25 February 2024

Saint Mary le Strand in
London finds new life as
‘the Jewel in the Strand’ in
a new pedestrianised area

The Church of Saint Mary le Strand is at the heart of the newly pedestrianised district of Strand-Aldwych in London (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Patrick Comerford

The Church of Saint Mary le Strand is a landmark building at the heart of the Strand-Aldwych District in London and is a celebrated architectural gem. Simon Jenkins in England’s Thousand Best Churches describes it as ‘the finest eighteenth century church in London.’

The Strand is part of West End theatreland and runs for 1.2 km from Trafalgar Square east to Temple Bar, where the street becomes Fleet Street in the City of London. Saint Mary le Strand is known as one of the two ‘Island Churches,’ the other being Saint Clement Danes, a few steps to the east. Until recently, the church formed a traffic island to the north of Somerset House and south of Bush House, once the headquarters of the BBC World Service. Close by are King’s College London, the Royal Courts of Justice and Australia House.

Saint Mary le Strand is in a prominent place on the processional route from Westminster and Buckingham Palace to the City of London. But to generations of bus drivers and taxi drivers, it was known as ‘Saint Mary’s in the Way,’ and sadly it was seen by motorists and urban planners alike as little more than an eyesore or an obstruction on what was long a congested artery.

Now the church is at the heart of the newly pedestrianised district of Strand-Aldwych and, with its elegant and dignified worship space, it is being embraced once more as a sanctuary and place of peace in this part of the City of Westminster.

Inside Saint Mary le Strand, the first major work designed by James Gibbs (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

I first visited Saint Mary le Strand when I was a teenager, and I called in again last week when I was back in London and strolling from Smithfield through the City, down Fleet Street and into Trafalgar Square.

The church is the second in the area to have been called Saint Mary le Strand. The first church was a short distance to the south. The date of its foundation is unclear but it was mentioned in a judgment in 1222, when it was called the Church of the Innocents, or Saint Mary and the Innocents.

That church was pulled down in 1549 by Edward Seymour, 1st Duke of Somerset, to make way for Somerset House. The parishioners were promised a new church. But it was never built, and they were forced to move to Saint Clement Danes nearby and afterwards to the Savoy Chapel.

After the Great Fire and the rebuilding of Saint Paul’s Cathedral, the City Commissioners proposed a scheme to build 50 new churches for London, with Saint Mary’s as the first. The site of the present church was once occupied by a great maypole. It was the scene of May Day festivities in the 16th and 17th centuries, but it was severely decayed by the early 18th century.

The parishioners successfully petitioned the Commissioners in 1711 for a new church to be built in the Strand. The church became part of an extensive new church building effort in the early 1700s (‘Queen Anne Churches’). Saint Mary le Strand was the first of the 12 new churches built in London under the Commission for Building Fifty New Churches, at a cost of £16,000.

Saint Mary le Strand is a beautiful example of baroque design by James Gibbs (1682-1754), an Aberdeen-born architect who had a sophisticated knowledge of ancient, Renaissance and contemporary European architecture. The church was his first major project following his return from Rome, where he had trained in the studio of Carlo Fontana.

The new church was planned, in part, as a monument to Queen Anne and to the High Church ascendancy of her final years. But when Queen Anne died in 1714, the House of Hanover and the Whig government wound down the commission, and only 12 of 50 planned churches were built. Those that were built – the others were designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor and Thomas Archer – are among the outstanding examples of English church architecture.

Building work began in February 1714, and from the outset the architecture of Saint Mary le Strand proved controversial. The architect later expressed unhappiness at the way that his plans had been altered by the Commissioners. According to Gibbs, the church was originally intended to be an Italianate structure with a small campanile over the west end and no steeple.

Gibbs planned a 76 metre (250 ft) column surmounted with a statue of Queen Anne to the west of the church. A great quantity of stone was brought to the spot, but the plan was abandoned when Queen Anne died. Instead, Gibbs was ordered to reuse the stone to build a steeple, which was completed in September 1717 but which fundamentally altered the plan of the church.

The extravagant Baroque ornamentation of the exterior was criticised at the time. The prominent situation of the church has also been problematic. Gibbs designed the ground floor without windows in order to keep out the noise of traffic on the Strand.

The interior is richly decorated with a plastered ceiling in white and gold, with a ceiling inspired by Luigi Fontana’s work in the church of Santi Apostoli and Pietro da Cortona’s Santi Luca e Martina, both in Rome. The porch was inspired by Cortona’s Santa Maria della Pace. The walls were influenced by Michelangelo and the steeple shows the influence of Sir Christopher Wren.

