Where’s London’s oldest…Catholic church?

April 8, 2013

Hidden away to the north-west of the City of a quiet cul-de-sac, the oldest still-in-use Roman Catholic church in London (indeed, in England) is St Etheldreda’s Church in Holborn.

St-EtheldredaLocated in Ely Place, this atmospheric church – named for Etheldreda, seventh century female abbess of Ely – opened as a Roman Catholic Church in 1878, although the building in which it is lodged is much older, indeed a rare survivor from the 13th century. It was built in 1290 by John De Kirkeby, the Bishop of Ely and Treasurer of England during the reign of King Edward I, as a chapel to a residence he constructed on the site.

It and the adjoining palace remained in use by subsequent bishops and other nobles (including John of Gaunt who lived here after his own residence, Savoy Palace , was burnt down during the Peasant’s Revolt) up to and after the Reformation – the first reformer Bishop to use it was Thomas Goodrich, who built the nearby Mitre Tavern. (Worth noting is that the church also has some strong links to Shakespeare – there’s a great article on the church’s website exploring these).

In 1620, the Spanish Ambassador, the Count of Gondomar, moved into Ely Place and the chapel was used once again for Catholic masses (the residence was considered part of Spanish territory) – this was a relatively short-lived development for, thanks to deteriorating relations between England and Spain following a failed match between Prince Charles (later King Charles I) and the Infanta of Spain, the next ambassador was refused permission to live there.

Having escaped destruction in the Great Fire of London, the chapel was requisitioned by Parliament as a prison and hospital during the Civil War and subsequently fell into disuse before in 1772, the property – including the chapel – was sold to the Crown who in turn sold it to a surveyor and builder, Charles Cole.

Cole demolished the palace buildings with the exception of the chapel and had the current Ely Place built with neat rows of Georgian homes, modernising the chapel for the use of residents as an Anglican place of worship. The church attracted few worshippers, however, and in 1820 was taken over by the National Society for the Education of the Poor.

In 1873, the chapel was again to be sold and following a somewhat controversial auction was bought by the Catholic Institute of Charity (aka the Rosminians) and restored under the eye of Father William Lockhart (the Catholic Emancipation Act had been passed in 1829, allowing Catholics to have churches and say mass).

Interestingly, it was during this work that 18 bodies were discovered buried in the crypt – they had died in the ‘Fatal Vespers’ of 1623 when, during a secret meeting of Catholics at the French ambassador’s house in Blackfriars, the floor collapsed and more than 100 were killed. Not able to be buried publicly due to anti-Catholic feeling, they were buried in secret with some of them buried here.

A mass commemorated the completion of the restoration work on 23rd June, 1878, and the church has been in use as a Roman Catholic Church ever since (although years of repairs were needed following significant bomb damage in World War II). Further restoration work was carried out in the 1990s when Flemish tiles from the original cloister were discovered.

These days the church – which features a relic of St Etheldreda contained in a bejewelled cask sitting by the altar – is a quiet oasis in the midst of the bustling city – a great place to take some time out in the midst of a busy day. Also of note is the east window – the work of Joseph Edward Nuttgens, it was completed in 1952 and, like all the other windows, replaced a Victorian window destroyed in the Blitz (look for the image of St Etheldreda) – and the  west window – the work of Charles Blakeman, it is apparently the largest stained glass window in London and depicts a series of English Catholic martyrs.

WHERE: St Etheldreda’s Church, Ely Place (nearest Tube stations are Chancery Lane and Farringdon); WHEN: 8am to 5pm Monday to Saturday; 8am-12.30pm Sunday; COST: Free; WEBSITE: www.stetheldreda.com.

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