Little slices of London's history

A saint, an axe, and lots of virgins

Good morning, gentle reader(s?). The normal ‘This day in London history’ post will follow later. (It will feature the talented and incredibly courageous Victorian writer, Fanny Burney, who died on this day in 1840.) But first, by special request from a Twitter follower, the story of the name behind St Mary Axe.

This comes from the church of the same name, which was converted to warehouses after its suppression in the 16th century. The parish was united with that of St Thomas Undershaft.

St Ursula

There really was an axe, supposedly kept in the church – the full name of which was often given as St Mary the Virgin, St Ursula and the Eleven Thousand Virgins.

The legend behind the axe and the Eleven Thousand virgins is that an ancient king of England – Maurius, father of King Cole – gave his daughter Ursula (presumably King Cole’s sister) permission to travel to Germany with her large and chaste retinue. The numbers seem rather excessive – the early equivalent, perhaps, of the package holiday taken to ridiculous extremes.

The sight of all those maidens served only to enrage Attila and his Huns – who weren’t, for some unknown reason, keen on virgins – to such an extent that three axes were used to chop through all eleven thousand of the virginal necks.

It seems like a lot of hard work for no good reason: beheading is (apparently) not an easy task even when just one person is involved. Eleven thousand heads must have been very tiring for the huns, especially with only three axes; the wonder is that the huns didn’t get more axes, or, indeed, that with all those virgins one or two didn’t manage to escape.

The Gherkin behind the church of St Andrew Undershaft

The story would appear to be more legend than fact, or, as it is delicately phrased by one London historian, “three mortal axes could, however, never have accomplished so dire a massacre, and one may safely assume that some symbol or sign of three Axes was wrongfully interpreted from a pagan picture”. Another, boring, reason for the name is given as being merely from a shop with the sign of an axe.

St Mary Axe is now probably as famous for Number 30 as for its virgins. This building was originally called the Swiss Re Building but, in the same way as 53rd at Third in Manhattan is the ‘Lipstick Building’, this is known widely as ‘The Gherkin’.

Incidentally, it is not clear why St Mary got top billing over St Ursula, unless it is because she is the ultimate virgin. St Ursula is the patron saint of students, and St Agnes is the patron saint of virgins. Christopher Columbus named the Virgin Islands after Ursula, and Magellan named Cabo Virgenes (Cape Virgins, off the southeastern tip of Argentina) after her.

3 responses to “A saint, an axe, and lots of virgins”

  1. […] Undershaft, we will take a fleeting glance at nearby St Mary Axe, which is covered in more detail here before we move on to […]

  2. […] St Mary Axe: This name involves an axe and a Saint Mary, and takes its name from the church of the same name, later combined with St Thomas Undershaft. Supposedly Maurius, father of King Cole – gave his daughter Ursula permission to travel to Germany with 11,000 virgins who were subsequently slain by an enraged Attila and his Huns. […]

  3. […] it has been featured a few times in this blog, how can we have a saint theme without St Mary Axe? Boringly, some consider the name to have come from a shop with the sign of an axe. But what fun is […]

About Me (and my Obsession)

My obsession with London street names began in the early 90s when I worked in the Smithfield area and happened upon Bleeding Heart Yard. In my wanderings around London, kept adding to my store of weird and wonderful street names. Eventually it was time to share – hence my blog. I hope you enjoy these names as much as I do.
– Elizabeth


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