St Clement Danes

St Clement Danes is an Anglican church in the City of Westminster, London. It is situated outside the Royal Courts of Justice on the Strand. Although the first church on the site was reputedly founded in the 9th century by the Danes, the current building was completed in 1682 by Sir Christopher Wren. Wren's building was gutted during the Blitz and not restored until 1958, when it was adapted to its current function as the central church of the Royal Air Force.

St. Clement Danes
St Clement Danes, Strand (geograph 5590980).jpg
LocationCity of Westminster, London
CountryUnited Kingdom
DenominationChurch of England
ChurchmanshipAnglo-Catholic and Ecumenical RAF
Heritage designationGrade I
Architect(s)Christopher Wren
Years builtseveral, most recently 1682
DioceseDiocese of London
Chaplain(s)Reverend Mark Perry MStJ[1][2]
Director of musicSimon Over
Business managerSharon Hardwick

The church is sometimes claimed to be the one featured in the nursery rhyme "Oranges and Lemons" and the bells do indeed play that tune every day at 9 am, noon, 3pm and 6pm—as reported in 1940 the church's playing of the tune was interrupted during World War II due to Nazi bombing.[3] However, St Clement's Eastcheap, in the City of London, also claims to be the church from the rhyme. St Clement Danes is known as one of the two 'Island Churches', the other being St Mary-le-Strand.


Connection to the DanesEdit

There are several possible theories as to the connection between the Danes and the origins of the church. A popular theory is that in the 9th century, the Danes colonized the village of Aldwych on the river between the City of London and the future site of Westminster. This was during the Danelaw and London was on the dividing line between the English and the Danes. The Danes founded a church at Aldwych, hence the final part of its name[4] (in Latin it was known as Ecclesia Clementes Danorum). However; Aldwych is an English name and doesn't seem to have any Danish influence. An alternative view is that after Alfred the Great had driven the Danes out of the City of London and they had been required to accept Christianity, Alfred stipulated the building of the church.[5] In either case, being a seafaring people, the Danes named the church they built after St Clement, patron saint of mariners.[6]

Other possible ideas are that in the 11th century after Siward, Earl of Northumbria, killed the Dane Tosti, Earl of Huntingdon, and his men, the deceased were buried in a field near London and a memorial church was subsequently built to honour the memory of the Danes. Also possible is that the Danish connection was reinforced by a massacre recorded in the Jómsvíkinga saga when a group of unarmed Danes who had gathered for a church service were killed.[4] The 12th-century historian William of Malmesbury wrote that the Danes burnt the church on the site of St Clement Danes before they were later slain in the vicinity. Another possible explanation for the name is that, as King Harold I "Harefoot" is recorded as having been buried in the church in March 1040, the church acquired its name on account of Harold's Danish connections.[5]

Medieval churchEdit

The church was first rebuilt by William the Conqueror, and then again later in the Middle Ages.[7]

A new chancel was built over part of the churchyard in 1608, at a cost of more than £1,000, and various repairs and improvements to the tower and other parts of the church cost £496 in 1618.

Shortly after the Great Fire of 1666, further repairs to the steeple were attempted, but these were found impractical, and the whole tower was rebuilt from the foundations. Work was completed in 1669. Soon afterwards it was decided that the rest of the church was in such a poor state that it too should be completely rebuilt.[8] Wren employed Edward Pierce (with whom he worked on many churches) to create the ornate interior.[9]

Seventeenth-century rebuildingEdit

Interior of the church, looking east

St Clement's was rebuilt between 1680 and 1682 to a design by Sir Christopher Wren, incorporating the existing tower which was reclad. The new church was constructed from Portland Stone, with an apse at the east end.[10] A steeple was added to the tower in 1719 by James Gibbs.[10]

The interior has galleries on three sides supported by square pillars, continued above gallery level as Corinthian columns, supporting, in turn, a barrel-vaulted ceiling. Wren used the same scheme again at St James's Church, Piccadilly, begun two years later. Above the galleries, each bay has a cross vault, allowing the building to be lit from large round-headed windows on the upper level.[11]

Later historyEdit

St Clement Danes ablaze on 10 May 1941

William Webb Ellis, often credited with the invention of Rugby football in 1823, was once rector of the church and is commemorated by a memorial tablet.

