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)

Praying with the Psalms in Easter:
26 May 2022 (Psalm 92)

The Stadttempel synagogue in Vienna … Franz Schubert produced a setting in Hebrew of Psalm 92 for the synagogue (Photograph courtesy Jews of New York)

Patrick Comerford

Today is Ascension Day, and later today (26 May 2022) I hope attend the Ascension Day Eucharist in the Church of Saint Mary and Saint Giles, Stony Stratford (7.30 pm).

But, before this day begins, I am taking some time this morning to continue my reflections in this season of Easter, including my morning reflections drawing on the Psalms.

In my blog, I am reflecting each morning in this Prayer Diary in these ways:

1, Short reflections on a psalm or psalms;

2, reading the psalm or psalms;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

Psalm 92:

In the Authorised Prayer Book, one of two prayerbooks I regularly use for prayers and reflections on Friday evenings, the former Chief Rabbi, Lord (Jonathan) Sacks, describes Psalm 92 as ‘a song for the Sabbath Day.’

Lord Sacks recalls that by the 12th century, the custom existed to say Psalm 92 as a song of welcome to the Shabbat. He says this psalm was understood by the Sages as ‘a song for the time to come, for the day which will be Shabbat and rest in life everlasting.’

The Tzfat mystics, including Rabbi Isaac Luria, developed the custom of saying special psalms and songs of welcome to Shabbat, including six extra psalms (95-99 and 29), before singing Psalm 92.

Lord Sacks says Shabbat is ‘not merely a day of rest, it is a rehearsal within time, for the age beyond time when humanity, guided by the call of God, moves beyond strife, evil and oppression, to create a world of harmony, respecting the integrity of creation as God’s work, and the human person as God’s image.’

He continues: ‘At that time people looking back at history will see that though evil flourished “like grass”, it was short-lived, while the righteous grow slowly but stand tall “like the cedar of Lebanon.” Because our time perspective is short, we seem to inhabit a world n which evil prevails. Were we able to see history as a whole, we would know that good wins the final victory; in the long run justice prevails.’

A popular story connected with Psalm 92 involves Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel, known widely as the Maharal, a great sage who lived in Prague during the reign of the Emperor Rudolph II in the 16th century.

Rabbi Loew is said to have been endowed with supernatural gifts that he combined with the four elements: fire and water were represented by his assistants, air was represented by the rabbi himself, and earth was found in the Golem. He brought these together bring to life the Golem, a sculpture moulded from the mud of the riverbed in Prague.

The Golem grew stronger and stronger. Instead of heroic deeds, he became more-and-more uncontrollable and destructive. Rabbi Loew was promised that anti-Semitic violence would end in Prague once he destroyed the Golem.

One day, the Golem was found uprooting trees and destroying the rabbi’s home while the rabbi was in the synagogue singing Psalm 92. The rabbi rushed out to remove the tablet from the Golem’s mouth. Fearing the Golem could fall into the wrong hands, Rabbi Loew smeared clay on the Golem’s forehead, turning emet into met, so that the Hebrew word for truth became the Hebrew word for death and life was taken out of the giant’s body.

Rabbi Loew put him to rest in the attic of the Old-New Synagogue. The rabbi then returned and continued to sing Psalm 92 … and so, it is said, the Old-New Synagogue in Prague is the only place in the world where this psalm is sung twice.

A few months before he died in 1828 at the age of 31, the composer Franz Schubert (1797-1828) produced a setting in Hebrew of Psalm 92, Tov Lehodot La’Adonai (‘It is good to give thanks to the Lord’), for Vienna’s main synagogue, the Stadttempel on Seitenstettengasse.

The Jewish community had asked Beethoven in 1825 to compose a cantata for the dedication of the Stadttempel. He was unable to accept the commission, although he apparently carried out a preliminary study of Musik der alter Juden, perhaps with this in mind. Instead, the cantata was written by Josef Deschler (1742-1852), a kappelmeister at the Stephansdom, Saint Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna, and Franz Schubert wrote his setting of Psalm 92 for the choir of the synagogue.

The musicologist Elaine Brody suggests in Schubert Studies: ‘Sulzer was meticulous in his text-setting; he must have advised Schubert on these matters.’ Schubert could have fulfilled his commission by writing music to a German translation. Instead, he decided to work with the Hebrew language.

Schubert’s Psalm 92 sounds like many of his other melodies and part-songs. Elaine Brody is of the opinion that, stylistically, his setting of Psalm 92 ‘resembles church music more than synagogue music; it displays no characteristic Hebrew melody.’

‘The righteous … grow like a cedar in Lebanon’ (Psalm 92: 12) … a young girl with a violin and her friend beneath a cedar tree at Curraghchase Forest Park near Askeaton, Co Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Psalm 92 (NRSVA):

A Psalm. A Song for the Sabbath Day.

1 It is good to give thanks to the Lord,
to sing praises to your name, O Most High;
2 to declare your steadfast love in the morning,
and your faithfulness by night,
3 to the music of the lute and the harp,
to the melody of the lyre.
4 For you, O Lord, have made me glad by your work;
at the works of your hands I sing for joy.
5 How great are your works, O Lord!
Your thoughts are very deep!
6 The dullard cannot know,
the stupid cannot understand this:
7 though the wicked sprout like grass
and all evildoers flourish,
they are doomed to destruction for ever,
8 but you, O Lord, are on high for ever.
9 For your enemies, O Lord,
for your enemies shall perish;
all evildoers shall be scattered.

10 But you have exalted my horn like that of the wild ox;
you have poured over me fresh oil.
11 My eyes have seen the downfall of my enemies;
my ears have heard the doom of my evil assailants.

12 The righteous flourish like the palm tree,
and grow like a cedar in Lebanon.
13 They are planted in the house of the Lord;
they flourish in the courts of our God.
14 In old age they still produce fruit;
they are always green and full of sap,
15 showing that the Lord is upright;
he is my rock, and there is no unrighteousness in him.

Today’s Prayer:

The theme in this week’s prayer diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel) is ‘Mission in Australia.’ It was introduced on Sunday by Peter Burke, Manager at Mission and Anglican Community Engagement AnglicareSA.

The USPG Prayer Diary this morning (26 May 2022, Ascension Day) invites us to pray:

Lord, help us to focus on care and justice in all we do. May we look after each other and challenge exclusion wherever we see it.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org