The name from the church itself came from a huge maypole that once stood in front of the church, so tall that it rose above the tower. A maypole was the centre of many May Day celebrations – a carry-over from ancient festivities of nature worship. People would dance around the maypoles, elect May Queens, and carry on other activities that were generally fun and harmless – until 1517.
By that time, there had been a growing resentment among London apprentices at the number of foreigners in the city. On May Day 1517 – Evil May Day – this resentment erupted in rioting at the St Andrew Undershaft maypole.
The rioting spread and the pole was pulled down; though never re-erected, it was stored along the houses in nearby Shaft Alley and remained there for over 30 years. A local clergyman then decided to preach a sermon denouncing the maypole as a heathen object.
Our favourite London historian John Stow reported on how the householders, who had so long lived with the pole over their doorways, reacted.
“I heard his sermon at Paules cross, and I saw the effect that followed; for in the afternoon of that present Sunday, the neighbours and tenants to the said bridge, over whose doors the said shaft had lain, after they had well dined, to make themselves strong, gathered more help, and with great labour raising the shaft from the hooks, whereon it had rested two-and-thirty years, they sawed it in pieces, every man taking for his share so much as had lain over his door and stall, the length of his house; and they of the alley divided among them so much as had lain over their alley gate. Thus was this idol (as he poor man termed it) mangled, and after burned.”
Stow himself has a strong connection with the church: he and his wife worshipped there and, following his death, she had a monument to him erected inside the church. Every three years there is a John Stow Memorial Service, following which the quill in his effigy’s hand is ceremonially changed by the Lord Mayor of London.
The fun had more or less gone out of May Day celebrations after 1517, and then the Puritans banned them completely anyway. They were reinstated after the Restoration of Charles II; in a memo to the king from the Duke of Newcastle, it was suggested that maypoles and their related festivities would “amuse the people’s thoughts and keep them in harmless actions which will free your majesty from faction and rebellion”.
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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.
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 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.