This coming Sunday marks the 500th anniversary of a church that despite having thousands of people pass by, hardly any go inside.
This is St Margaret’s, and it sits right next to Westminster Abbey. In fact, it owes its existence, and later survival to a desire by the local parishioners to have a simpler church to worship in compared to the grand Westminster Abbey. The monks worshipping in the Abbey, at the time a proper monastery were being disturbed by the locals popping in for a service, so they built another church next to their Abbey to kick the parishioners outside and keep the Abbey for themselves.
Although there’s been a church here since the 12th century, the church that stands there today is not the original, but is still 500 years old itself – having been consecrated on 9th April 1523.
It’s said to have been the last church built in London that was decorated in the Catholic tradition, before the Protestant Reformation swept all that popery away.
It was nearly demolished shortly after being built, as Edward Seymour, 1st Duke of Somerset wanted stone for his nearby Somerset House, but was chased off by armed parishioners who preferred their church to his palace.
Although built for people living in the area, it became popular with 17th-century puritans who used it for Parliamentary services to escape the liturgy of the Abbey, and it’s been the parish church for the Palace of Westminster ever since.
The stone-clad exterior and tower date from partial rebuilding in the 1730s, and the interior was restored in the 1870s. It was also badly damaged during WWII.
Today it remains a parish church, under the authority of the Dean and Chapter of Westminster Abbey, and as a Royal Peculiar, it’s under the direct control of the King, not the Church of England. However, unlike the Abbey, it’s totally free to visit.
You will need to look as if you’re going into the Abbey, go through their bag check and then when the staff ask if you have tickets to the Abbey let them know you’re visiting St Margarets — and then you find yourself walking across the usually empty paving to the church instead of joining the queue for the Abbey.
Insider, it’s a richly decorated church, with dark timber ceiling and pews contrasting with the plain stone columns that run down the church. Considering its age, you won’t be surprised to see that the walls are packed full of memorials, and considering its location in Westminster, many of them are rather grander than your average parish church.
Some are also still painted as they would have originally looked, reminding us that church walls would once have been a riot of colour instead of the plain whitewash we’re used to these days.
As the parish church for Parliament, there are a few bits of Parliamentary symbolism in here. From the sealed off pews at the front with two seats for Mr Speaker – presumably, in case he can’t decide which side to sit on, to the rich red doors at the back that marks the Parliamentarian’s private entrance to the church.
There’s also a naval crest next to the door that says SPEAKER, although reading the small brass plaque reveals that it’s the ship HMS Speaker, and not Mr Speaker.
Down near the altar on the right hand side is a small display case that’s worth taking a look at, as inside is an 18th-century copy of the Book of Common Prayer, with an unusual tale to tell. When the church was bombed during WWII, the blast, blew the book into a gutter outside, where it was picked up by a passerby. Over the decades it passed down the family, until 2016, when it was finally returned to the church it had been taken from some 70 years earlier.
As a church to visit, it’s a mix being clearly a parish church, albeit it with grander than normal memorials, and thanks to its political link over the road, is dotted with the Parliamentary portcullis.
It’s also both open to visit for free, but as it’s inside the Westminster Abbey estate, the casual passer by might not realise it’s even open, let alone that anyone can pop in for a look.
And finally, while it’s obvious when pointed out, but if you stand outside and look, I bet hardly anyone casually notices that the window at the eastern end of the church is not real – it’s painted on. It’s where the organ sits inside the church, so no window in the wall, but a blank wall would look odd here, so at some point, they painted a window onto it.
Do check the church’s website for closures if making a special trip though.