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Ask anyone in London the way to St Paul’s and they will inevitably point you towards the magnificent cathedral by the river. Yet, so many Christian churches have been dedicated to Paul the Apostle that it can be guaranteed that Sir Christopher Wren’s famous architecture is not the only building in London with that name. In fact, there are over a dozen “St Paul” churches in the capital alone, one of which is probably walked past by thousands of tourists every day.
Located on Bedford Street overlooking Covent Garden, is C of E’s St Paul’s Church. With a heritage designation Grade 1, the church, whose architecture reflects that of an early Roman temple, was built at the same time as the famous piazza during the 17th century. Still in use today, St Paul’s offers services throughout the week, its main one being at 11am every Sunday. However, visitors are welcome to visit during the week for a look around the historic building or to sit quietly and pray.
St Paul’s Church was designed by the famous architect Inigo Jones (1573-1652) whose other notable buildings include the Queen’s House in Greenwich and Whitehall’s Banqueting House. Jones was employed by Francis Russell, the 4th Earl of Bedford, to build a square (Covent Garden) surrounded by mansions and a church. Purportedly, Lord Bedford requested a very basic church “not much better than a barn”, which Jones countered with: “Then you shall have the most handsome barn in England!”
Building began in 1631 and was quickly completed within two years, becoming the first church to be built in London since the Reformation – hence its Church of England denomination. Constructed from stone, the eastern end of the church looking over Covent Garden is fitted with a portico supported by four columns. It is this feature that most resembles the Etruscan-style temple that Inigo Jones so favoured. The main entrance, however, is at the rear of the church, through a less impressive facade.
Inigo Jones’ original plan was to have the main entrance at the east end so that the congregation could enter the small 50x100ft building from the main square. However, Christian tradition dictated that the altar must be at the east side and not the west where it had initially been placed. With the altar preventing anyone from entering through the portico, the entrance was bricked up, and a fake door erected in its place.
The church has undergone a few changes since its completion in 1633, however, it still largely corresponds to Inigo Jones’ original plan. A decade after it opened, St Paul’s Church was extended to add a gallery along the south wall, then, twelves years following that, another gallery was added on the north wall. Finally, in 1647, one more gallery was added, this time on the west wall.
In 1788, Thomas Hardwick (1752-1829), the English architect and founder of the Architects’ Club (1791), began restoration of the building which had already seen its first centenary. Unfortunately, a fire in the Bell Tower consumed the rest of the building, destroying the majority of the structure. Mercifully, the original pulpit was saved and the church was reerected to Inigo Jones’ archetype. The final major change was conducted by William Butterfield (1814-1900), a local Gothic Revival architect, in 1872, who raised the altar and was responsible for the positioning of the fake door on the east wall.
The interior of St Paul’s Church has been updated within the past century, including a restoration between the years 1981 and 1990. Changes such as the installment of electric lighting, sound systems, and heating were inevitable as technologies became readily available and affordable, however, other aspects of the church have been updated too. In 1945, the main altar was redecorated to include a copy of Botticelli’s Madonna of the Magnificat (1480-1).
During the Second World War, St Paul’s Church was fortunate to avoid a direct hit from falling bombs, nevertheless, nearby explosions shattered the original windows. In 1969, the Reverend Clarence May paid for, as a parting gift, brand new stained glass windows, which are still in place today.
To the side of the main altar is a much smaller altar for the purpose of prayer to St Genesius, the Patron Saint of actors, clowns, comedians, dancers, and musicians. This is due to the church’s long association with the theatre community for which it received the sobriquet “The Actor’s Church”.
Covent Garden in the West End is London’s main theatre and entertainment area. Therefore, St Paul’s Church was predestined to have some connection with the acting industry. The first relationship developed as early as 1662 when the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane was created. The same year saw the first ever production of the puppet show Punch and Judy – something of great significance in the area, emphasised by the pub of the same name on the west side of Covent Garden. Another significant link was established in 1723 when the Covent Garden Theatre was built (now named the Royal Opera House).
Many famous names have passed through the doors of St Paul’s Church. As early as 1710, baptisms were taking place for soon-to-be-famous people, such as Thomas Arne (1710-78) and J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851). Of course, at the time, these babies were unknown to the world and were only baptised at the church due to their parents living in the parish. No one knew that the boys would grow up to compose the patriotic song Rule Britannia or produce over 2000 paintings. Similarly, there have been a few well-known burials, but, most interestingly, the first victim of the Great Plague of London. On 12th April 1665, Margaret Ponteous was laid to rest in the churchyard.
