St. Mary Axe

The Gherkin

St. Mary Axe is a street in the center of London. It is named for a medieval parish that the street once comprised. The church is gone and the parish later combined with another, St. Andrew Undershaft, which still sits on St. Mary Axe, so all that is left of it is the street name. Today, the most famous building now on the street is nicknamed the ‘Gherkin’, but is officially called 30 St. Mary Axe. This bullet shaped building is a landmark of modern London. The full name of the church was St. Mary, St. Ursula and her 11,000 Virgins. The name is derived from a holy relic held in the church, an axe, one of two that with which the eleven thousand virgins were beheaded. Coincidentally, this history comes to us through a document created during the reign of Henry VIII, who was certainly no stranger to beheading women with an axe. This full name refers to the legend that Saint Ursula, accompanied by eleven thousand handmaidens, who when returning to Britain from a pilgrimage to Rome, had refused to marry a Hunnish chief and was executed along with her whole entourage on the site of modern Cologne, in about 451 AD. Gilbert and Sullivan references St. Mary Axe in their operetta, The Sorcerer and calls it “Simmery Axe”. This reflects the fact that Londoners pronounced the street’s name as “S’M’ry Axe” rather than enunciating it fully.

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