07 June 2023

Saint Andrew Holborn
is Christopher Wren’s
largest parish church

Saint Andrew’s Church, Holborn, is the largest parish church in London designed by Sir Christopher Wren (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

During last week’s visit to Southwark, Hatton Garden and Holborn, Charlotte and I also visited Saint Andrew’s Holborn, the largest parish church designed by Sir Christopher Wren.

Saint Andrew’s is on the north-west edge of the City of London, on Holborn within the Ward of Farringdon Without. The church has a history that goes back to at least the 10th century, and Thomas Coram, who established the Foundling Hospital, is buried there.

Roman remains were found when the crypt was excavated in 2001, meaning the site could have been in use for much longer. The finds included a large amount of pottery sherds with a couple of beautiful fragments of Samian Ware. All of the finds could be dated between AD 150 and 300, although no clear purpose for the site could be gleaned from the finds.

The first written record of Saint Andrew Holborn is in a charter of Westminster Abbey, dated 951 or 959 AD, which refers to Saint Andrew’s as ‘the old wooden church’ on the hill above the River Fleet. Saint Andrew is the patron saint of fishermen, and the reference suggests the church was by then a well-established place of worship.

Inside Saint Andrew Holborn, looking towards the east end and the High Altar (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

In the Norman period, a priest named Gladwin assigned the living to Saint Paul’s Cathedral ca 1086 in exchange for the advowson or the right to present a parish priest passing to the Cluniac monks of Bermondsey Abbey.

John Thavie, a successful armourer, left his estate, including four nearby houses, to the church in 1348, to provide for the ‘support of the fabric forever.’ The bequest has been carefully managed and invested for almost 700 years and still pays for the upkeep of the church today.

The timber church was rebuilt in stone in the 15th century, when the West Tower was added.

Henry Wriosthesley, Earl of Southampton and a godson of Henry VIII, was baptised in the church in 1545.

Although the steeple was struck by lightning in 1563 the church survived.

The Elizabethan herbalist and close friend of Shakespeare, John Gerard, was buried there in 1618. Christopher Merret, who was buried at Saint Andrew’s, was the first English scientist to study the creation of sparkling wine, beating even his French counterparts to it.

Inside Saint Andrew Holborn, looking towards the west end and the organ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

John Hacket (1592-1670), who had been rector since 1624, insisted on continuing to use the Book of Common Prayer during the English Civil War. Parliamentarian soldiers arrived in the church one day and held a pistol to Hacket’s head. He simply replied: ‘I am doing my duty. Now do yours.’ The Roundheads left, leaving Hacket unscathed. He was ejected from the parish by Puritans in 1645, but after the restoration he became Bishop of Lichfield in 1661, and restored Lichfield Cathedral.

The Great Fire of London was threatening to engulf the mediaeval Saint Andrew’s in 1666. But the wind changed direction at the last moment and the church was spared. However, when Sir Christopher Wren surveyed the damage he decided that the building was in such poor condition that it needed to be rebuilt.

Wren built 52 churches in London after the Great Fire, including Saint Paul’s Cathedral. He rebuilt Saint Andrew’s from the foundation levels, making Saint Andrew’s his largest parish church. He saved the mediaeval tower but refaced it in marble, and erected a roof made from the ‘best soft Darbyshire leade’. The remainder of the church, inside and outside, is typical of Wren’s work.

During the rebuilding process, a Roman pit containing pottery from 200-250 AD was uncovered. The rebuilding was finished in 1687, and Saint Andrew’s remains the largest of all Wren’s parish churches. Meanwhile, another chapel, reputedly designed by Wren, was built on the corner of Hatton Garden and Saint Cross Street.

The bell stage was added in 1703 and the tower re-faced in the same stone as the rest of the building. Some historians suggest these additions were made by Nicholas Hawksmoor, another leading architect of the time.

The chapel built on the corner of Hatton Garden and Saint Cross Street converted in 1721 for use as Saint Andrew’s Parochial School.

In the Lady Chapel in Saint Andrew Holborn (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Dr Henry Sacheverell (1674-1724), who was rector in 1714-1724, was a prominent High Church priest. His subversive sermons undermined the Whig government, led to the Sacheverell Riots. He was impeached and put on trial, but continued as rector.

