Sunday, 20 June 2010

St Clement

This weather vane sits on top of St Clement Danes church in the Strand, London WC2. A church had stood on the site for a long time - according to one tradition, it was founded in the 9th century by Danes expelled from the City of London. (The boundary between the City of London and Westminster was only a little way to the east). It was gutted in 1941 during the Blitz. After the war it was handed over to the Air Council, who raised funds for its rebuilding. In 1958 it was reconsecrated as the Air Force church, a role it still has today.
The church has become the focus of a number of unstable traditions. Its very foundation legend is debatable: Steve Roud writes 'On the question of the Danes, there is no simple answer'. (1) The churchbells now peal the nursery rhyme 'Oranges and Lemons' four times a day, although the meaning of the current words is just as questionable as the song's attachment to this church, rather than St Clement's Eastcheap.
The weather vane is a nice example, having nothing to do with the nursery rhyme, the Danes, or the RAF. It is stamped with an anchor, representing St Clement, the patron saint of sailors. Happily, given the altogether unclear history of any of the traditions involved, St Clement's own past is equally murky. Even some sympathetic sources query whether he died a martyr. The most common version of his legend is that he was killed by being thrown into the sea with an anchor round his neck, hence his invocation by sailors, and, later, his adoption as the patron saint of anchor-smiths. This was logically extended to blacksmiths, too, although it isn't exactly clear when. Blacksmiths were widely honouring him by the early nineteenth century, but there had already been a long history of St Clement's Day (23rd November) as a day of general festivity, marked by fishermen and bakers amongst others.
I like the uncertainty. I like the whirling mass of stories out of which all sorts of customs emerge. I particularly like this weather vane, because it symbolises a group of motifs and themes which have now largely been superseded by other traditions. You could so easily miss it.

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1) Steve Roud, London Lore: The Legends and Traditions of the World's Most Vibrant City (London: Random House, 2008), p. 114