St Martin in the Fields - The Worshipful Company of Parish Clerks

St Martin in the Fields

• St Martin-in-the-Fields is situated at the north-east corner of Trafalgar Square in the City of Westminster. The patron is Saint Martin of Tours.

• Excavations at the site in 2006 led to the discovery of a grave dated about 410. The site is outside the city limits of Roman London (as was the usual Roman practice for burials) but is particularly interesting for being so far outside and this is leading to a reappraisal of Westminster's importance at that time. The burial is thought by some to mark a Christian centre of that time (possibly reusing the site or building of a pagan temple).

• The earliest extant reference to the church is from 1222, with a dispute between the Abbot of Westminster and the Bishop of London as to who had control over it. It was decided in favour of Westminster and was used by the monks of Westminster Abbey

• The church was rebuilt by Henry VIII in 1542 to avoid plague victims from the area having to pass through his Palace of Whitehall. At this time, it was literally "in the fields" in an isolated position between the cities of Westminster and London.

• By the reign of James I the church was becoming inadequate for the congregation, due to the great increase in population in the area. In 1606 the king granted an acre of ground on the west side of St. Martin's Lane for a new churchyard, and the church was enlarged. Later in the seventeenth century, galleries were added, and the creation of the new parishes of St Anne, Soho, and St James, Piccadilly, and the opening of a chapel in Oxenden Street relieved some of the pressure on space.

• A number of notables were buried in the church, including Nell Gwynn

• A survey of 1710 found that the walls and roof were in a state of decay. In 1720, an act was passed for the rebuilding of the church allowing for a sum of up to £22,000, to be raised by a rate on the parishioners. A temporary church was erected partly on the churchyard and partly on ground in Lancaster Court. Advertisements were placed in the newspapers that bodies and monuments of those buried in the church or churchyard could be taken away for reinterment by relatives.

• The rebuilding commissioners selected James Gibbs to design the new church. His first suggestion was for a church with a circular nave and a domed ceiling; this was considered too expensive, and Gibbs then produced a simpler rectilinear plan, which was accepted. The foundation stone was laid on 19 March 1722, and the last stone of the spire was placed in position in December 1724.

• The west front of the St Martin’s has a portico with a pediment supported by a giant order of Corinthian columns, six wide. The order is continued around the church by pilasters. In designing the church, Gibbs was influenced by the works of Christopher Wren, but departed from Wren’s practice in his integration of the tower into the church. Rather than considering it as an adjunct to the main body of the building, he constructed it within its west wall, so that it rises above the roof, immediately behind the portico an arrangement previously used by John James at St George, Hanover Square (1712–24), though James’ steeple was much less ambitious. The spire of St Martin’s rises 192 feet above the level of the church floor.

• Until the creation of Trafalgar Square in the 1820s, Gibbs’s church was crowded in by other buildings. The design was criticised widely at the time, but subsequently became extremely famous, being copied particularly widely in the United States. In India, St Andrews Church, Egmore, Madras (now Chennai) is a copy of this church.

• Because of its prominent position, St Martin-in-the-Fields is one of the most famous non-cathedral churches in London. Its ethos as the "Church of the Ever Open Door" (a title coined by Dick Sheppard, Vicar in the early 20th century when the work with homeless people was started) continues today, even though it is not possible for it literally to be the case. It is famous for its work with homeless people and is also known for its regular lunchtime and evening concerts: many ensembles perform there, including the Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields, which was co-founded by Sir Neville Marriner and John Churchill, a former Master of Music at St Martin's. There is a popular café in the crypt, where jazz concerts are held. All profits from this go to the work of the church.

• The crypt is also home to the London Brass Rubbing Centre.

• Twelve historic bells from St Martin-in-the-Fields are included in the peal of the Swan Bells tower in Perth, Western Australia.


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