In 1844, St. Clement Danes School was constructed on land on Houghton Road, Holborn which the churchwardens had purchased in 1552. It opened in 1862 and remained there until 1928, then moved to Shepherd's Bush until 1975, when it was finally re-established as a comprehensive school in Chorleywood, Hertfordshire.

The church was almost destroyed by German bombs during the London Blitz on 10 May 1941. The outer walls, the tower and Gibbs's steeple survived the bombing, but the interior was gutted by fire. As a result of the blaze, the church's ten bells fell to the ground. Subsequently, they were placed in storage and were recast after the war.[12]

As the Central Church of the Royal Air ForceEdit

Following an appeal for funds by the Royal Air Force, the church was completely restored under the supervision of Sam Lloyd.[13] It was re-consecrated on 19 October 1958 to become the Central Church of the Royal Air Force.

As part of the rebuilding, the following inscription was added under the restored Royal coat of arms:


which may be translated as: "Christopher Wren built it 1672. The thunderbolts of aerial warfare destroyed it 1941. The Royal Air Force restored it 1958."[14] [Error in the inscription: MDCLXXII should be MDCLXXXII, i.e. 1682 not 1672]

Current worship and customsEdit

Services are regularly held to commemorate prominent occasions of the RAF and its associated organisations.

Saint Clement is commemorated every April at St Clement Danes, a modern clementine custom/revival. The Reverend William Pennington-Bickford initiated the service in 1919 to celebrate the restoration of the famous church bells and carillon, which he'd had altered to ring out the popular nursery rhyme. This special service for children ends with the distribution of oranges and lemons to the boys and girls. Formerly William Bickford, William Pennington-Bickford (died 1941) was Rector from 1910 to 1941 and he and his wife Louisa became known for their devotion to the welfare of the parish. (He had succeeded his father-in-law in the benefice.)[15]

In 2008, the church was one of the venues where people gathered as part of the Armed Forces Day of Prayer.[16] On the 100th anniversary of the foundation of the RAF, celebrations took place at St Clement Danes.[17]

Royal Air Force featuresEdit

There are features throughout and outside the building commemorating people and units of the RAF.


Statues of Sir Arthur Harris, 1st Baronet (left), and Hugh Dowding, 1st Baron Dowding, outside St Clement Danes

Outside the church stand statues of two of the RAF's wartime leaders, Arthur "Bomber" Harris and Hugh Dowding, both by the sculptor Faith Winter.[18]

The erection of the statue of Harris was controversial due to his responsibility for the bombing of Dresden and other bombing campaigns against German cities. Despite protests from Germany, including from the mayors of Dresden and Hamburg as well as some in Britain, the Bomber Harris Trust (an RAF veterans' organisation) erected a statue of him outside the RAF Church of St. Clement Danes in 1992. It was unveiled by Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother[19] who looked surprised when she was jeered by protesters. The line on the statue reads "The Nation owes them all an immense debt". The statue had to be guarded by policemen day and night for some time as it was frequently sprayed with graffiti.


The Polish Air Forces memorial on the floor of the church

The floor of the church, of Welsh slate, is inscribed with the badges of over 800 RAF commands, groups, stations, squadrons and other formations. Near the entrance door is a ring of the badges of Commonwealth air forces, surrounding the badge of the RAF.

A memorial to the Polish airmen and squadrons who fought in the defence of the United Kingdom and the liberation of Europe in the Second World War is positioned on the floor of the north aisle.

Books of Remembrance listing the names of all the RAF personnel who have died in service, as well as those American airmen based in the United Kingdom who died during the Second World War.