Gibbs also took ideas from Saint Paul’s Cathedral – completed in 1711 after almost half a century of work – and reworked Wren’s ideas in a new context. The semi-circular projections of the west and east elevations, for example, were inspired by the north porch and east end of Saint Paul’s, and inside the east end resembles Wren’s design in many ways.

The church was consecrated 300 years ago on 1 January 1724 by Edmund Gibson, Bishop of London, and the Revd John Heylyn became the first rector of the rebuilt church.

James Gibbs went on to design Saint Martin-in-the-Fields in 1722–1726 and which I visited immeidately after that same afternoon.

The High Altar and apse in the Church of Saint Mary le Strand (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Bonnie Prince Charlie is alleged to have renounced his Roman Catholic allegiance in the church to become an Anglican during a secret visit to London in 1750.

One of the decorative urns surmounting the exterior of the church fell in 1802 and killed a passer-by during a procession.

John Dickens and Elizabeth Barrow, the parents of Charles Dickens, were married in the church in 1809.

The church was restored in 1871 by Robert Jewell Withers, who removed the box pews and had them re-formed into elegant benches with scrolling sides. The tiled floor in the nave and chancel are also his work. His changes were met by praise, and survive to this day.

Over the three centuries since its consecration in 1724, the road surrounding the church was gradually widened, taking great bites out of the churchyard and threatening to devour the church itself.

The church narrowly escaped destruction twice in the 20th century. At the start of the 20th century, London County Council proposed to demolish the church to widen the Strand. A campaign involving the artist Walter Crane succeeded in averting this, although the graveyard was obliterated and the graves were moved to Brookwood Cemetery.

During World War II, the Blitz caused much damage to the surrounding area and the church was damaged by a nearby bomb explosion, but avoided destruction.

The pulpit in Saint Mary le Strand (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Threats to the church only seemed to grow, and Sir John Betjeman (1906-1984) wrote his last poem in 1980 as part of a campaign to protect the church and to raise funds for its restoration.

It seemed time had finally run out for Saint Mary le Strand in 2017. With the congregation in single digits, the Diocese of London prepared to sell it off to become a UK outpost of the Museum of the Bible in Washington, DC. Stripped of furniture and fittings, one of London’s architectural glories would have been reduced to little more than an empty shell. The members of the parish church council all resigned in protest.

Since 2022, however, the church’s urban context has been completely transformed. Gone are the streams of traffic that smothered it on either side, replaced by raised beds and picnic benches, part of a scheme to unite the campuses of three of London’s universities, King’s College, the London School of Economics and the Courtauld Institute, into a single ‘Global Cultural Thinking Quarter’.

Once an inconvenience, the church is now hailed as the ‘Jewel in the Strand’, the focus of London’s newest piazza. The project is not yet totally successful, the zigzagging benches in the supposedly Italianate piazza have been described as having ‘a strange, playground quality,’ and the aims of the Global Cultural Thinking Quarter are criticised as being ill-defined. Yet, a once unappealing street is now abuzz with people, and many of them are visiting the church too.

One major ambition is to make the raised ground floor accessible and to turn the crypt into a multipurpose space for events and church activities. Above ground, the church hopes to restore original features and relight the space to show its highlight the plasterwork ceiling to better advantage. The church has been awarded a grant of £3.9 million and is currently fundraising for the additional £4.5 million. Saint Mary le Strand is inviting people to sponsor flowers on its famous ceiling as part of a fundraising drive.

The church launched the ‘Jewel in the Strand’ campaign last September. The spectacular floral plaster ceiling will be the centrepiece of the church’s transformation, with donors invited to sponsor a flower, including roses, acorns and sunflowers.

The ‘Jewel in the Strand’ project is central to the wider Strand Aldwych Project. Works will begin in September 2025, with the formal reopening planned in late 2026.

The ‘Jewel in the Strand’ project at Saint Mary le Strand is central to the wider Strand Aldwych Project (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

St Mary-Le-Strand by John Betjeman:

Shall we give Gibbs the go by
Great Gibbs of Aberdeen,
Who gave the town of Cambridge
The Senate House Serene;
Every son of Oxford
Can recognise he’s home
When he sees upon the skyline
The Radcliffe’s mothering dome.

Placid about the chimney pots His sculptured steeples soar,
Windowless he designs his walls
Above the traffic’s roar.
Whenever you put stone on stone
You edified the scene,
Your chaste baroque was on its own,
Great Gibbs of Aberdeen.