Burials were stopped in the 1850s resulting in headstones in the graveyard being removed and a garden laid in its place. However, this did not stop the people of St Paul’s Church commemorating the lives of well-known people associated with the church.
Adorning the plainly decorated walls inside the church are simple plaques stating the name, birth, and death of many actors, playwrights, singers and so forth who became part of The Actor’s Church during their lifetime. Theatrical personalities such as Charlie Chaplin, Noel Coward, Terrence Rattigan, Vivien Leigh and Ivor Novello are just a handful of names located around the building. Although burials had stopped, the ashes of Ellen Terry and Dame Edith Evans can also be found.
The theatre memorials began after the Second World War, however, plaques have been raised for people who lived many years before then. This includes Thomas Arne, who was buried as well as baptised in the church and Grinling Gibbons (1648-1721), a Dutch-British woodcarver who worshipped at St Paul’s. Gibbons is responsible for the limewood wreath near the entrance to the church and may have been the producer of the original pulpit saved from the fire in 1795.
Most of the memorials are very basic with no embellishments, however, there are a few that have a more decorative appearance. One of these belongs to the memory of Charles Macklin (1690-1797), an Irish actor and dramatist who spent most of his career at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. His memorial features a carving of a theatrical mask with a dagger positioned through the eye socket. This may seem a peculiar choice of imagery, however, it is significant to the actor’s downfall. In 1735, Macklin was sentenced for manslaughter after an argument over a wig with fellow actor, Thomas Hallam, spiralled out of control. In a fit of temper, Macklin thrust his cane into Hallam’s eye. Although he did not intend to kill him, the cane pierced through the eyeball and into the brain. Considering the circumstances, Macklin got off fairly lightly and was still honoured with a plaque inside St Paul’s Church.
Since the graveyard was removed and garden laid in its place, St Paul’s Church owns one of the quietest grounds in the busiest city in England. Whilst the portico faces the bustling shopping piazza, the reverse opens up onto a small, peaceful area with two lawns and plenty of benches. Visitors are encouraged to spend time in quiet reflection away from the hustle and bustle of the city around them. Just as the church often gets overlooked by tourists, the gardens almost feel like a secret with only a lucky few stumbling over its existence. St Paul’s Churchyard is a lovely place for a picnic, place to sit and enjoy the atmosphere, read a book or recuperate after braving the hoards of tourists in Covent Garden. St Paul’s welcomes everyone, although, in order to keep the idyllic enclosure the much-loved peaceful environment, visitors are asked to respect the wildlife, avoid playing music, abstain from drinking alcohol, and not to feed the pesky pigeons!
St Paul’s Church has been extremely supportive of the theatrical world and, after almost 400 years, continues to be a pillar of support in the community. In 2007, the Iris Theatre was established in order to aid and encourage the next generation of professional theatre practitioners. The charity puts on regular shows at St Paul’s Church, relying on audiences and supporters for funding. St Paul’s hosts over 300 events a year, many as a result of the Iris Theatre. The company has a stimulating repertoire with different shows tailored to a variety of tastes. From opera and classical theatre to circus-style performances, there is something to entertain everyone. The next performance is a musical titled Fidel which explores the life of the longest standing political leader, Fidel Castro, and the Cuban revolution. With tickets at £15, the show will be performed twice on 16th November 2017. The final show of the year will be Xmas Factor on 1st December.
Another charity that began at St Paul’s Church is the Theatre Chaplaincy UK (established 1899). The charity offers pastoral and practical support to anyone engaged in the performing arts regardless of their faith and background. Although a Christian charity, the chaplains are not there to convert non-believers; their only goal is to provide support and guidance for those aspiring to develop their acting career.
Of course, St Paul’s Church is first and foremost a religious establishment with regular Christian services and festivals throughout the year. It is important to keep this in mind whilst exploring the historical structure, relaxing in the garden, or enjoying a theatre production. It may not be as impressive as the famous St Paul’s Cathedral, however, it does play a significant role in the community and has an interesting background. The theatre memorials are an invaluable feature, attracting tourists of all faiths and none.
We welcome people of faith, all who seek faith and friendship, and all who doubt.
Services are held every Sunday (at 11am) and most weekdays. The Eucharist is celebrated at 11am each Sunday. Weekday Eucharists: Tuesday & Wednesday 1:10pm. All are welcome.