Near the altar are plaques listing the names of RAF, Royal Flying Corps, Royal Naval Air Service, and Commonwealth personnel awarded the Victoria Cross and the George Cross.


King Harold Harefoot is recorded as being buried here, although there is no memorial.[20]

There are memorials to several people associated with the RAF whose ashes are buried in St Clement Danes, including

Donations and artefactsEdit

In the gallery hang the Queen's Colours and Standards of active RAF squadrons, (these Colours/Standards having been retired and replaced by newer versions), along with standards of several now disbanded squadrons plus the Royal Banner of the Royal Observer Corps, (most standards of disbanded squadrons hang in the rotunda of the RAF College Cranwell).

Pulpits, pews and chairs in the body of the church have been presented by various people, including past chiefs of the Air Staff, Sir Douglas Bader and the Guinea Pig Club. The armorial achievement of Lord Trenchard is displayed above the main entrance at the west end of the church. The lectern was a gift from the Royal Australian Air Force, the Cross from the Air Training Corps, the altar from the Dutch embassy. The church's font was donated by the Royal Norwegian Air Force, and is located in the crypt.[23] The Paschal Candle was given by the Royal Belgian Air Force. Information on the donated organ is to be found in the next section. The Order of the Garter Banner of MRAF Lord Portal of Hungerford was transferred from St George's Chapel, Windsor Castle to St Clement Danes following his death in 1971.[24]

Rectors of St Clement DanesEdit

John Diprose's history of St Clement Danes gives a list of rectors since 1325.[25]

  • 1540–1557† John Rixman (also Archdeacon of Cornwall)
  • 1557–1559† Ralph Jackson[26]
  • 1559–1589† William Harward[27]
  • 1589–1602† Richard Webster[28] (also Archdeacon of Middlesex)
  • 1602–1617† John Layfield[29]
  • 1617–1634† Roger Bates
  • 1634–1678† Richard Dukeson (sequestered in 1643, his place taken by Daniel Evans, Richard Vines, and George Masterson;[30][31] Dukeson was restored in 1660[32])
  • 1678–1708† Gregory Hascard (also Dean of Windsor from 1684)
  • 1708–1719† William Forster[33]
  • 1720–1721 Thomas Blomer[34]
  • 1721–1773† Thomas Blackwell[35]
  • 1773–1786† John Burrows
  • 1786–1795† George Berkeley (son of Bishop Berkeley, husband of Eliza Berkeley)
  • 1795–1807 Henry Garrioch Vernon[36]
  • 1807–1843† William Gurney[37]
  • 1843–1855 William Webb Ellis
  • 1855–1860 Skinner Chart Mason[38]
  • 1860–1869 Richard Henry Killick[39]
  • 1869–1879 Robert James Simpson
  • 1879–1887 John Lindsay
  • 1887–1889 George Sutton Flack[40]
  • 1889–1910† J. J. H. Septimus Pennington[41] (surnamed Sparrow until 1886)
  • 1910–1941† William Pennington Bickford (son-in-law of Septimus Pennington)

Rector died in post


The organ of 1958

The earliest records of an organ are from 1690, when an organ was installed by Bernard Smith. This went through several rebuildings over the next 250 years, but was finally destroyed in the Second World War. A new organ, situated facing the altar in the gallery, was installed by the builder Harrison and Harrison in 1958. This was a gift from the United States Air Force. The case was made as a replica of the Father Smith organ previously destroyed. A specification of the organ can be found on the National Pipe Organ Register.[42]



The church established both a primary and a secondary school.

The St. Clement Danes CE Primary School (established in 1700) is located nearby on Drury Lane in Covent Garden.[44]

A secondary school was first located in Holborn (1862-1928) near to the church, then moved to Hammersmith as a State School run by the Inner London Education Authority as 'St. Clement Danes Grammar School' (1928-1975). It then relocated to Chorleywood, Hertfordshire, initially as a Comprehensive school (1975-2011), and thereafter as an Academy as 'St Clement Danes School'.

