Lenient Lion Remembered for 375 Years

The face of Sir John Gayer as depicted on a memorial plaque inside St Katharine Cree church
The face of Sir John Gayer as depicted on a memorial plaque inside St Katharine Cree church

by Ray Setterfield

October 16, 1643 — The ancient church of St Katharine Cree in the City of London was established in 1280, emerging from a priory of 1108 founded by Queen Matilda. It is the only neo-classical church to survive the Great Fire of London in 1666. And it is the only church where the Lion Sermon is preached every year.

For it was on this day that Sir John Gayer had his miraculous escape from a marauding lion.

Sir John, who was to become Lord Mayor of London, was also a governor of the East India Company and while travelling on a trading mission in Arabia – modern-day Syria – he became separated from his companions. Alone that night, the Englishman was then confronted by a lion.

Seeing no means of escape, the story goes, Sir John fell to his knees offering devout prayers and vows of charity.

The next morning he was found asleep in the desert, footprints of the disappeared lion all around him.

When the grateful Sir John arrived back in London he set aside a sum of money to provide an annual distribution of gifts to the poor and stipulated that a sermon should be preached every year so that future generations would learn how God had listened to his prayers and saved him from the jaws of the lion.

The Lion Sermon has continued to be preached at St Katharine Cree every year since and was still being delivered in 2019, more than 375 years later.

Descendant James Gayer explained that reading the sermon was a duty passed down through his family, undertaken by the eldest son of each generation.

*Footnote: According to scholars, the unusual name of the church stems from medieval times, “cree” being a corruption of “Christ Church”. The church today has no parish but is the Guild Church to Finance, Commerce and Industry.

Published: September 12, 2019

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