one of its wealthier citizens?) bequeathed some land near the village of Toft, to be rented out and its income given to the churchwardens, ‘to be by them distributed as they shall see need’. And Adam Newling ‘Gent., late Alderman of this town’, in 1696 bequeathed the rent of the ‘Angel’ public house in Barnwell to the churchwardens to distribute ‘as they see occasion’. A note at the bottom of the board carefully points out that ‘the Angel is now (1836) the Hare and Hounds’.


The list of donations, ‘the gift of John Peck of this parish’.

The Royal Arms, also in the tower, must have been painted at about the same time as the board, as it is the arms of King William IV, given to the church by John Smith, University Printer.

The Royal Arms of William IV.

The Royal Arms of William IV.

Elsewhere, a tablet record ‘John Brewer, of this Parish, Bricklayer’, who died in 1706, and gave £50 a year to the poor, ‘for Ever as the Churchwardens shall see Occasion’.


Memorial to John Brewer, bricklayer.

Other memorials include this floor slab to the same John Brewer, and to ‘Eliz:[abeth], the wife of Willm Pitches’, who died 35 years later (his daughter?);

John Brewer's tomb.

John Brewer’s tomb.

William Lilly, a Queens’ student, ‘snatched from his family and friends by a fever at the age of 22 in 1738;

Memorial to the Queens' student William Lilly

Memorial to the Queens’ student William Lilly

James Essex, the Cambridge architect and antiquary, who had been baptised at the church;

James Essex, and relations.

James Essex, and relations.

and Mary Hide, ‘the affectionate Wife of Thomas Hide, merchant in this Town, who died in child-bed in 1770, aged 26. (This sort of death was of course enormously common, but I believe it is fairly rare for the cause to be stated?)

Monument to Mary Hide: it looks as though a space was left for future tragedies.

Monument to Mary Hide: it looks as though a space was left for future tragedies.

Outside, there is a tiny garden, not accessible today, which must have once have been a much larger graveyard.

The churchyard garden

The churchyard garden

The garden gate.

The garden gate.

But who was St Botolph, whom we remember today? He was apparently (thanks to the ODNB again) an abbot of Iken in Suffolk (Iken Hall is the setting of Benjamin Britten’s children’s opera The Little Sweep). He ‘flourished’ around 654–70, and ‘Ceolfrith, the future abbot of Monkwearmouth and Jarrow, is said by his anonymous biographer to have visited East Anglia “to see the monastic practices of Abbot Botwulf, whom report had proclaimed on all sides to be a man of unparalleled life and learning and full of the grace of the Holy Spirit”’. Intriguingly, ‘[i]n the tenth and eleventh centuries his relics were divided up and are recorded variously at Peterborough, Thorney, Bury, Ely, and Hadstock, a multiplicity of sites which raises a suspicion that two or more saints called Botwulf may have been conflated in the hagiographical tradition’.

About 70 medieval churches were dedicated to him, of which there are four in London, quite close together: St Botolph’s without Aldgate, (not to be confused with) St Botolph’s without Aldersgate, St Botolph’s without Bishopsgate, and St Botolph’s Billingsgate (the latter destroyed in the Great Fire and never rebuilt). Interestingly, ‘Botolph’ (or Botwulf) never seems to have caught on much as a boy’s first name – perhaps a revival is due? But if you are a wayfarer, St Botolph is apparently a good patron for you, possibly because his remains were moved from place to place (including the sites mentioned above, Westminster abbey, and the four London churches). And the most famous place connected with the saint must be Boston, Mass., named after Boston, Lincs., alias Botwulfstown.


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