Behind the City's walls part 4: mystery

Conspiracy theories abound in the City of London. Finbarr Bermingham delves into some of the most startling

If you start out from St Paul's Cathedral and travel 2,000 cubits (about 914 metres) west, you'll reach Temple Bar. Walk 2,000 cubits east, and you'll hit St Dunstan-in-the-East. Christ Church, in Spitalfields is - yep, you guessed it - 2,000 cubits from St Mary Woolnoth, and there's the same distance between St George-in-the-East and London Wall. Sir Christopher Wren and Nicholas Hawksmoor, who between them designed all of the aforementioned churches, are emblems of the City of London's magnificent architecture, but in the eyes of some, they've also come to represent a tradition of estoricism that is an inescapable part of the City's identity.

You see, the nice round figure of 2,000 cubits doesn't just appeal to fans of exactitudes, it's also one of the most important numbers in biblical tradition. In Joshua, Israelites are told to "keep a distance of about two thousand cubits between you and the ark" and in Numbers it's given as the definitive number in city planning and, thus, taken as being the symbolic measurement of the Promised Land (and the reason why some fundamentalists expected to hear the Four Horsemen galloping into town around the turn of the Millennium). But is this adherence to the scriptures deliberate or pure happenstance?

Do the math

For conspiracy theorists, the City of London is a treasure trove of such clues and reading into them has produced fascinating results. In particular, the geometric precision with which the City was relaid by Wren and Hawksmoor following the Great Fire has helped to fuel centuries of whispers about the extent of the connections between the Square Mile and Freemasonry. The Freemasons, which still have a massive presence in the City through the livery companies and their role in its governance, were prominent among the City's founding fathers. Wren and Hawksmoor were both heavily influenced by Masonic culture and customs, in which geometry plays a significant part.

Because of their clandestine nature, perceptions of who the City's Freemasons are and what they do vary wildly. For some, they're no more than business ambassadors, ensuring the City's enterprises are well represented. For others, though, they're a secret society steeped in alchemy and Kabbalah (the reinterpretation of the Bible using codes - often numerical patterns - that Kabbalists believe are buried within it), and represent the fabled New World Order - a secretive, totalitarian group with the ultimate globalist agenda: to rule the world. According to David Hambling in the Fortean Times, the Freemasons in 17th century London believed they were descendent from the Lost Tribe of Israel and, post-Reformation, wished to turn Britain into "a global empire, a true successor to Rome, with a temporal and religious capital to match it" - a New Jerusalem to rival the power of the Vatican.

After the Great Fire, the blueprints for the City drawn up by Wren and his colleagues were said to be based upon the Sephirot - the metaphysical chain through which Kabbalists believe God manifests himself. By adhering to the Sephirot, followers believed they would be able to know and execute the will of God. Was Wren trying to channel the powers of Heaven to fuel the City's power and wealth? Or was it all just about architectural aesthetics?

Devil Town

The work of Nicholas Hawksmoor is an even greater minefield of conspiracy. Hawksmoor started out as Wren's assistant but went on to rival his mentor's influence on the City's skyline. He was commissioned to design and build dozens of churches, only six of which were completed, but all of which were or are considered among Britain's finest. For some, though, these buildings have sinister undertones. Laid out in a pentagram - the five sided shape that since the days of Aleister Crowley has stood for the archfiend below - the churches led to him being posthumously christened "the Devil's Architect". His buildings are littered with cubes, squares, pyramids and stars, which, depending on who you believe, represent satanism, paganism, Masonry or Christianity, or a mystical mixture of them all.

Professor Vaughan Hart an architectural historian at the University of Bath and author of Nicholas Hawksmoor: Rebuilding Ancient Wonders acknowledges the Masonic influence in Hawksmoor's work, but is sure it's been overstated. "The link between different churches making a pentagram," he says, "always seemed a bit far-fetched to me, because all the sites were chosen for him - he had to build in a particular way. He did have an interest in the law of Freemasonry and that did have what we call an esoteric side. But it's not all about ghosts and the supernatural. I know Hawksmoor was a keen student of the description in the Bible of Solomon's Temple. [Some Masonic scholars trace their roots to the building the Temple in Jerusalem in 967 B.C., an event described in the Book of Kings.]. There's religion involved, and that's obvious in buildings like St George, Bloomsbury, which can be viewed as building from a kind of underworld representation in the crypt, up to a more lofty and light-filled area that you could say signifies heaven."

A code of silence

Despite the best efforts of scholars like Professor Hart to quieten the clamour, interest in conspiracy theories has grown immeasurably in recent years (we're looking at you, Dan Brown). The City's mystical associations have been blamed for the Great Depression, which followed the destruction of the original Bank of England building designed by Sir John Soane, an influential Mason, and also the current financial crisis. Even the case of Jack the Ripper, the most notorious murder mystery in Britain's history has been associated with the Square Mile's esoteric traditions. In his fictional book-length poem Lud Heat, Iain Sinclair links the Ripper, whose identity is still unknown, and Hawksmoor. And David Hambling, in a Fortean Times article, interprets Sinclair's work as suggesting that "the malign influence of [the Hawksmoor-designed] Christ Church, Spitalfields, is so great that it attracts dark acts of violence to its vicinity".

In researching this series of articles for The Gateway, numerous attempts to get information or quotes from those within the circle of Freemasons that still holds such a strong influence in the City today were all declined or ignored. The conspiracy theories may be fanciful, but with such a shroud of secrecy surrounding Masonic life, it's no wonder they continue to fester and multiply. The lowbrow literature of Dan Brown isn't for everyone, but credit where it's due: he's helped awaken a wider audience to one of the most fascinating elements of the Square Mile, and one which only adds to its mystique.