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FROM THE ARCHIVES

As we look to the future here at St Giles, it does us no harm to also reflect on the past, so here is another of our series of extracts from parish newsletters of the past. This letter was written by The Ven. Bill Jacob for Saint Giles' Day, September 2005

On the first Sunday in September we celebrate St Giles’ day, and the founding of St Giles as a hospital, or hostel, for there was no treatment for lepers in 1101.

St Giles was founded by Matilda, the wife of Henry I, whom he married in 1100. She was the daughter of St Margaret, Queen of Scotland, and like her mother she was immensely devout, attending daily services in her chapel. Henry was a generous man and settled an enormous income on Matilda at her marriage. She used some of this to recruit a choir of noted ability for her chapel, where she herself joined in singing the psalms. She also used part of her income to found and endow St Giles, as well as establishing an austere Augustinian house at Aldgate.

In 1101 St Giles was genuinely ‘in-the-fields’, well outside the walls of the City of London, and separated from the royal abbey and palace at Westminster by marshy land. Lepers were regarded as highly contagious, so it was important to put them outside cities, in waste places and hinterlands. Lepers themselves were regarded as border-line people, barely human. They were banned from socialising with other people. They were expected to remind people whom they approached that they were unclean. Being a leper was a pretty terrible experience. The care of lepers attracted great credit for piety, but would be less popular with the local community reluctant to have a hospital for lepers established on their doorstep. Therefore, despite St Giles having a saintly, royal and popular foundress, it may not have been greeted with much enthusiasm by those whose backyards bordered upon it.

Even today St Giles parish is a borderline area, on the boundaries between the Cities of London and Westminster. People are often unclear as to where it is; I frequently have to explain where I am Rector! It is still an area of deprivation and loss. It is drug addicts, rather than lepers, that now frequent our streets, and who, as well as causing disaster to themselves, risk trapping other vulnerable people in addiction. St Giles Church, though much reduced from the magnificent hospital which had arisen from the foundation of Queen Matilda, still provides a spiritual and physical refuge. We pray daily for those who live and work in, as well as visit, the area. Self help fellowships, such as Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, meet in the Vestry House during the course of the week, and the West End Drugs Partnership (which works to coordinate work with, and for, addicts in the area) meets here monthly.

It is often on the borders, in extremis, that people are aware of the love of God. We have a duty, in the name of Christ, to be here for them, mediating, however ineffectually, God’s saving grace for humankind.

Bill Jacob, Rector.

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St Giles-in-the-Fields

0207 240 2532

60 St Giles High Street, London

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