A Tory and a Catholic
There’s nothing quite so grand
As the baroque of your chapel
Of St Mary in the Strand.

• The Revd Canon Dr Peter Babington has been the Priest in Charge at St Mary le Strand since September 2020. Previously he was the Vicar of Bournville (2002-2020). His great-grandfather, Richard Babington (1869-1952), was the Dean of Cork in 1914-1951. The church has three services during the week: Tuesday, 1 pm; Said Eucharist; Wednesday, 6 pm, Sung Eucharist with Hymns; Thursday, 8 pm, Compline (Night Prayer) online via Zoom.

Sir John Betjeman wrote his last poem in 1980 as part of a campaign to save Saint Mary le Strand (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Daily prayer in Lent with
early English saints:
12, 25 February 2024,
Saint Chad of Lichfield

Peter Walker’s statue of Saint Chad at Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

The Season of Lent began earlier this month on Ash Wednesday (14 February 2024), and today is the Second Sunday in Lent (Lent II, 25 February 2024).

Throughout Lent this year, I am taking time each morning to reflect on the lives of early, pre-Reformation English saints commemorated by the Church of England in the Calendar of Common Worship.

Later this morning, I hope to attend the Parish Eucharist in Holy Trinity Church, Old Wolverton. But, before this day begins, I am taking some quiet time this morning for reflection, prayer and reading in these ways:

1, A reflection on an early, pre-Reformation English saint;

2, today’s Gospel reading;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

The shrine of Saint Chad in Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Early English pre-Reformation saints: 12, Saint Chad of Lichfield

Saint Chad of Lichfield, who is commemorated in Common Worship on 2 March, died on 2 March 672. He was a prominent seventh century Anglo-Saxon abbot who became the Bishop of the Northumbrians and subsequently Bishop of the Mercians or Lichfield. He features strongly in the work of Venerable Bede and, alongside his brother Saint Cedd, he is credited with introducing Christianity to the Mercian kingdom.

Much of what we know about Saint Chad comes from the writings of the Venerable Bede, who gleaned details about Saint Chad and Saint Cedd from the monks of Lastingham, where both brothers were abbots.

Saint Chad was one of four brothers: the others were Cedd, Cynibil and Caelin. Chad seems to have been younger than Cedd, and the four brothers seem to have been from a family of Northumbrian nobility. However, the name Chad is Celtic, rather than Anglo-Saxon in origin, and it is found in the names of many Welsh princes and nobles.

Bede says that in his early life Saint Chad was a student of Saint Aidan in Lindisfarne, along his own brother Cedd. Chad later travelled to Ireland as a monk, before he was ordained as a priest. He and his companion Egbert travelled together to Ireland while Finan and Colmán were Bishops at Lindisfarne. This indicates they went to Ireland after Saint Aidan died in 651. Egbert later recalled that he and Saint Chad ‘followed the monastic life together very strictly – in prayers, in continence and in meditation on Holy Scripture.’

Saint Chad’s time in Ireland fits into the period 651-664, for in 664 he was back in Northumbria to take over from his brother Cedd, who was stricken by the plague.

During Chad’s lifetime, there was continuing conflict between Northumbria and Mercia. Penda, the pagan king of Mercia, continually campaigned against Northumbrian rulers, usually with the support of the Christian Welsh princes. In 641, Penda inflicted a crushing defeat on the Northumbrians, killing King Oswald. Northumbria was not fully reunited by Oswald’s successor, Oswiu, until 651. Oswiu then defeated and killed Penda in 655, causing the decline of Mercia for a more than a decade, and allowing the Northumbrian rulers to intervene in Mercian affairs.

Saint Chad departed from Roman practices in vital ways – before and after the Synod of Whitby. But the course of his life between his time in Ireland and his emergence as a Church leader is unknown, and fresh details emerge again only with Bede’s account of Cedd’s career and the founding of their monastery at Lastingham.

The Saint Chad Gospel (top left) and the Staffordshire Hoard, found in a field near Lichfield, show the intimate links between the Celtic world and the Anglo-Saxon world of Northumbria and Mercia

Saint Cedd became a prominent figure in the Church in Northumbria while Saint Chad was in Ireland. Oswiu sent him on a difficult mission to the Middle Angles or Mercia in 653. He was recalled after a year, was sent on a similar mission to the East Saxons, and he was consecrated bishop soon after. Later, Saint Cedd became Abbot of Lastingham.

Saint Chad reappears on the Church scene in 664, shortly after the Synod of Whitby (663-664), when many Church leaders had died of the plague. When Cedd died, Saint Chad succeeded him as the Abbot at Lastingham.

