A History of the Church of Saint James Clerkenwell

by Nicholas Riddell

This is the story of Saint James Clerkenwell from its beginning in the 12th century as the church of the nunnery of St. Mary. It tells how it survived the resolution of the monasteries and was rebuilt at the end of the 18th century in its present Georgian form. It is also the history of the parish and how Clerkenwell changed from a country parish into a fashionable suburb and then into an industrialised, densely populated inner-city area. You’ll be introduced to some of its more celebrated parishioners, from Mad Madge the Duchess of Newcastle to Thomas Britton the musical coall man. In the 19th Century Clerkenwell Green was the epicentre of radical protest in London and the church itself was the focus of controversy and excitement with its notorious clerical elections and the public pillorying of its vicar and vestry for the appalling condition of slum properties in the parish. Above all this is an account of how St James with its steadfast Low Church and Evangelical tradition, has sought to bring Christ into the lives of its increasingly pagan parishioners. The 21st century has seen the rebirth of Clerkenwell as a driving centre of enterprise and creativity. Moreover it has seen the revival of the church of St James under the leadership of its present minister as a thriving centre of Christianity.

Book can be purchased online through or in person in the office of Saint James Clerkenwell. 0207 2511190  

Download history leaflet here, or take an extensive look at St. James Church history here.


The parish of St James Clerkenwell has had a long and sometimes lively history. About the year 1100 a Norman baron named Jordan Briset founded a Benedictine nunnery dedicated to St Mary, which became wealthy and influential. It had a place of pilgrimage at Muswell Hill, and the parish kept an outlying tract of territory there until the nineteenth century. This photo shows the cloisters as they would have been at the nunnery.


At the Dissolution of the nunnery under Henry VIII, the nunnery church was named St. James and was taken into use by the local parishioners who unusually, obtained the right to appoint the vicar by hustings on Clerkenwell Green.


The new church was built in 1792 by architect, James Carr, in a preaching-house, style. The upper galleries were added in 1822 for the children of the Sunday-School, founded in 1807; the back parts of the upper galleries were for the use of the poor.


The crypt was used for burials until 1912 when 300 coffins were moved and stored under the main West entrance and the crypt was then excavated and equipped to form a large hall. The new hall was opened by the Princess Maria Louise of Schleswig-Holstein in 1912. It was later remodelled in 1994 with further improvements made in 1999.


Schoolboys pictured right play games on the steps of St. James during a practice air raid alert. During WW11, 70 high explosive bombs were dropped from 7th October 1940 to 6th June 1941 in the Clerkenwell area.