Sunday, 2 September 2018

Forgotten London:The Strand, St Clement's Danes Church

Image taken from British Museum Collection

The inspiration for this post comes from Steve Roud's London Lore.

The spot where St Clement Danes Church in the Strand now stands has had a church on it since the tenth century, but the current church is a Wren rebuilt after bombing damage during the Second World War. It's allegedly the church from the children's rhyme: oranges and lemons say the bells of St Clements. But why is it called Danes Church?

Allegedly this is because a Danish King is buried there. According to chronicles, Harold son of Cnut the Great reigned officially for three years; he spent more time as regent, but was opposed in his bid to wear the crown by his two brothers. When he died he was buried at Westminster, but his half brother Hardicanutus, angry because his mother had been usurped by Harold's, dug up the corpse and flung it in the Thames. 'where it was by a fisherman taken up and buried in this churchyard.'

Harold was only in his early 20s when he died. According to legend his death was divine retribution for taking the town of Sandwich from the monks of Christchurch. Though there are other Kings of the period who died as young or younger, usually it was on the point of a murderer's poniard. In Harold's case it was a mysterious illness that laid him low at Oxford.

Harold was one of the first royals to be buried at Westminster, and at the time nobody really understood why. It's thought a royal residence was nearby, but the Abbey may have had particular significance for the Danes, which might explain why Hardicanutus was so keen to get him out.

From 1862 until the later 1920s there was a school nearby, St Clement Danes School, built on land purchased by the churchwardens. It moved twice, eventually ending up in Hertfordshire.

From 1919 onwards there has been a yearly event, initiated by Reverend William Pennington-Bickford, at which oranges and lemons are handed out to boys and girls of the parish.

Sir Christopher Wren's 15th century design was extensively remodeled by the Luftwaffe on May 10th, 1941. Bombs gutted the interior, burnt its organ, and flung the famous bells to the ground. In the 1950s after a fundraising drive from the RAF the church was rebuilt, and since then it has become the RAF's most honored Central Church.

With all that in mind, what could be done with this setting either in Bookhounds or Dracula Dossier?

The temptation with Bookhounds is to either go Arabesque or Sordid. Technicolor could work, but those two directions seem more fruitful.

In Arabesque St Clement Danes becomes the Eternal Flame. The Blitz wasn't the first time the church surrendered to overwhelming blaze. One alternate link to the Danes has it that a party of Danes burnt the church that stood on the site before they were killed, and that's why it is known as the Danes church. No matter whether it's day or night, there is always a burning flame at St Clement Danes - it might be a candle, a bonfire, or an unexplained glow from the stained glass windows. On one special night each year the Rector closes the doors for a sermon to be read to the flames themselves, to keep the church from burning in the coming year. It's said the repentant Danes gather to worship there, one night only. Those who somehow manage to overhear what's said at that sermon gain 1 point The Knowledge or 1 point Magic, in exchange for 2 points Stability. Stability lost in this way cannot be refreshed for one month; it takes time for those memories to fade.

In Sordid the old rhyme Oranges and Lemons plays a part. The children of the parish are encouraged the play the game, in which the final lines are here is a candle to light you to bed, and here is a chopper to chop off your head. Folklorists don't know exactly what the rhyme means; it has an old an murky history, and different versions have circulated since at least the 1700s. The churchwardens have a particular reason for wanting this game played. It allows them to randomly select a child to sacrifice, to ensure the protection of the church. This doesn't happen every year; it only happens when the previous sacrifice fails, at which point the child selected by random ballot - effectively - is killed in a staged accident. The parish always buries that child free of charge, and the body is swiftly taken into a hidden vault where it is interred in a special coffin with a glass lid. So long as the sacrifice holds, the body remains intact - preserved. The minute it starts to rot the protection fails, so the churchwardens have to go looking for another sacrifice. This practice ends after the 1941 bombing, which destroys both the church and the last few churchwardens who know the ritual. A protagonist who assists in this year's sacrifice will be taught many odd tricks of Megapolisomancy, adding 1 point Magic to their pool.

St Clement Danes isn't mentioned in the Dossier and to my knowledge there is no immediate vampire connection - though with these old churches, who knows? However that 1941 bombing looks fruitful, particularly when you consider Edom can never have been entirely sure Dracula's influence was driven from London in the 1890s. There's that Satanic Cult after all, never mind any vampiric by-blows that might have been lurking in the shadows. Along comes the Blitz and everybody's plans are upset, including the Cult's, and many a vampire haven must have gone up in smoke.

I'm particularly lured by an old war film. The Small Back Room, which tells the story of a disaffected scientist, one of the back room boffins, who thinks wartime research is being completely misapplied.

This sounds like a job for Tinman.

Plot core: It's 1941. Edom has become aware of a small pocket of Dracula-inspired resistance in London. Possible suspects include the Servants, Satanic Cult, a Feral, Lucy, or similar. At about the same time German bombers start dropping particularly unpleasant booby-trap bombs during the Blitz, and while these bombs kill people they're also clearly intended to kill vampires. Edom's task is to find a way to deal with these booby-trapped bombs while at the same time trace the lingering elements of Dracula's initial Conspyramid to its lair. Investigative scenes include other booby-trap sites, a bombed-out London where black marketeers trade in questionable, Satanic curios, a former hideout of the Cult now bombed to rubble, all leading up to the climactic moment at the heart of the May raid, where the last remnants of Dracula's by-blow are traced to St Clement Danes. They hide in that church because they've been able to deconsecrate it, using child sacrifice - here is a chopper to chop off your head - as the catalyst. Surely, the Dracula remnant reasons, nobody will think to look for me in a church? At which point the whole church is bombed to blazes, and the characters have to deal with escaping vampires or similar while at the same time defusing the booby-trapped bombs before they take out innocent civilians.

As for the question of why should the Germans want to kill vampires, at least two possibilities arise: the Germans don't want the British to get an edge on their own vampire program, and second, Dracula's using his influence in Germany to wipe out some disloyal former allies. Or something else entirely, of course …


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