When Saint Colmán, Bishop of the Northumbrians, left for Scotland after the Synod of Whitby decided against him, he was succeeded by Tuda, who lived for only a short time after.

Saint Chad is consecrated a bishop … an image in the tiles in the chancel of Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Later, King Oswiu invited Saint Chad to become Bishop of the Northumbrians. He travelled to Canterbury for his consecration, but found that Archbishop Deusdedit had died and had not been replaced. He then travelled to Wessex, where he was consecrated by Bishop Wini of the West Saxons and two Welsh bishops.

Bede recalls that, as a bishop, Saint Chad visited the towns, countryside, cottages, villages and houses in order to preach the Gospel.

Bishop Wilfrid returned to his diocese in 666 to find he had been replaced as bishop by Saint Chad and asserted his episcopal authority by going into Mercia and as far as Kent to ordain priests.

A new Archbishop of Canterbury, Theodore of Tarsus, arrived in England in 669. He instructed Chad to step down in favour of Wilfrid. Yet, Theodore was so impressed by Chad’s humility that he confirmed his episcopal consecration. Saint Chad then retired gracefully and resumed his post as Abbot of Lastingham.

Later that same year, King Wulfhere of Mercia, the Christian son of Penda, requested a bishop for Mercia. Archbishop Theodore called Saint Chad out of his retirement in Lastingham.

Saint Chad is placed on horse by Archbishop Theodore of Canterbury … a tile in the chancel of Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Archbishop Theodore was greatly impressed by Chad’s humility and holiness, including his refusal to use a horse, walking everywhere instead. However, despite his regard for Saint Chad, Archbishop Theodore ordered him to ride on long journeys and on one occasion even lifted him into the saddle.

Saint Chad then became the fifth bishop of the Mercians, with a territory centred on the middle Trent and lower Tame – the area around Lichfield, Tamworth and Repton.

Because Wulfhere donated land in Lichfield for Saint Chad to build a monastery, the centre of the Diocese of Mercia became settled on Lichfield. Lichfield was beside the old Roman road of Watling Street, the main route across Mercia, and a short distance from Mercia’s main royal centre in Tamworth. But the Diocese of Mercia was expansive, stretching across England, from coast to coast.

Lichfield Cathedral and the Cathedral Close in the sunshine (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Saint Chad’s monastic house in Lichfield may have been similar to the monastery in Lastingham, and it was partly staffed by monks from Lastingham. Indeed, Saint Chad remained Abbot of Lastingham for the rest of his life.

When he became bishop, Saint Chad set out to initiate missionary and pastoral work in Mercia, and, according to Bede, he governed the diocese ‘in the manner of the ancient fathers and in great perfection of life.’ He built a small house at Lichfield, a short distance from the church, large enough for his eight disciples.

However, Saint Chad worked in Mercia for only 2½ years before he too died of the plague on 2 March 672. He was buried at the Church of Saint Mary, which later became part of Lichfield Cathedral.

Many years later, his friend Egbert told a visitor that someone in Ireland had seen the heavenly company coming for Saint Chad’s soul and returning with it to heaven. However the story is also told of Saint Owini the hermit of Lichfield.

The Chapel of Saint Chad’s Head in Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

According to Bede, Saint Chad was venerated as a saint immediately after his death, and his relics were translated to a new shrine. There he was revered throughout the Middle Ages. His tomb was in the apse, directly behind the high altar of Lichfield cathedral, while his skull was kept in a special chapel, above the south aisle.

When Saint Chad died in 672, pilgrims began to visit his shrine. In 700, Bishop Hedda built a new church to house the saint’s bones. From 1085 into the 12th century, the Saxon church was replaced by a Norman cathedral, and then by the Gothic cathedral begun in 1195.

Pilgrimages to the shrine of Saint Chad continued for many years. The cathedral was expanded by the addition of a Lady Chapel, and by 1500 there were as many as 20 altars around the Cathedral.

A window in Saint Chad’s Cathedral, Birmingham, shows Canon Arthur Dudley smuggling Saint Chad’s relics from Lichfield Cathedral as the shrine is destroyed by soldiers (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

At the dissolution of the shrine at the same time as the dissolution of the monasteries in 1538, Canon Arthur Dudley of Lichfield Cathedral removed and retained some relics. They passed from him to his nieces, Bridget and Katherine Dudley of Russells Hall. They were found again in 1651 in the home of a dying farmer, Henry Hodgetts, who gave them to the Jesuit priest who heard his last confession. They were later moved to the Seminary at St Omer in France.

