Have you ever wondered about the church next to Westminster Abbey? Since 1614 St. Margaret’s Church has been the parish church of the House of Commons; somewhat overshadowed by the Abbey and usually overlooked by visitors to London.
With free entry, a number of fascinating memorials, a stained glass window with quite a history, and some lovely Tudor features, this is a must; especially for the Slow Traveller who wants to explore hidden London away from the crowds.
Photograph © Ermell
Tucked away in the shadows next to the grandiose Westminster Abbey, St Margaret’s is a parish church virtually ignored by the tourists, who will queue for hours and pay large sums to get into the Abbey, while this free yet equally fascinating church stands neglected by all but the most observant of visitors.
It may not contain as many well known deceased people as the Abbey, but it has no shortage of the great and the good memorialised or buried within its walls.
It was here that Sir Walter Raleigh was executed in the churchyard then buried with honours in the chancel of the church, John Milton is buried here, as were many of Cromwell’s supporters who signed Charles I’s death warrant. Chaucer was a parishioner, the Abolitionist Olaudah Equiano was baptised here, Winston Churchill was married here, as was Samuel Pepys, who also conducted many of his extra-marital affairs here.
St Margarets was built in the latter part of the 11th century, for use by the locals as a parish church, as they were clearly getting in the way of the Benedictine monks who worshipped in Westminster Abbey. The church was dedicated to St Margaret of Antioch, a third century martyr. The first church was Romanesque in style and survived until the 14th century, when the nave was replaced. By the 15th century, the whole church was in a dilapidated state needing total reconstruction. Work started in 1482 and it was re-consecrated in 1523.
Although the church has been altered slightly over the subsequent years, such as Portland stone cladding on the exterior, and the addition of a porch, it is still much as it was. The gravestones were removed from the churchyard in 1881 and the whole area was grassed over, leaving no evidence of the thousands who are buried beneath the soil.
The church has a plain wooden tiled ceiling, a stone flagged floor, a nave lined with arches and a very golden reredos, but the chief attraction in this church is the walls, which are lined with a hotchpotch of memorials of such varied styles. From simple plaques to elaborate statues and wordy epitaphs, they are fascinating glimpses into past lives and really worth a slow wander down the sides of the church to read them all.
A small oval plaque is dedicated to “The African” Olaudah Equiano who was baptised in St Margarets in February 1759. Born in Nigeria, he was enslaved as a child, with several ‘owners’ until he was able to purchase his freedom in 1766. Living in London as a freedman, he supported the abolitionist movement. He published an autiobiography in 1789 which depicted the horrors of his life as a slave and it opened people’s eyes, leading to the Slave Trade Act in 1807, which ended slavery in Britain.
There is a small slate plaque to the wonderfully named Sir Dingle Mackintosh Foot, and another to Marie Celeste, the wife of James Hora who had survived the hardships of colonial Australian life with him, both of whom now have charities named after them. The oldest memorial is to Cornelius Van Dun, who died in 1577 and had been Yeoman of the Guard to four monarchs. He sounds like a thoroughly decent chap, as he led an ‘honest and virtuous life … who dyd buyld for pore widowes 20 howses of his owne costs’.
L: This memorial to the Revd. James Palmer was irreparably damaged by an oil bomb in September 1940.
M: This devout pair of Thomas Arnwaye and his wife devoted their lives to helping the poor.
R: There is a large and fanciful memorial to Mary Dudley, depicted recumbent on marble pillows, with her second husband worshipping at her feet. She died in 1600 and is presumably still awaiting the ‘joyful day of her resurrection’.
Since 1641, the church has been considered as the parish church of the House of Commons, when the whole House took Communion together on Palm Sunday of that year. There is a wooden pew reserved for the Speaker of the House, with the portcullis carved on the end.
L: The portcullis, the symbol of the House, features regularly throughout the church on kneelers, carvings and the padded red north doors.
R:The colourful stained glass window on the east wall above the reredos has an equally colourful history.
Created in Holland in 1526 to celebrate the marriage of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, by the time the stained glas window was completed, Henry had moved his attention on to Anne Boleyn. With his marriage annulled in 1533, the window could no longer go in its intended location in Westminster Abbey, so was sent to Essex where its Catholic symbolism and subject matter would avoid attention during the Reformation.
It was sold to St Margarets in 1758, but then had to undergo a seven year legal battle as the Dean and Chapter of Westminster considered it too popish and they started a lawsuit.
Fortunately they lost, and the window remains in place above the golden reredos.
Sir Walter Raleigh is buried beneath the altar below a golden reredos and the controversial stained glass window.
The colourful and elaborate pulpit is 19th century, commemorating Thomas Brittain Vacher, who founded Vacher’s Parliamentary Companion, a reference book which is still in publication today.
Samuel Pepys did not allow anything as commonplace as marriage to stand in the way of his liaisons dangereuse and although married in this church, and presumably worshipped in regularly by his wife as well as himself, it was also the place he came to admire the ladies and meet up with two of his special ones, Betty Martin and Betty Mitchell. His diary entry for 26th May 1667 tells us much about both his extra marital activites as well as his attitude towards church services:
“After dinner I by water alone to Westminster, where, not finding Mrs. Martin within, did go towards the parish church, and in the way did overtake her… [Having agreed to meet her forthwith] did go out again myself, but met with Mr. Howlett, who, offering me a pew in the gallery, I had no excuse but up with him I must go, and then much against my will staid out the whole church in pain while she expected me at home, but I did entertain myself with my perspective glass up and down the church, by which I had the great pleasure of seeing and gazing at a great many very fine women; and what with that, and sleeping, I passed away the time till sermon was done, and then to Mrs. Martin, and there staid with her an hour or two, and there did what I would with her.”
Portraits of Pepys and his long suffering wife, Elizabeth
As well as Sir Walter Raleigh, other notable burials include the 15th century printer, William Caxton; 17th century graphic artist Wenceslas Hollar and the American inventor of the steam boat, James Rumsey. The remains of a number of Cromwell’s followers also lie here, testament to a turbulent time in British history.
Charles I was beheaded in 1649 at the nearby Banqueting House, and Cromwell ruled as Lord Protector from 1653 to 1658. With the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, Charles II, understandably peeved at his father’s death and most of his own life in exile, ordered that the bodies of Cromwell, and the men who had signed his father’s death warrant, be exhumed from the Abbey. He had Cromwell posthumously hanged at Tyburn and his head stuck on a spike on the roof of Westminster Hall. The others he had burned and then buried in a pit in St Margaret’s churchyard. There is now a memorial to them outside the church, put up by The Cromwell Society.
On the outside wall of St Margaret’s Church, next to Westminster Abbey, is a bust of King Charles I. It sits there glaring malevolently at his nemesis across the road, the statue of Oliver Cromwell erected by William Thornycroft, a Cromwell supporter, in 1899, outside the Houses of Parliament. Cromwell is depicted with his head lowered, which is often said to be him looking away from the bust of King Charles I opposite.
It is actually a myth as the Charles I statue wasn’t put up until 60 years after the Cromwell one. Myth it may be, but with the Charles statue put up by the Society of King Charles Martyr and Cromwell by a Cromwell supporter, it seems to be a very sedate and placid way of maintaining their centuries long rivalry.
VISITING ST. MARGARET’S CHURCH, WESTMINSTER
Monday – Friday 9.30am - 3.30pm
Entrance is free
You will need to enter through the same entrance for Westminster Abbey and have your bags checked.
Please note that photography is not allowed within the church. Photographs in this article are used with the kind permission of The Chapter Office, Westminster Abbey.