CHAPTER 3: THE CHURCH OF ST. MARTIN-IN-THE-FIELDS
The Mediaeval Church
Of the earliest church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, little is known
except that it came into being between the date of Domesday Book and
the reign of Henry II, (ref. 70) and that it was a parish church before the close of
the 12th century. (ref. 71) The church and churchyard were excepted out of the
exemption from the jurisdiction of the Bishop of London which was confirmed in 1222 to the Abbey of Westminster concerning St. Margaret's
Church and parish, (ref. 70) but the rectory appears to have belonged to the prior
of Westminster from the first. A list of all the known vicars is given in
References to the church in the 14th and 15th centuries are scanty.
There are some rather obscure references to digging for buried treasure
in the church circa 1300. In 1406 William Holt, a felon, took sanctuary
there but was removed "by divers malefactors by force by night, the men
of the town of Westminster watching there being wounded and ill treated." (ref. 26)
In 1423 the vicar successfully carried through a suit against the master and
brethren of the chapel of St. Mary Rounceval who had been defrauding
him of his parochial dues. (ref. 54)
The only first hand evidence available as to the architecture and
contents of the church prior to the enlargement carried out in 1607 is contained in the Churchwardens' Accounts and the Vestry Minutes. The
former start in 1525, (fn. a) the latter in 1574. The information they afford
with regard to the fabric of the church is somewhat fragmentary and the
early map-views add little to our knowledge since they show a purely conventionalised unaisled building with a tower at the west end. On Agas
the tower is placed at the south-west corner but this may probably be attributed to the artist's desire to put it in the picture. Vertue's plan and views
reproduced on page 21 and on plates 8 and 9 give some indication of the
size and plan of the original church. They show the tower at the north-west
corner, a position which is confirmed by Kip's view (Plate 53). (fn. b) There is no
suggestion in the accounts that the tower was rebuilt in 1607 and it can,
therefore, be assumed that this was its original position. All the later illustrations show the tower surmounted by a cupola of Renaissance design.
The church appears to have been built of rubble and repaired with
brick, and to have consisted of a chancel and nave under one roof, presumably
without a chancel arch, but with the division marked by a rood screen and
There are several references in the accounts to chapels; e.g. in 1533
"Making pews in Saint Johans aisle," in 1540–41 "For stuf and workmanship of the staires and ij pues in saynt Cuthberdes Chappell," and in
1544 to "Making a new pew next Seynt Cutberd Ile." These may have been
chantry chapels. An entry in 1534 for mending the gutter of Saint
John's Chapel, may indicate a structural division and not merely an altar.
In addition to the altars of St. John and St. Cuthbert there are references
to the Altar of Our Lady of Pity and to a Jesus Mass endowed by Humphrey
Cooke, which may indicate a Jesus Altar.
In 1525 there was a payment for carving and garnishing of
the rood loft and for the making of the image of Jesus and of Our Lady
and the twelve prophets. There was also in the same year an entry for wax
to renew the rood light and, in 1541, for glazing the window of the rood loft.
In 1525–27 timber, brick and tiles were provided for rebuilding the
porch and at the same time the body of the church was partly re-tiled and the
floor re-paved. There are also pre-Reformation references in the accounts to
the bells, to the organ, and to pews for the parishioners. The windows contained some coloured glass. The interior of the church was whitewashed.
The religious changes of the Tudor period are reflected in the
accounts which record the acquisition of vestments after the dissolution of
the monasteries, the sale of vestments, candlesticks, etc., and the destruction
of altars, during the reign of Edward VI, their reinstatement after the
accession of Mary, and the further changes of Elizabeth's reign.
In 1556–57 there were payments for mending and setting up the
pulpit and "for the staye to go vpp in to the powlpet," "for two clamps
of yron to ffasten the powlpett to the pyller," and "for Diggenge the whole
and setteng the poste in the grounde, and pavinge thearof."
The walls of the church were repaired, and perhaps in part rebuilt,
in 1542–43, when an organ loft was set up, and stalls were placed in the
choir. A more extensive repair was carried out in 1596–99, when the accounts
record "the Taking Downe of Peeres and Arches of Stone that the People
may the better here the preacher, the newe beareinge of the Roofes wth Stronge
arches and Pillers of Tymber," and the making of "two greate windowes
wth ij Dormors ouer them" as well as a number of minor matters.
By James I's reign both church and churchyard had become inadequate "by reason of the late greate increase of howses and habitacions in
the same parishe." (ref. 35) In 1606 the king granted an acre of ground on the
west side of St. Martin's Lane for a new churchyard (see p. 112) and at the
same time the churchwardens set about repairing and enlarging the church.