Lichfield Cathedral was severely damaged during the Civil War, coming under siege three times in the mid-17th century. Bishop John Hacket restored the cathedral in the 1660s, and William Wyatt made substantial changes in the 18th century, but Saint Chad’s relics never returned to the cathedral.

The relics came into the possession of Sir Thomas Fitzherbert-Brockholes of Aston Hall, near Stone, Staffordshire, in the early 19th century. After his death, they were presented to Bishop Thomas Walsh, the Roman Catholic Vicar Apostolic of the Midlands, in 1837 and were enshrined in Saint Chad’s Cathedral, Birmingham, in a new shrine designed by AWM Pugin.

Meanwhile, the architect Sir George Gilbert Scott was responsible for the successful restoration of Lichfield Cathedral to its mediaeval splendour in 1858-1878.

The Chapel of Saint Chad’s Head in Lichfield Cathedral recalls that the saint’s skull was kept here until the Reformation. The site of his mediaeval shrine is also marked in the cathedral.

Saint Chad’s Well, where Saint Chad is said to have baptised his converts, is in the churchyard at Saint Chad’s Church close to Lichfield Cathedral.

Today, Lichfield Cathedral still stands at the heart of the Diocese of Lichfield and is a focus for the regular worship of God, the life of a thriving community, the work of God in the wider world, and for pilgrimage. A new pilgrim route from Lindisfarne to Lichfield, marks the missionary journey of Saint Chad from Holy Island in Northumbria to Lichfield Cathedral in Mercia.

The year 2022 marked the 1,350th anniversary of the death of Saint Chad (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Mark 8: 43-48 (NRSVA):

31 Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32 He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’

34 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. 36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37 Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38 Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.’

Saint Chad (right), depicted with Saint Aidan (left) and Saint Oswald (centre) on the altar in Saint Chad’s Church, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Today’s Prayers (Sunday 25 February 2024):

The theme this week in ‘Pray With the World Church,’ the Prayer Diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel), is ‘Lent Reflection: Freedom in Christ.’ This theme is introduced today by the Revd Bianca Daébs (Igreja Episcopal Anglicana do Brasil):

If, therefore, the Son sets you free, you will be free (John 8: 36)

The theme of freedom is present in many biblical texts, especially in some passages of the Gospel, such as in the text of John 3: 36, which emphasises the theme of Freedom in Christ. The text says, “If Jesus sets you free, you can be truly free.” So here are two questions: free from what and free for what?

To answer both questions, you need to draw closer to Jesus and understand the principles that drive your life and faith.

The freedom to love the other as oneself, the exercise of otherness proposed in the Gospel of Jesus, invites us to two movements: the first is to recognize our captivity, to know exactly where our ties are, our difficulty in prioritizing what really matters, what transcends in our relationships. It is only after this experience of the emptying of our vanities that we can go beyond ourselves, towards others.

In the world God has planned for us, the freedom to love and serve guides human relationships. Anything that violates these relationships leads us away from the dignified and righteous life that God has designed for us.

Today, Jesus, through his message, continues to invite us to experience the true freedom that enables us to break the captivity that still binds us in order to freely and collectively build a more just and dignified world.

This is a sample taken from the 2024 USPG Lent Course which you can download and order from the USPG website www.uspg.org.uk

The USPG Prayer Diary today (25 February 2024, Lent II) invites us to pray reflecting on these words:

You shall go out in joy and be led back in peace;
the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song,
and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands
(Isaiah 55.12)

The statue of Saint Chad over the south porch of Saint Chad’s Church, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Collect:

Almighty God,
you show to those who are in error the light of your truth,
that they may return to the way of righteousness:
grant to all those who are admitted
into the fellowship of Christ’s religion,
that they may reject those things
that are contrary to their profession,
and follow all such things as are agreeable to the same;
through our Lord Jesus Christ,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

The Post-Communion Prayer:

Almighty God,
you see that we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves:
keep us both outwardly in our bodies,
and inwardly in our souls;
that we may be defended from all adversities
which may happen to the body,
and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Additional Collect:

Almighty God,
by the prayer and discipline of Lent
may we enter into the mystery of Christ’s sufferings,
and by following in his Way
come to share in his glory;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Yesterday’s Reflection: Saint James the Deacon of York

Tomorrow: Saint Ethelburga, Abbess of Barking

Saint Chad (centre) on the West Front of Lichfield Cathedral, between King Richard II of England and King Penda of Mercia (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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

Saint Chad … a modern icon in Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)