Masonic LodgeEdit

In 1871 a Masonic Lodge was consecrated at the request of several local Freemasons, who wanted to meet in a local Lodge instead of having to travel out of the parish. The petition was accepted by the then Grand Master, the Earl de Grey and Ripon; accordingly the St Clement Danes Lodge was formed and granted a Warrant of Constitution, along with the registration number 1351 on the register of the United Grand Lodge of England. The first meeting of the Lodge was on 4 May 1871 at the King's Head public house at 265 Strand, and the Rector of the Church, the Reverend R J Simpson, was the first Chaplain of the Lodge. The Lodge held meetings at various hotels and restaurants within the parish for many years, before amending its Constitution to allow it to meet at Freemasons' Hall, Great Queen Street, London, where it still meets today.

In fictionEdit

The statue of Dr Samuel Johnson at the eastern end of the church land, comes to life as the character "Dictionary", in Charlie Fletcher's 2006 children's book about unLondon, Stoneheart.

The 1949 novel Nineteen Eighty-Four has the protagonist encountering a picture of the church from prior to the war – a building which he has known only as a ruin, never having been rebuilt.[45] (The plot of the book, written in 1948, assumes a Third World War breaking out in the early 1950s, followed by a period of deep crisis and civil war in Britain and the rise of a totalitarian regime banning all religion; thus, no one in this future had any reason to rebuild the church).

