This iconic church on the edge of Trafalgar Square, known for its musical associations, is another of the works of architect James Gibbs and, as with St Mary le Strand, the current building was constructed in the first half of the 18th century to replace an earlier building.

St-Martin-in-the-fieldsThe first references to a church on the site of the present building date back to the 13th century when, constructed upon a Roman burial site, it was apparently used by monks from Westminster. It was replaced by King Henry VIII around 1542 and enlarged in 1602 before finally being demolished in 1721.

Gibbs’ apparently first suggested the design feature a round nave with a dome over the top but the proposal was rejected as too expensive and a simpler, rectangle-shaped church was subsequently agreed upon and eventually completed in 1726. Part of the design inspiration comes from Sir Christopher Wren, although Gibbs’ integration of the tower into the church was a departure from Wren’s designs (the church spire rises 192 foot into the air).

Among the features of the interior are ceiling panels in the nave which feature cherubs and shells and are the work of ceiling experts Giuseppe Artari and Giovanni Bagutti. Other items of interest include Chaim Stephenson‘s sculpture, Victims of Injustice and Violence, remembering all victims during apartheid in South Africa (it was dedicated by Desmond Tutu in 1994), a statue of St Martin and the Beggar by James Butler, and, on the porch, Mike Chapman‘s sculpture marking the millennium, Christ Child. Paintings include one of James Gibbs himself by Andrea Soldi and dating from 1800.

Among those buried in the church are furniture-maker Thomas Chippendale, sculptor Louis-François Roubiliac and notorious robber Jack Sheppard (he’s buried in the churchyard). The crypt also contains a life-sized marble statue of Henry Croft, London’s first pearly king, which was moved there from St Pancras Cemetery in 2002.

As well as being the location of the first religious broadcast, its musical heritage includes performances by Handel and Mozart and being the location of the first performance of its namesake chamber orchestra, the Academy of St Martin in the Fields.

Since the early 20th century, the church has been noted for its work with the homeless (thanks in particular to the work of Vicar Dick Sheppard). Meanwhile, its connections with music – which date back to its rebuilding – continue in the concerts held in the crypt cafe. The crypt also hosts art exhibitions.

The church underwent a £36 million renewal project in the Noughties. Additions included the new east window by Shirazeh Houshiary.

WHERE: St Martin-in-the-Fields on the north-east corner of Trafalgar Square (nearest tube stations are Charing Cross, Leicester Square and Embankment); WHEN: Open weekdays and weekends – times vary, see website for details; COST: free; WEBSITE: www.stmartin-in-the-fields.org.

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Many of us are familiar with the story of Charing Cross and why it was so named (see our earlier post here), but maybe not so much with another of London’s ‘crosses’ – Strand Cross.

Earlier this week we posted a story on St Mary le Strand – one of the details we didn’t mention (deliberately, it has to be said) was that the current church now stands on the site once occupied by the cross.

Believed to have dated from at least Norman times, Strand Cross – which stood just outside the city gates – may have begun life as a market cross and it’s recorded that in the 13th century, justices held court in front of it.

By the early 14th century has been rather elaborately rebuilt in a fashion not unlike that of the Eleanor Crosses.

In the late 17th century, the cross – which had apparently already lost its top – was replaced by a windmill to pump water – apparently there was a well or spring nearby – and this in turn was later replaced by one of London’s most famous maypoles (we’ll be looking at maypoles in more detail in a later post).

This oddly located church on the Strand is the work of acclaimed architect James Gibbs – the first public project he embarked upon after returning from Italy where he had trained.

St-Mary-le-StrandWhile the history of St Mary le Strand goes at least back to the Middle Ages (and it initially stood just south of the current churches’ position on land currently occupied by Somerset House), the construction of the current church – the first of 50 built in London under a special commission aimed at, well, seeing more churches built in the capital to meet the needs of the growing population – began around 1715 (the foundation stone was laid on 25th February, the year after the accession of King George I.)

While building was briefly delayed by the Jacobite rising which broke out in 1715, the church was finally consecrated for use on 1st January, 1723.

Gibbs, who trained under a baroque master – a style which contrasted with the Palladian-style favoured by Lord Burlington and others, had apparently originally intended the church to be in the Italianate style with a campanile over the west end instead of the steeple  but this scheme also included a 250 foot high column surmounted by a statue of Queen Anne located to the west of the church which would celebrate the work of the commission (it’s also worth noting that the churches built by the committee – and they didn’t get close to building 50 – were known as “Queen Anne Churches” despite their construction taking place largely after her death).

However, plans for the column were abandoned on the queen’s death on 1st August, 1714, and instead Gibbs – a Roman Catholic who thanks to his supposed Jacobite sympathies apparently finished the project without pay, was ordered to use the stone which had been gathered to build the steeple and, thanks to that, amend his plans for the church into an oblong form rather than the square form he had initially intended. The work shows the influence of Sir Christopher Wren as well as churches in Italy.

The interior has been remodelled several times since its creation. The white and gold plastered ceiling was apparently inspired by the work of Italian sculptor and architect Luigi Fontana on two Roman churches and other features include paintings by American artist Mather Brown (these were put in place in 1785 and are located on panels on the side walls of the chancel – they were restored in 1994), while the crucifix behind the altar was presented by parishioners in 1893.

It the late 1800s, the London County Council proposed demolishing the church so it could widen the Strand for traffic but this plan was abandoned after an outcry led by artist Walter Crane (although the graveyard was removed).

Famous faces associated with the church include Charles Dickens’ parents, John and Elizabeth, who were married here in 1809, and there’s a story that during a secret visit to London in 1750, Bonnie Prince Charlie (Charles Edward Stuart) renounced the Roman Catholic Church by receiving Anglican communion here. The parish currently includes that of nearby St Clement Danes after the church was bombed in 1941 (it’s now central church of the Royal Air Force).

WHERE: St Mary le Strand, Strand (nearest tube stations are Temple, Covent Garden, Holborn, Charing Cross and Embankment); WHEN: Usually open 11am to 4pm from Tuesdays to Thursdays and 10am to 1pm Sundays; COST: free; WEBSITE: www.stmarylestrand.org.