Daniel Purcell, who once the organist at Saint Andrew’s (1713-1717), was a brother or cousin of the composer Henry Purcell. George Frederick Handel is said the have played the organ in the church.

Marc Brunel, father of Isambard Kingdom, was married there in 1799; Benjamin Disraeli, the future Prime Minister, was baptised as a 12-year-old in the church in 1817; in Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens has Bill Sykes gaze up at the church tower.

In the early 19th century, a committee was formed to undertake the ‘repair, alteration and beautifying’ of the church. It appointed Joseph Henry Good in 1818 to take care of the building’s interior, and his changes included the creation of a new, second gallery at the church’s west end.

The construction of the Holborn Viaduct from 1863, and the subsequent creation of Saint Andrew Street, meant that the Parish Court House and rectory to the west of the church were demolished.

The ‘rogue architect’ Samuel Sanders Teulon was commissioned in 1868 to build their replacements. His alterations to the church at the same time, such as the removal of the west gallery to expose the 15th century arch at the end of the nave, sparked controversy.

Some critics accused him of taking the church in a ‘Rome-ward direction.’ One writer in The Builder suggested that Teulon was doing a ‘most wanton injury to the fabric’. This conflict was indicative of a wider stylistic one between the Gothic Revival and classical architecture; between a Victorian desire for progress and faithfulness to the past.

The tomb of Thomas Coram, founder of the Foundling Hospital (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Saint Andrew Holborn has particular links with medical history and charity. The philanthropist Thomas Coram set up the Foundling Hospital for abandoned children in 1714 in a house in nearby Hatton Garden. The following year, the charity moved to new premises in Bloomsbury and remained there until 1935.

Coram was first buried in the Hospital Chapel, but his remains were moved in 1960 to Saint Andrew’s when the Foundling Hospital closed its site in Berkhamstead. His tomb is now on the left as one enters the church.

Dr William Marsden found a young girl dying from exposure on the church steps in 1827. No hospitals would treat her, and she died in Marsden’s arms. This shocking event inspired Marsden to found the Royal Free Hospital to care for the poor.

The Baptistry in Saint Andrew Holborn (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Like many London churches, Saint Andrew Holborn was damaged during World War II. It was struck by an incendiary bomb on 16 April 1941 and, although the exterior survived, the interior was gutted. The church was rebuilt ‘brick for brick’ to Wren’s original design.

The rebuilding was designed by ecclesiastical architects Seely and Paget. John Seely, 2nd Lord Mottistone, and Paul Paget met at Cambridge University and went on to form the firm Seely and Paget in 1926. Their work, completed in 1961, was on the whole faithful to Wren’s designs, although some of Teulon’s 19th century alterations remained. The organ casing, pulpit, and font were all brought here from the Foundling Hospital chapel.

Two ‘Bluecoat’ statues flank the west tower entrance. These blue-clad figures depict children attending Saint Andrew’s Parochial School, founded in 1696 and located in Hatton Garden since 1721. The statues stood over the Cross Street entrance to the Hatton Street school, and were moved to Saint Andrew’s when the church was being restored after World War II. The matching pair remain over the Hatton Garden entrance to the former Saint Andrew’s Parochial School.

The church was reconsecrated in October 1961 and since then has been a non-parochial Guild Church, serving the working population of the city rather than people who live within the parish.

Saint Andrew Holborn began a further programme of renovation in 2018 to equip the church for the next phase of its ministry. The church was completely redecorated, a new stone floor was laid, a Lady Chapel and a Baptistry were created, glass doors were installed at the west end and new light and sound systems were installed. The church reopened on 1 May 2019.

The icon cross in Saint Andrew Holborn (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The Right Revd Jonathan Baker, Bishop of Fulham and a former Principal of Pusey House, Oxford, has been the Guild Vicar since 2015.

As a Guild Church, there is no Church of England worship on Sundays and the church is closed on Saturdays. Some weeks the church hosts the Orthodox Parish of the Dormition of the Mother of God.

Saint Andrew’s is two blocks away from Chancery Lane tube station. The church is usually open from Monday to Friday between 9 am and 5 pm, without charge. Lunchtime Masses last under half an hour and often include a brief address. Major festivals and seasons of the church are marked with special choral services.

Two ‘Bluecoat’ statues flank the west tower entrance (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

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