The Priory of The Holy Trinity was founded on the eastern edge of the City of London in 1108 by Matilda, Henry I's consort. By her generous endowment she gave not only the vast priory church and convent, but also the whole ward of Portsoken, four parishes (including that of St Katharine) and the City gate (Aldgate). By repute, the institution, with its widely extended buildings, was magnificent (the present Mitre Square lies above the priory cloisters, while a section of arches from the interior of the priory church survives in the reception area of an office building on the north side of Leadenhall Street).
The parishioners of St Katharine's first met for divine service at the altar of St Mary Magdalen in the south part of the priory church, but this was inconvenient because of the distraction from the reciting of the offices in the main body of the building. So it was that eventually, by agreement with the Priory, the church of St Katharine was built at the south-west corner of the Priory's land at the instance of Lord Richard de Graveshende, Bishop of London. This first church was built between 1280 and 1303.
The first church was, at the outset, served by one of the Canons of the Priory; in addition, the parishioners were obliged to resort to the Priory church at certain times of the church year. However "contention and discord" existed between the Prior and parishioners until 1414 when, by order of Bishop Clifford at his visitation, the church became again a parish church or chapel with the privileges appertaining to it and this was confirmed by Bishop Fitzjames on March 17 1568.
Little is known of the style of this first parish church. Plans made by A.J. Symans in 1592 (61 years after the Priory was dissolved by Henry VIII and given to Lord Audley) led Sir Walter Besant to comment that from the frequency of the window openings on the second floor plan "It would appear to have been in the Perpendicular style". Ancient masonry can still be traced, just above ground level, along the south and west fronts, that is in Leadenhall Street and Creechurch Lane. However it is known that the tower was built in 1504, with money left by Sir John Percivall, Merchant Taylor. The lower part of Percivall's tower is incorporated into the present structure, as is evident from the Perpendicular Gothic window at the first stage.
The church became known as St Katharine Christchurch, because of its connection with the Priory church, which had been named "Christ's Church" by Matilda (the Priory was commonly known as "Christchurch Priory"). Later this became varied to "St Katharine Creechurch" or, as now, "St Katharine Cree". The change is more readily understood if one remembers that "Christ" was once pronounced "Chreest".
In I531 the Priory was dissolved and its buildings given to Henry Lord Audley. He, in turn, offered the Priory Church to the parishioners of St Katharine but, for reasons that are no longer clear, they refused the offer. However, by 1620 St Katharine Creechurch was in serious disrepair—a deed dated 15 September 1629 refers to the "ruin and decay" of the church, causing structures to fall and so the building was pulled down.
By this time, the level of the high street had been, as John Stow (1598) says: "So often raised by pavements that now men are faine to descende into the…church by divers steps, seven in number". The current building is, therefore, much above the floor level of the first church. On the south side, just inside the building, can be seen the top of one of the pillars of the old church, now at waist height—an effective illustration of the change in floor level.
The new church was built between 1628 and 1630/1 under the influence of William Laud, at that time Bishop of London, and it was consecrated by him on 16 January 1630/1, as recorded in his diary. The ceremonial used by Laud at the consecration was later turned into a weapon to use against him at his trial and he was beheaded in 1645.
The church is one of very few left untouched by the Great Fire of London in 1666. It now stands in need of significant internal and external restoration and of friends and supporters for this task. They are beginning to appear.
|St Katharine Cree, looking west.|
The great organ, restored in 2003, is substantially an extremely good Victorian instrument, but retains some pipes from the original 17th-century instrument that was played by both Henry Purcell and John Blow.