13 April 2024

A return visit to Willen
to see the interior of
Saint Mary Magdalene
Church by Robert Hooke

The Church of Saint Mary Magdalene, Willen … the only surviving church designed by Robert Hooke (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Patrick Comerford

Earlier this week, Charlotte and I visited the Japanese Peace Pagoda at Willen Lake for the Japanese Flower Festival, and we returned for a walk aoround the Temple grounds and the shore of Willen Lake yesterday afternoon. I have visited the pagoda and monastery a few times since moving here two years ago, particularly for the ceremonies marking the anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima on 6 August 1945.

During these visits, I have also visited the Church of Saint Mary Magdalene, the only surviving church among the buildings designed by the scientist, inventor, and architect Robert Hooke. However, on previous visits the church was closed, and at the beginning of this week I saw inside the church for the first time.

Saint Mary Magdalene Church is regarded as a classic of early English baroque architecture. It is one of the finest churches in Milton Keynes, in a beautiful setting close to Willen Lake and beside the Hospice in Willen.

Sir Simon Jenkins lists Saint Mary Magdalene Church as one of the ‘1,000 Best Churches in England.’ It was designated a Grade I listed building in 1966.

The baroque interior of Saint Mary Magdalene Church, Willen, facing east (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Willen is a small village on the north edge of Milton Keynes, on the west bank of the River Ouzel. It appears there was a Romano-British industrial settlement just to the north of the village, near Caldecote Farm. The settlement was abandoned in the late Roman period, and the area seems to have remained largely unsettled until the 11th century. By 1292, Willen was large enough to have a church served by a vicar.

Between 1150 and 1524, the advowson was held by Tickford Priory, near Newport Pagnell. It then formed part of the foundation of Cardinal College, Oxford, and its refoundation as Henry VIII’s College. The advowson reverted to the Crown in 1545.

The advowson was granted in 1676 to the Revd Dr Richard Busby (1606-1695), the long-serving headmaster of Westminster School (1638-1695). He bought the manor in 1672, and as lord of the manor oversaw rebuilding the parish church.

When Busby died in 1695, he left the manor and the advowson to the trustees of Dr Richard Busby’s Charity. The trustees were to use the annual income from the manor for the relief and support of poor clergy in Lincolnshire, Oxfordshire, Middlesex, and Buckinghamshire. The Vicar of Willen was to deliver 30 lectures a year by the vicar of Willen in the parish church, and Busby stipulated that the vicar was always to be a student of Westminster and Christ Church, Oxford.

Inside Saint Mary Magdalene Church, facing the west end (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Busby commissioned and paid for building Saint Mary Magdalene Church, designed and built in 1678-1680 by his former pupil, Robert Hooke (1635-1703). The project cost 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.’

Busby is said to have funded the cost of the church by asking for a silver spoon from each of his pupils. Among his more illustrious pupils were Sir 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.

While Hooke was studying at Christ Church College, Oxford, he worked as an assistant to Robert Boyle. He met Christopher Wren at Oxford ca 1655 at a meeting of the club that later formed the core of the Royal Society. He was the Gresham Professor of Geometry, the secretary and curator of Experiments at the Royal Society.

As the City Surveyor after the Great Fire of London in 1666, Hooke helped Wren rebuild London. Their collaboration included Saint Paul’s Cathedral, where the dome uses a method of construction that Hooke had conceived.

Details in the plaster work on the ceiling of Saint Mary Magdalene Church, Willen (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

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 in Magdalene College, Cambridge, 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.
Saint Mary Magdalene Church has a three-stage west tower topped with four pineapple finials (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Saint Mary Magdalene is the only known church entirely of Hooke’s design. The building replaced a mediaeval church, and demolition rubble from the old church may be present on the north side of the churchyard. The church is similar in style to several of the 52 churches rebuilt by Wren after the Great Fire of London.

This unique restoration church retains an almost complete interior of 1680. It is a plain structure in the Italian style, built of brick with stone dressings, and it consists of a simple rectangular nave with a chancel, a west tower, and an apse added in 1862.

The church is entered through a three-stage west tower topped with four pineapple finials. It originally had a cupola, but this was removed in 1814. There is a vestry on the north side of the tower, and on the south side is a room erected for a library, chiefly for theology, founded by Busby for the use of the vicar.

The architectural historian Sir Nikolaus Pevsner notes how the west door, set in a limestone apsidal recess, matches the south doorway by Wren at Saint Mary-le-Bow. The oak door is in oak in a classical style, with a gilded beading and fixed tympanum.