Reference to Vertue's plan (p. 21), shows that in 1606–09 the church was
extended on the north, south and west sides and a new chancel was built.
The prime mover in "amplifying and beautifying" (ref. 72) the builiding
was Sir George Coppin, Clerk of the Crown in the Court of Chancery. A
sordid dispute arose after the work was completed, some of the parishioners,
Ralph Dobbinson, John Thorpe and others, accusing Coppin of having
embezzled funds provided for the building, and Coppin retaliating in kind
by suggesting that Dobbinson had forged the accounts, and had combined
with other parishioners to annex the "highest and principal pewes" to the
deprivation of "Earles, knightes and other bountifull benefactors of the
same Church." The appropriation of pews was discussed several times by
the vestry about this time, and in 1618 the churchwardens were ordered
to see that parishioners could "enioye the liberty of their own pewes wth out
beeing troubled wth children or waiting women or others Wch have no Right
to sitt in such pewes … excepting the children of such honorable and
worthy persons as the churche-wardens … shall thinke fitt." (ref. 35) The question of seating-room in the church in a growing parish in an age when nonattendance was a punishable offence was a constant source of difficulty.
The gallery on the north side was enlarged in 1621 and that on the south
side in 1623, nevertheless a few years later the parishioners petitioned the
king for the use of the hall in Durham House as a church since the parish
church could not "contain one half of those who would come to it." (ref. 35) (fn. c)
Owing to the troubles of Charles I's reign, the Civil War, and the natural
dilatoriness of the parish authorities nothing effective was done. After the
Restoration the scramble for pews recommenced. In 1661 the Churchwardens were ordered to "cause a little gallery to bee made from the Vestry
Gallery unto ye second piller from ye sayd Gallery and that Sir Edward
Nicholas one of the Secretarys of State bee placed in parte of ye sayd new
built Gallery, leaving of it to himself what his honor wilbe pleased to give
for it". (ref. 35) Sir Edward Hungerford and Sir Thomas Clarges were among
the other applicants for pews. The formation of the parishes of St. Anne,
Soho, and St. James's, Piccadilly, in 1678–85 did much to relieve the
pressure, but it was found necessary to retain the subsidiary chapel in Oxendon
Street, first used as an offshoot of St. Martins in 1678, until 1726, when
St. Martin's was rebuilt.
The plan of [old] St. Martin's Church.
From an engraving by G. Vertue in
the Council's collection
The influence of Archbishop Laud is probably to be seen in the order
of 1626 "touchinge a Frame or pillers to be made about the Communion
Table," and in that of 1629 for seeing that the "glasse wyndowe of the
Chauncell at the East end of the Church be forthwith repayred with Cullored
glasse suitable to that Wch remayneth." (ref. 35)
On the whole the authorities of St. Martin's in the 17th century
occupied themselves with their own concerns and were content to swim
with the tide in larger matters. An exception was Dr. Everard, "reader"
of St. Martin's, who was so often imprisoned for preaching against the
proposed marriage of Prince Charles with the Infanta of Spain that King
James, in a rare burst of jocularity, is reported to have suggested that his
name should be changed from Dr. Ever-out to Dr. Never-out. (ref. 73) He was
later accused, apparently quite unjustly, of Anabaptist tendencies. (fn. d) There
is little to record of the Commonwealth period directly affecting the church.
Puritan zeal was displayed by the vestry in 1646 when they desired that
the vicar and the "Sabbath day lecturer" should have public prayers and
expositions at 6 o'clock every morning in summer and at 7 in winter "for
the better informacion of Laborers and the poorer sort who cannott come
to Church on the Lord's Day." When in 1649 the vestry requested that
"people of quality" might "freely come to ye Communion as formerly"
the reason put forward was the need for collections "for ye preservation of
the Poore," and not any solicitude for the spiritual welfare of the rich. (ref. 35) Lady
Frances, daughter of Oliver Cromwell, was married at St. Martin's to Robert
Rich in November, 1657, and John Hampden, the younger, was christened
there on 21st March, 1652–3.
