The grand church on the corner of Trafalgar Square, St Martin-in-the-Fields is 800 years old this year. Sort of.
When you’re dealing with something that old, the dates get a bit hazy, but the earliest known reference to a church in this spot is, unsurprisingly, an argument between priests. In the year 1222, the Abbot of Westminster and the Bishop of London were in dispute as to who had control over it.
Being “in the fields” between the City of London and the City of Westminster, but clearly a lot closer to Westminster than to London, the Archbishop of Canterbury decided in favour of Westminster, and the monks of Westminster Abbey began to use it.
The name, St Martin, is a reference to St Martin of Tours, who is often considered a patron saint of many of the travelling trades, and churches devoted to him can often be found at the boundaries of cities.
The church was rebuilt by King Henry VIII with its own parish in 1542, not for reasons of piety, but to stop local plague victims from walking through his Palace of Whitehall to get to the burial grounds in Westminster.
It was rebuilt again in 1606 to cope with the growing population, but that didn’t last too long. The current grand looking church is at least the fourth to have been on the site. The foundation stone was laid 300 years ago, and the church was completed in 1724 and consecrated in 1726. While today it looks like a grand, if conventional church, when it was built, it was pretty much unique in its appearance, and not much liked.
From the grand entrance portico to the decision to mount the steeple right in the middle of the roof rather than off to one side as had been the usual practice marked the church out as radical. However, radical enough to be much admired later on, and it set the template for most large churches built for the next couple of centuries, especially in America and the Commonwealth.
This may have been in part thanks to the architect, James Gibbs decision to publish a book about the church as a template for other architects to follow. The lack of trained architects overseas meant many of them used his book as a template to follow.
To give you an idea of how the church had transformed from much loathed to much loved, plans for a grand staircase in front of the National Gallery were scrapped to avoid ruining a view from Pall Mall, and Nelson’s Column was going to be taller but reduced so it wouldn’t tower over the church spire.
Technically, the column is taller than the spire, but as the church is on slightly higher ground, the top of the spire is higher than the column, as measured above sea level.
For the first century of its life though, the church wasn’t that easy to see from a distance as it was surrounded by other buildings. It was the clearance of the land in the area to build Trafalgar Square in the 1820s that finally opened up the church to become a landmark for the area.
The interior is no less grand.
A long rectangle lined with upper galleries around the sides gives everyone a good view of the altar, but also the exceptionally impressive ceiling of stucco with cherubs, clouds, shells and scroll work, executed by Giuseppe Artari and Giovanni Bagutti. A recent decision to remove the Victorian stained glass and replace it with more authentic plain glass has really opened up the space turning the gloomy interior into a daylight flooded space that really works with the plain white decoration and dark wood pews.
At the far end is the warped window – created by Iranian artist Shirazeh Houshiary – is a simple glass grid that’s then been twisted ever so slightly to distort the space into a Christian cross. The central ellipse is lightly etched and lit in such a way as to form a focal point of light visible internally and externally. It was added in 2008 as part of the modern restoration of the church.
Unusually for decorative church windows, it also looks just as good from the outside as it does the inside.
The famous cafe in the crypt opened in 1986, and the church underwent a major restoration project in 2006, which is also when the crypt was massively expanded and the new light wells added next to the church.
I have been told that the stone carvers who worked on repairs to the stone wall along the south side of the church included the names of their girlfriends in the vermiculate carving. I asked the church if this is true but they didn’t reply. It could be just a variant of pareidolia, but a few of the carvings do look like ladies names. Modern mason’s marks.
Away from the ladies, the church is probably as famous for its outreach work for the local homeless as it is for its regular candle lit concerts.
However, as we are in the advent period, it’s worth thinking back to St Martin of Tours, after whom the church is named.
From the late 4th century to the late Middle Ages, much of Western Europe, including Great Britain, engaged in a period of fasting beginning on the day after St. Martin’s Day (old Halloween) known as “the forty days of St. Martin”.
This fasting time was later called “Advent” by the Church and was considered a time for spiritual preparation for Christmas. Today the idea of fasting has rather died out, and instead people open little windows in their Advent Calendars hoping for small chocolates.
So during advent, pay a visit to the church named after the saint who invented it, maybe on one of the church’s Wednesday tours, in a church to a man from Tours.