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Hot Cross Buns At St Bartholomew The Great

April 18, 2019
by the gentle author

Tomorrow at 11:30am sees the Ceremony of the Widow’s Sixpence in Smithfield

Distribution of buns to widows in the churchyard of St Bartholomew the Great

St Bartholomew the Great is one of my favourite churches in the City, a rare survivor of the Great Fire, it boasts the best Norman interior in London. Composed of ancient rough-hewn stonework, riven with deep shadow where feint daylight barely illuminates the accumulated dust of ages, this is one of those rare atmospheric places where you can still get a sense of the medieval world glimmering. Founded by Rahere in 1123, the current structure is the last vestige of an Augustinian Priory upon the edge of Smithfield, where once  martyrs were burnt at the stake as public entertainment and the notorious St Bartholomew Fair was celebrated each summer from 1133 until 1855.

In such a location, the Good Friday tradition of the distribution of charity in the churchyard to poor widows of the parish sits naturally. Once known as the ‘Widow’s Sixpence,’ this custom was institutionalised by Joshua Butterworth in 1887, who created a trust in his name with an investment of twenty-one pounds and ten shillings. The declaration of the trust states its purpose thus – “On Good Friday in each year to distribute in the churchyard of St. Bartholomew the Great the sum of 6d. to twenty-one poor widows, and to expend the remainder of such dividends in buns to be given to children attending such distribution, and he desired that the Charity intended to be thereby created should be called ‘the Butterworth Charity.'”

Those of us who gathered in the churchyard at St Bartholomew the Great on Good Friday were blessed with sunlight. Yet we could not resist a twinge of envy for the clerics in their heavy cassocks and warm velvet capes as they processed from the church in a formal column, with priests at the head attended by vergers bearing wicker baskets of freshly buttered Hot Cross Buns, and a full choir bringing up the rear.

In the nineteen twenties, the sum distributed to each recipient was increased to two shillings and sixpence, and later to four shillings. Resplendent in his scarlet robes, Rev Martin Dudley, Rector of St Bartholomew the Great climbed upon the table tomb at the centre of the churchyard traditionally used for that purpose and enacted the motions of this arcane ceremony – enquiring of the assembly if there were a poor widow of the parish in need of twenty shillings. To his surprise, a senior female raised her hand. “That’s never happened before!” he declared to the easy amusement of the crowd.

I detected a certain haste to get to the heart of the proceedings – the distribution of the Hot Cross Buns. Rev Dudley directed the vergers to start with choir who exercised admirable self-control in only taking one each. Then, as soon as the choir had been fed, the vergers set out around the boundaries of the yard where senior females with healthy appetites reached forward eagerly to take their allotted Hot Cross Buns in hand. The tense anticipation gave way to good humour as everyone delighted in the strangeness of the ritual which rendered ordinary buns exotic. Reaching the end of the line at the furthest extent of the churchyard, the priests wasted no time in satisfying their own appetites and, for a few minutes, silence prevailed as the entire assembly munched their buns.

Then Rev Martin returned to his central position upon the table tomb. “And now, because there is no such thing as free buns,” he announced, “we’re going to sing a hymn.” Yet we were more than happy to oblige, standing replete with buns on Good Friday and enjoying the April sunlight.

The Priory Church of St Bartholomew the Great, a century ago.

John Betjeman once lived in this house overlooking the churchyard.

The ceremony of the Widow’s Sixpence in the nineteen twenties.

“God’s blessing upon the frosts and cold!”

A crowd gathers for the ceremony a hundred years ago.

Hungry widows line up for buns.

The churchyard in the nineteenth century.

Rev Martin Dudley BD MSc MTh PhD FSA FRHistS AKC is the 25th Rector since the Reformation.

Testing the buns.

The clerics ensure no buns go to waste.

Hymns in the cold – “There is a green hill far away without a city wall…”

The Norman interior of St Bartholomew the Great at the beginning of the twentieth century.

The Gatehouse prior to bombing in World War I and reconstruction.

Archive images courtesy Bishopsgate Institute

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5 Responses leave one →
  1. Jill Wilson permalink
    April 18, 2019

    I love it that these eccentric traditions still carry on in all sorts of corners of London.

    For anyone who wants to get into the Good Friday spiritual mindset there is a stunning video of Allegri’s Miserere sung by Tenebrae filmed at St Barthomolew’s the Great. Truly wonderful singing which really suits the medieval setting – quite literally out of this world..

  2. Kate permalink
    April 18, 2019

    Thank you, really enjoyed that and St Batholomew’s is on my list of churches to see.

  3. Derek Bailey permalink
    April 18, 2019

    Tell me what “feint daylight” is please?

  4. Phyllis Craine permalink
    April 18, 2019

    I was lucky to visit St. Bartholomew in 2017, it was the middle of the week and we had the church to ourselves. One thing photos can never really impart is the intangible feel of a very very old building. The interior was dark , cool and quiet. The air had a faint odor of wax, smoke, wood and polished brass, built up over centuries. No sound of London traffic interfered. The walls are covered in tablets, memorials and plaques commemorating people and events, some well known and many long forgotten and now memorialized only here. The history of London pervades this place. This church has also survived devastating fires and wars and it’s still with us. Notre Dame will prevail.

  5. Pam Traves permalink
    April 20, 2019

    Hot Cross Buns!! These Pictures were Wonderful!!! I an now 64 years old and I remember my first taste of me as little child and I always make them every year. I so Love them lots of butter!!!

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