The question of the safety of the tower was first discussed by the
vestry in 1657. In his will, (ref. 74) made in 1658, William Wheeler left five pounds
towards "the building of the Steeple of the parish Church of Saint Martin's,
in case the same Steeple beint built in my lyfe tyme." Nothing was done
until 1669, when the tower was re-cased with stone. Anthony Ellis, the
mason responsible for the work, did not fulfil his contract either in materials
or workmanship, (fn. e) and when, in 1680, Mr. Wise was given the order for
a new clock, the vestry took the precaution of ordering the churchwardens
not to make the final payment for it until "a considerable time after the said
new Clock shall be sett upp, to see that the same goe well."A new organ,
made by Father Smith, was installed in 1667, and was overhauled by "Mr.
Renatus" Harris circa 1699.
The best extant account of the old church is that given by Hatton (ref. 75) in
1708: "This Church was very small till the Year 1607, when that part which is
now the Chancel, was taken out of the Church-yard, and builded on, being an
Enlargement of about 1 third of what the Church and Chancel now contains,
as may easily be perceived by the Roof. And the old Church was about
that time repaired and beautified, the W. Doorcase having the date 1609.
And the Situation of this Church being so far W[estwar]d as happily to escape
the dismal Flames of 1666, it was wholly new beautified within, in the Year
of Christ 1688, and again in 1701. The Enlargement was done partly at
the charge of King James the 1st, and Prince Henry; the rest at that of the
"The Roof is cover'd with Tile, the Walls of Brick and Stone,
with a Finishing; but the Tower is of fine Stone, with strong Buttresses;
the Roof within is a little arched, and supported with Pillars, of the Tuscan
and Modern Gothick Orders; the Windows of the like Orders; and the
Floor of the Chancel is 2 Steps above that of the Nave of the Church.
"It is wainscotted about 6 Foot high with Oak, of which Timber
are also the Pews and Pulpit, the latter having a square sound Board, with
a Glory painted on the inside, and on the sides, I Cor. 9 and 16.
"There are Galleries on the N, S, and W. sides of the Church painted
Deal; and at the entrance into the Chancel, the Aperture is adorned with
4 Columns, with their Entablature, of the Corinthian Order; above which
are placed the Queen's Arms carved, and Enrichments of Cherubims,
Figures of Plenty, &c., gilt with Gold.
"The Communion-Table is enclosed with Rail and Banister, and
the Foot-pace within is Marble; over the Table is a Window, which is betn
the two Tables of the Commandments."
In 1710 several master craftsmen were appointed to survey the
Church. They reported to the vestry: "We find That all the Walls round
the said Church being built with Rubble and decayed with time are spread
out by the Weight of the Roof and in all probability cannot long support
the Roof and in diverse places are only tyed in with severall Cramps of Iron.
Wee do also find That the Roof of the said Church is very defective. Wee
are also of opinion that the said Church cannot be supported by repairing
but must be rebuilt." (ref. 35) The vestry therefore petitioned the queen for assistance
in rebuilding; negotiations were carried out with the Commissioners for
Rebuilding Churches and finally, in 1720, an act (ref. 76) was passed for rebuilding
St. Martin's, the money, to a sum not exceeding £12,000, to be raised by a
rate on the parishioners. The act contained a clause authorising the purchase
of ground from Westminster Abbey for the enlargement of the churchyard
and a provision that the owners of Northumberland House in the Strand,
who had occupied a pew "in the Lords' Gallery on the South side" of the
Church 5 feet 6 inches in breadth and 6 feet in length, with a similar seat
for servants below should have equal space allotted them in the new
A temporary church was erected partly on the churchyard and partly
on ground bought from the Dean and Chapter of Westminster in Lancaster
Court, and notices were inserted in the newspapers that bodies and monuments of those buried in the old church or churchyard could be taken away
for reinterment by relatives. Among those removed was the alabaster
monument of Sir Amyas Paulet, which was set up in the church of Hinton
St. George. The rest of the monuments were stored in the temporary church
and afterwards transferred to the present crypt.
The Present Church.
The present church was erected from the designs of James Gibbs, (fn. f)
who was selected for the appointment of surveyor by the rebuilding commissioners. Gibbs submitted two designs for the new church one of which is
shown on Plates 10a and 10b. These were circular on plan, but they were
disapproved on account of expense, though according to Gibbs they were
"More capacious and convenient" than the design finally selected. The church
as carried out cost £33,661 16s. 7¾d., including the architect's fees. The
foundation stone was laid on 19th March, 1722, and the last stone of the
spire was placed in position in December, 1724.
