26 May 2022

Saint Mary Magdalene, Willen,
the only surviving church
designed by Robert Hooke

The Church of Saint Mary Magdalene, Willen, is the only surviving church designed by Robert Hooke (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Patrick Comerford

I was writing on Tuesday about the recent visit two of us made to the Peace Pagoda at Willen Lake. But in Willen we also visited the Church of Saint Mary Magdalene, the only surviving church among the buildings designed by the scientist, inventor, and architect Robert Hooke.

This church is regarded as a classic of early English Baroque architecture. It is one of the finest churches in Milton Keynes and it is in a beautiful setting close to Willen Lake, beside the Hospice in Willen. It has been identified by the journalist, author and former chair of the National Trust, Sir Simon Jenkins, as one of the ‘1,000 Best Churches in England.’ It was designated a Grade I listed building in 1966.

The parish registers fir Willen date back to the year 1065. The present church stands in the place of an older one that resembled the church in Great Woolston, but without a turret, the two bells belonging to it hanging in arches, as at Little Linford.

The present Church of Saint Mary Magdalene was built in 1680 by Robert Hooke (1635-1703), who was Secretary and Creator of Experiments at the Royal Society and City Surveyor for reconstruction after the Great Fire of London as well as co-designer of the Monument to The Great Fire of London.

The church was commissioned and paid for by the Revd Dr Richard Busby (1606-1695), the long-serving headmaster of Westminster School (1638-1695), who was also the local Lord of the Manor in the village of Willen.

Busby is said to have funded the cost of the church by asking for a silver spoon from each of his pupils. Among the more illustrious of his pupils were Christopher Wren, Robert South, John Dryden, John Locke, Matthew Prior, Henry Purcell, Thomas Millington, Francis Atterbury and Robert Hooke, who designed the church and supervised its construction.

As well as his work as an architect, Robert Hooke was the curator of experiments of the Royal Society, a member of its council, and the Gresham Professor of Geometry. He was Surveyor to the City of London and chief assistant to Christopher Wren. In that role, Hooke helped Wren rebuild London after the Great Fire in 1666, and his collaboration with Wren included Saint Paul’s Cathedral, where the dome uses a method of construction conceived by Hooke.

In the reconstruction of London after the Great Fire, Hooke proposed redesigning the streets on a grid pattern with wide boulevards and arteries, a pattern later used in the renovation of Paris, Liverpool, and many cities in the US. However, his proposal was thwarted by arguments over property.

Hooke also worked on the design of London’s Monument to the fire, the Royal Greenwich Observatory, Montagu House in Bloomsbury, and the Bethlem Royal Hospital (‘Bedlam’). Hooke was also involved in the design of the Pepys Library, where the diaries of Samuel Pepys offer the most frequently cited eyewitness account of the Great Fire of London.

Other buildings designed by Hooke include the Royal College of Physicians (1679), Ragley Hall, Warwickshire, and Ramsbury Manor, Wiltshire.
The church was modified In the 19th century by removing the cupola from the tower and adding an apse at the end of the nave (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Hooke’s church in Willen was built in 1678-1680. The project cost Busby almost £5,000, not including the materials taken from the former church on the site. George Lipscomb observes that ‘with good management the church might have been built for a third part of the money.’

The church is similar in style to several of the 52 churches rebuilt by Wren after the Great Fire of London.

The church was modified In the 19th century by removing the cupola from the tower and adding an apse at the end of the nave. This was a reversal of Hooke’s original architectural intention, which was to combine a simple nave with a decorative tower.

This is a plain structure in the Italian style, built of brick with stone dressings, and it consists of a nave with apse, a chancel, and a west tower.

The chancel floor is paved with black and white marble. The side walls of the nave are pierced by six plain windows; the pulpit and desk are of oak; the font, of marble, is ornamented with heads of cherubim, and has a carved oak cover. The oak pews are neat. The ceiling is coved, and enriched with angels’ heads and other ornaments.

The church is entered through the tower by some stone steps. The tower contains three bells, each inscribed: ‘Richard Chandler made me 1683’. On each angle of the tower is an ornament in the shape of a pineapple. There is a vestry on one side of the tower, and on the other side is a room erected for a library, chiefly for theology, founded by Busby for the use of the vicar.

The Church of Saint Mary Magdalene, Willen, is part of the Diocese of Oxford. Sunday services are held each Sunday in the church, led regularly by the Revd Dr Sam Muthuveloe. Stephen Fletcher and Margaret Moakes are the Licensed Lay Ministers. Saint Mary Magdalene Church is open for private prayer or quiet reflection on Mondays from 10am until evening.

Willen is part of the Stantonbury Ecumenical Partnership, involving six churches from four denominations in north-east Milton Keynes. The six churches in the partnership are Saint Lawrence, Bradwell; Saint James’s, New Bradwell; Saint Andrew’s, Great Linford; Saint Mary Magdalene, Willen; Cross and Stable, Downs Barn; and Christ Church, Stantonbury.

The Church of Saint Mary Magdalene was commissioned by Richard Busby, Headmaster of Westminster School and Lord of the Manor in Willen (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

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