25 January 2020

Saint Martin within Ludgate,
a Wren church claiming
links with London legends

Saint Martin within Ludgate, a Guild Church and a Wren Church just a few steps west of Saint Paul’s Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Patrick Comerford

The churches I visited in London this week included Saint Martin within Ludgate, a Guild Church and a Wren Church on Ludgate Hill, just a few steps west of Saint Paul’s Cathedral and almost opposite City Thameslink station (Ludgate Hill exit).

After the Great Fire of London, the church was rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren in 1677-1684.

The church takes its name from Saint Martin of Tours, a patron saint of travellers. Churches dedicated to him often stand within city gates. Ludgate was the westernmost gate in London Wall. The name survives in Ludgate Hill, an eastward continuation of Fleet Street, Ludgate Circus and Ludgate Square.

The name Ludgate probably means ‘Flood Gate’ or ‘Fleet Gate,’ and the Lud Gate was part of the fortifications of London. Like most of the other City gates, it was demolished in 1760.

Inside Saint Martin within Ludgate … rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren after the Great Fire (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Some legends connect the church with legendary King Cadwallo, or Cadwallon ap Cadfan, father of Cadwaladr. One story says ‘Cadwallo King of the Britons is said to have been buried here in 677.’ However, historians today place his death ca 682.

Legend says King Cadwallo’s image was placed on Ludgate to frighten away the Saxons. However, Middlesex and the London area were controlled by the Anglo-Saxons at that time and there is no evidence of British or any other occupation of the area within the walls of the abandoned Roman city of Londinium since the late fourth century. In 1669 A Roman tombstone was found on the church site in 1669, and is now in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.

The early historian of England, the Venerable Bede, says the West Saxon king Caedwalla was buried in Rome.

But the first, historical, written reference to the church is to a mediaeval church on the site in 1174. A Blackfriars or Dominican monastery was built nearby in 1278. The parish books start from 1410. The church was rebuilt in 1437 and the tower was struck by lightning in 1561.

Before the Reformation, the church was under the control of Westminster Abbey, and afterwards under Saint Paul’s Cathedral.

Until the Reformation, the patronage of the church belonged to the Abbot and Chapter of Westminster Abbey until 1540, then until 1554 to the Bishop of Westminster, when it passed to the Bishop of London and then to the Chapter of Saint Paul’s Cathedral, where it remains. These patrons are represented in the stained-glass windows in the north wall.

The Revd Samuel Purchas, a travel writer, became the rector of Saint Martin’s in 1614. The mediaeval church was repaired in 1623.

William Penn, who was married in the church in 1643, was the father of William Penn, the Quaker founder of Pennsylvania.

The altar and reredos in Saint Martin within Ludgate (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

The Great Fire of London engulfed Saint Martin’s on 4 September 1666. Rebuilding was not immediate, was largely completed by 1680, but not finally until 1703. At the same time the church was set back from the old site, as Ludgate Hill was widened.

Saint Martin’s is one of Wren’s later rebuildings and its slender lead spire was most carefully considered in relation to the dome of Saint Paul’s Cathedral. The view eastward from Ludgate Circus towards Saint Paul’s is one of the most memorable in London.

From the lower part of Fleet Street, the steeple of Saint Martin’s stands between the viewer and the dome of Saint Paul’s. Wren’s steeple at Saint Martin’s has a sharp obelisk steeple that has been described as ‘somewhat like an exclamation mark!’

The church is topped by a lead-covered octagonal cupola supporting a balcony and tapered spire rising to a height of 48 metres. The centre of the church is in the shape of a Greek cross, with four large columns.

The 17th century baptismal font has a Greek palindrome (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

An interesting feature is the 17th century baptismal font has a Greek palindrome: Νιψον Ανομηματα Μη Μοναν Οψιν (Nipson anomemata me monan opsin, ‘Cleanse my sin and not my face only’).

The 17th-century carved oak double churchwarden’s chair is the only one of its kind known to exist. The organ is a Bernard Schmidt design dating from 1684. The contemporary carvings are by Grinling Gibbons, and other carvings in the church are attributed to three joiners, Athew, Draper and Poulden, and to the carvers Cooper and William Newman.

The chandelier dates from about 1777 and is from the West Indies.

Saint Mary Magdalen, Saint Martin and Saint Gregory … recalling the names of three united parishes (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

The three parishes of Saint Martin’s, Saint Mary Magdalen Old Fish Street – which had been burnt down in 1888 and not rebuilt – and Saint Gregory by Saint Paul’s, destroyed by the Great Fire in 1666, were united in 1890.

The church underwent major rebuilding and alteration in 1893-1894, when the floor level was raised at the east end, creating the chancel area. Many bodies were taken from the churchyard and reburied at Brookwood Cemetery.

During the London Blitz, a German incendiary bomb damaged the roof, in 1941 but Saint Martin’s received relatively little damage during World War II.

Saint Martin’s became a Guild Church in 1954 and was designated a Grade I listed building on 4 January 1950.

A major renewal of the fabric, spire and roofs were completed in 1990. Redecoration, renovation of lighting and heating followed, and Saint Martin’s reopened on Saint Martin’s Day, 11 November 1992.

The organ is a Bernard Schmidt design dating from 1684 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

As a Guild Church, Saint Martin’s is linked to the Stationers’ Company, and has no parish or parishioners. There is a monthly service on the second Thursday of the month, and special services include baptisms, weddings, and funerals.

The church also offers pastoral support and counselling, including bereavement counselling. There are organ recitals every other Monday, and chamber music every Wednesday and Friday.

The church is open at irregular times. The website has not been updated, but it indicates that the opening hours in July and August 2019 were on Fridays from 11 to 3 pm and from September to December 2019 on Mondays 12 pm to 2 pm during weekly recitals and on Thursdays and Fridays from 11 am to 3 pm.

The pulpit in Saint Martin within Ludgate (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Saint Paul in a stained glass window … the church is in the patronage of the Chapter of Saint Paul’s Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

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