Notable peopleEdit

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ "Chairman welcomes new Resident Chaplain to St Clement Danes Church". 20 June 2022.
  2. ^ "Order of St John | the Gazette".
  3. ^ The Layman's Magazine of the Living Church, Issues 1-20. Morehouse-Gorham. 1940. p. 5.
  4. ^ a b Transactions of the London and Middlesex Archaeological Society, Volume 55. London: Bishopsgate Institute. 2004. p. 29.
  5. ^ a b Partington, Charles Frederick (1834). National history and views of London and its environs. A. Bell. p. 191.
  6. ^ Perkins, Les (2002). Flight Into Yesterday. Trafford Publishing. p. 468. ISBN 9781552129890.
  7. ^ Norden, John (1 January 2001). "Appendix 6 John Norden's Description of Westminster including Queen Elizabeth's Palaces". In Nichols, John (ed.). The Progresses of Queen Elizabeth (1788-1823). Oxford University Press. p. 136. ISBN 978-0-19-955142-2.
  8. ^ Newcourt, Richard (1708). Repetorium Ecclesiasticum Parochiale Londinense. Vol. 1. London. pp. 590–2.
  9. ^ Dictionary of British Sculptors 1660-1851 by Rupert Gunnis
  10. ^ a b "St Clement Danes Church". Pastscape. Retrieved 5 May 2015.[permanent dead link]
  11. ^ Whinney, Margaret (1998). Wren. London: Thames and Hudson. p. 57. ISBN 0500201129.
  12. ^ "St. Clement Danes". Battle of Britain London Monument. Retrieved 24 March 2021.
  13. ^ Christopher Lucas. "Sam Lloyd obituary | Art and design". The Guardian. Retrieved 27 December 2015.
  14. ^ Howard, Alexander (1964). Endless Cavalcade: A Diary of British Festivals and Customs. Arthur Barker Ltd. p. 66.
  15. ^ Bill Hardy. "Thorley's Amazing Connections: The Pennington Files, part two". Archived from the original on 22 July 2012. Retrieved 18 September 2011.
  16. ^ "Idea: Christians in the line of fire".
  17. ^ "Westminster Abbey celebrates the centenary of the RAF".
  18. ^ "Faith Winter FRBS (1927–2017)". Royal Society of Sculptors. Retrieved 21 October 2021.
  19. ^ Lambourne, Nicola (2001). War damage in Western Europe. Edinburgh University Press. p. 129. ISBN 978-0748612857.
  20. ^ "The Saturday Review of Politics, Literature, Science and Art". 1869.
  21. ^ "Arthur, Baron Tedder". Westminster Abbey. Retrieved 17 December 2020.
  22. ^ "William Sholto Douglas". Westminster Abbey. Retrieved 17 December 2020.
  23. ^ "RAF - St Clement Danes Church". Retrieved 20 July 2018.
  24. ^ "Garter Banner Locations" (PDF). St. George's Chapel Windsor. Retrieved 2 November 2021.
  25. ^ Diprose, John (1876). Some Account of the Parish of Saint Clement Danes (Westminster) Past and Present. Vol. 2. Retrieved 13 July 2020.
  26. ^ "Jackson, Ralph (JK549R)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge.
  27. ^ "Harward, William (HRWT546W)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge.
  28. ^ "Webster, Richard (WBSR572R)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge.
  29. ^ "Layfield, John (LFLT577J)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge.
  30. ^ Gordon, Alexander (1899). "Vines, Richard (1600?-1656)" . In Lee, Sidney (ed.). Dictionary of National Biography. Vol. 58. London: Smith, Elder & Co.
  31. ^ Hessayon, Ariel (2007). Gold Tried in the Fire: The Prophet TheaurauJohn Tany and the English Revolution. p. 71. ISBN 9780754655978. Retrieved 29 July 2020.
  32. ^ "Dukeson, Richard (DK616R)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge.
  33. ^ "Forster, William (FRSR682W2)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge.
  34. ^ "Blomer, Thomas (BLMR696T)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge.
  35. ^ "Blackwell, Thomas (BLKL715T)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge.
  36. ^ "Vernon, Henry Garrioch". Retrieved 11 July 2020.
  37. ^ "Gurney, William (GNY784W)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge.
  38. ^ "Mason, Skinner Chart (M841SC)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge.
  39. ^ "Killick, Richard Henry (KLK838RH)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge.
  40. ^ "Flack, George Sutton (FLK865G)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge.
  41. ^ "Sparrow (post Pennington), John James Horatio Septimus (SPRW856JJ)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge.
  42. ^ "The National Pipe Organ Register – NPOR". Retrieved 15 June 2017.
  43. ^ "Biographical Dictionary of the Organ | D. Rayner-Smith".
  44. ^ "St Clement Danes Church of England Primary School". Retrieved 9 March 2022.
  45. ^ "1984 Part Two IV-VII Summary and Analysis". GradeSaver. Retrieved 27 December 2015.
  46. ^ Cook, Richard Baldwin (November 2007). All of the Above I. ISBN 9780979125713.
  47. ^ Williams, Guy (1990). Augustus Pugin Versus Decimus Burton: A Victorian Architectural Duel. London: Cassell Publishers Ltd. p. 18. ISBN 0-304-31561-3.
  48. ^ Historic England. "Statue of W E Gladstone on island in road, Strand, WC2 (Grade II) (1237098)". National Heritage List for England. Retrieved 11 December 2021.

Coordinates: 51°30′47″N 0°06′50″W / 51.513107°N 0.113898°W / 51.513107; -0.113898

Further readingEdit

  • Reg Pellant, "St. Clement Danes: Church of the Royal Air Force", Saint Clement Danes (Royal Air Force) Appeal Fund, 1971.
  • Eirwen E.C. Nicholson, "The St Clement Danes Altarpiece and the Iconography of post-Revolution England" in Jonathan Clark and Howard Erskine-Hill (eds.), Samuel Johnson in Historical Context (Palgrave, 2002) pp. 55–77.
  • Richard Sharp, "The Religious and Political Character of the Parish of St Clement Danes" in Jonathan Clark and Howard Erskine-Hill (eds.), Samuel Johnson in Historical Context (Palgrave, 2002), pp. 44–55.

External linksEdit