The building is of Portland stone. With its commanding portico
and elegant steeple it forms a worthy example of Gibbs' work and is a
striking feature of Trafalgar Square, where its position at the northeast corner enables it to be viewed to advantage. The hexastyle portico,
which is approached by a flight of steps, comprises eight columns of the
Corinthian order and is two intercolumniations in depth. The columns
support a pedimented entablature with the Royal Arms of George I with
supporters, crown and garter, carved on the tympanum. On the frieze is
inscribed the following:
D. SACRAM AEDEM: S. MARTINI PAROCHIANI
EXTRUI FEC. A.D. MDCCXXVI
and over the centre bay on the architrave is "Iacobi Gibbs ArchiTectus." The soffit to the portico has deep coffers formed by ribs carved
with a guilloche. The order, which is raised on a deep plinth, continues
round the whole church and is surmounted by a balustraded parapet. The
wall surface to the sides is divided by pilasters into bays of two stages containing arched windows with a plain band between. On the flanks are recessed
bays, with detached columns, containing pedimented entrance doorways. The
eastern end has a pedimented gable slightly breaking forward, with a carved
cartouche in the tympanum masking a circular louvred opening. The wall
surface is divided into three bays by pilasters with the large three-light
window to the chancel as the central feature. The steeple, which measures
192 ft. in height above the church floor, is square at the lower stages and
changes at the clock face to octagonal, finishing with a steeple surmounted
by a ball and weather-vane. It will be seen by referring to Plate 16 that
the interior of the upper stages is cylindrical in construction, the several
contractions in the design being formed by a series of domes.
The church, which stands upon an island site, has its yard at the
eastern end, the whole being enclosed by a high iron railing with heavy
cast iron standards. The eastern and southern ends have a rusticated dwarf
wall to carry the railings. Similar railings with double gates are continued
between the columns to the portico, at the top of the flight of steps. The
steps and landing have undergone certain alterations owing to the footway
The plan of the church is rectangular (Plate 11). The nave is
divided from the aisles by a series of five bays of Corinthian columns. The
galleries over the aisles are continued across at the western end over the last
bay of the nave. At the eastern end the nave is reduced in width by two coved
quadrants culminating in the formation of the sanctuary. On either side
are the vestries and lobbies with stairs giving access to the private pews (fn. g)
above and the galleries. At the western end are the side entrance lobbies
with staircases leading to the crypt and galleries and the main circular lobby
to the lower stage of the steeple. The columns to the main body of the
church stand on high panelled pedestals and have block entablatures from
which spring the main ribs of the nave and aisle ceilings. Between the
columns are semi-circular arches forming vaulted spandrels. The nave
ceiling is semi-elliptical and is divided into panels by ribs enriched with the
guilloche, while the panels are decorated with cherubim, clouds, shells,
and scroll work, being the work of the famous
Italian artists, Signori Artari and Bagutti. Over
the chancel arch are the Royal Arms. The aisles
have shallow domes supported on pendentives
which on the wall side spring from consoles, consisting of cherub heads below a blocked cornice.
The chancel arch is semi-elliptical, the ceiling to
the sanctuary being complementary.
Sketch of whipping post in church crypt
The general effect of the interior, which is
one of lightness and spaciousness, is produced by
the amount of ornamental plaster work, and by the
windows being in two stages, thereby obviating any
interruption by the galleries.
The Crypt has a brick groined barrel vaulted
ceiling springing from square piers which are
governed by the positions of the columns to the
main body of the church above. The floor to the
southern bays is paved with old gravestones. Other
stones have been erected against the walls and in
some cases monuments have been fixed on the brick
piers. Fragments of cartouches and other remains
of monuments from the former church are also
preserved. (fn. h) There is a very good wooden model
of the church in the crypt. This was prepared by Gibbs and cost £71 10s.
A whipping post, a sketch of which is given here, is also preserved.
Bells.—There is a fine peal of twelve bells and a sanctus bell which,
with three exceptions, were recast in 1725 at a cost of £1,264 18s. 3d.
All the bells bear inscriptions, records of their casting and in certain
cases the names of the churchwardens. (fn. i)
Bust.—The bust of Gibbs which stands on a marble pedestal at the
west end of the church is by Rysbrach (Plate 27a).
Chest.—In the crypt is an elm chest 22 in. by 5 ft. 7½ in. by 24 in.
The lid is 2½ in. in thickness. In the Churchwardens' Accounts for
Michaelmas Quarter, 1597, are records of its construction and fittings.
Communion Rails.—These are in wrought-iron
divided into bays with interspacings of balusters and
finished with a mahogany
Font.—There is no record of the mediæval font, but
the present, one, presented by
William Bridgeman in 1689,
which consists of an elliptical
grained marble basin supported on a spirally fluted and foliated pedestal with a carved oak cover, was
removed from the earlier church (Plate 27b). The cover narrowly escaped
destruction, as it was sold by one of the
churchwardens in 1845, who considered
it to be of no value. It was subsequently
recovered from an antique dealer.
The enclosing rail round the font is
the altar rail of the former church of
St. Matthew, Spring Gardens.
Glass.—The following extract
from the Church Building Accounts (ref. 77)
refers to the chancel window—
"1726, September 26th.—By painting the glass of the east
window of St. Martin's Church—James and William Price—£130."
The window was described by Gibbs as a large Venetian window with ornamental stained glass, and is shown in a print of 1809. It was probably in
position until 1867 when the present window by Clayton and Bell, depicting
the Ascension, was inserted. The other windows of the church are filled
with mid-Victorian stained glass.
Organ Case.—The first organ was the gift of King George I as
compensation for his inability to carry out the duties of churchwarden. It
was built by Christopher Schirider, a son-in-law of Father Smith, and cost
£1,500. In 1799 this organ was sold for £200 to the Church of St. Mary,
Wotton-Under-Edge, Gloucestershire, where it still remains. It bears the
inscription: "The gift of His Most Sacred Majesty King George, 1726"
on the front (Plate 22a). A larger organ was provided, but was replaced
in 1854 by one built by Messrs. Bevington. This has been several times
extensively overhauled and partially reconstructed.
Peal Boards.—There are two gilt peal boards in the crypt with carved
frames. They are painted black with gilt lettering. The one on the south
wall records that in 1727 the Society of London Scholars rang the "First
Compleat Peal of Six Thousand Cinques," while the other, on the north
wall, states that the College of Youths in 1788 rang "a Compleat Peal of
6204 Cinques on Steadman's Principle" in 4 hrs. 47 mins.
Detail of stair balustrading
Pulpit.—The pulpit, originally a three-decker with an
elaborate sounding board, was formerly set up on the north
side of the church. Plate No. 2 in Hogarth's series "Industry
and Idleness" (The Industrious "Prentice Performing the Duties
of a Christian), published in 1747, shows the pulpit in its
original condition as a three-decker with a staircase. The
plate is reversed and therefore shows the pulpit on the south
side of the church. The original drawings, reproduced on
Plates 25a and 25b, show it on the north side. In Prebendary
Humphrey's time (1855–1886) it was re-erected on the south
side of the nave without the sounding board, and the reading
desk and clerk's pew were taken away.
The pulpit is of oak, hexagonal on plan, and is supported on a hexagonal shaped stem with a high base moulding.
The panels to the main surface are inlaid, the front panel
bearing the sacred monogram and the side panels stars. The
bolection moulding to the lower edge has a well carved foliated
design and below are cherubs' heads in strong relief, while the
top ledge is finished with escallop ornament. The pulpit platform is approached by a segmental flight of steps with carved
spandrel brackets, spiral balusters, three to a tread, and a
moulded handrail which finishes over turned newels at the
foot. A portion of the stairs has a panelled spandrel filling (Plate 24).
Pews.—The disposition of the seating in the church has undergone
many changes. In 1799 the whole of the church contained high pews, the
height of the pedestals to the columns. The present seating, including
the rearrangement of the sanctuary, was carried out in the middle of the
19th century. The pews are panelled in oak and the end rows have high
backs with the top panels carved and finished with a carved capping. The
walls of the church have a high oak panelled wainscoting and moulded
capping. Similar panelling is continued in the vestries.
Stairs.—The staircases to the corner lobbies leading to the galleries
are in oak and have moulded close strings with their balusters turned. The
moulded handrail finishes as a capping to the square newels. The wall dados
and spandrel fillings are also panelled in oak.
The Church Plate.
The changes brought about by the Reformation are indicated by
items in the Churchwardens' Accounts for 1558–59 for the sale of the chalice,
weighing 10½ oz., and its replacement by a communion cup, weighing
All the early plate, comprising 4 silver gilt cups with 4 silver gilt
covers, 3 silver gilt pots, one silver charger and one silver gilt flagour were
stolen on 25th September, 1649. (ref. 78) The flagon, which bears the hallmark
1634, was recovered, probably in a damaged condition, as it has an 18th
century base, but the remainder is presumed to have been melted down.
The present church plate, which is of silver gilt, dates mainly from the
late 17th and early 18th centuries. (fn. j) Except for the articles in current use
it is now kept at the London Museum (Plate 33).
Key plan showing position of monuments and wall tablets in the crypt of St.