The inside two-leaf oak door also dates from 1680. At eye height is a pierced ornamental ironwork panel, in a fretwork style, with a glass panel fitted at a later date.

The original box pews from 1680 … an extremely rare survival in an English church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Inside the church, the original features from 1680 include an elaborate baroque plaster ceiling, box pews, a pulpit and clerk’s desk, and a fine font. The addition of an apse at the east end in 1862 reversed Hooke’s original plan for a simple nave and a decorative tower.

The nave has three bays, and the eastern-most bay is functionally the choir. The trusses and bands of foliate plasterwork create a barrelled and coffered ceiling, and the motifs include gilded foliate bosses, plaster cherubs, gilded scallop shells and open books. The date 1680 also is divided across two gilded shields.

The ornamental baroque font with cherub heads, swags and foliate detail, and a cover with cherub heads and swags of fruits and flowers (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

The ornamental baroque font has a white marble bowl on a black marble stem and base, and an oak cover. The marble bowl has cherub heads, swags and foliate detail, the cover has characterful cherub heads and swags of fruits and flowers and is topped by an urn shaped finial. The carved oak cover has been attributed to Bates, one of the carpenters identified in Hooke’s diary as working for him in Willen.

The pulpit against the south wall of the nave, between the choir and nave seating, dates from 1680. It was originally a three-decker pulpit, but alterations mean it has lost its sounding board and the whole structure has been lowered.

The two western-most bays of the nave retain the majority of the 1680 seating, though with some alterations in the form of the pew platforms and the replacement of seat boards. The seats are box pews of oak with scrolly tops to the ends. This largely complete set of seats from the 17th century is an extremely rare survival in an English church.

The small apse was added in 1862 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

The small apse was added in 1862, possibly by TH Lewis. It has three slender round-headed windows, in which the glass is plain and leaded. The floor is of diamond set limestone flags with darts of black quarry tiles, probably dating from 1862.

The baroque plaster ceiling in the apse roughly follows the precedent of the coffered ceiling over the nave, although the foliate plaster detail and cherubs are less well executed.

The open framed oak altar has baluster legs and a tacked on moulding. Some sources date the altar to the late 17th century. A small credence table fixed to the north face of the chancel arch may have been made from the sounding board of the pulpit.

The easternmost bay of the nave has fixed collegiate-style stalls from 1680 that were altered ca1862. Two rows of benches on each side of the choir give seating for 20-24 people. The Communion railing may have formed part of a semicircular railed enclosure around the altar and was relocated in 1862 when the apse was formed.

The pulpit dates from 1680 and was originally a three-decker pulpit (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

A new organ was installed in 1985. The original organ dated from 1680, and the case and the original low gates were adapted to house the new organ in the 20th century.

A plaque east of the doorway refers to a Benthall family vault. It is unlikely that this is in its original position, but it proves there is burial vault somewhere in the church.

The tower has three bells, each inscribed: ‘Richard Chandler made me 1683’. The ring of three bells was converted from full circle to level chiming in 1991. The bells were hung dead in 2023 and provided with electromagnetic hammers.

Restoration work began in 1956 and continued until 1970. During that time, copper roofs were replaced with lead, electric heating was installed under the pews, and stonework repairs were carried out. The interior was redecorated in 1970 and 1988, the plasterwork was repaired and in 1972 the 19th century stained glass was replaced with clear modern glass.

To the west of the church, a long avenue lined with lime trees leads to the west gate. To the east of the church is the former village school, now a private house, and a small green with the village war memorial and a carriage circle.

The east apse, added to the church in 1862, faces a small green with the village war memorial (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

The Manor Farm, formerly the manor house, was bought in 1978 to establish a hospice, and Willen Hospice continues there today.

The 18th century vicarage was rebuilt in 1930. It was part of Saint Michael’s Priory when the Society of the Sacred Mission or the ‘Kelham Fathers’ took responsibility for the parish from 1974 to 1985.

A new ecumenical lay community, the Well, was established in the priory in 1997 and the SSM brothers moved to a smaller house nearby. The name refers to the story of Christ meeting the Samaritan woman at the well (see John 4: 5-30). The Well ran a conference and retreat centre, and worked with homeless and distressed people.

The SSM priory and the Well merged in 2007, and was known again as Saint Michael’s Priory from 2016. The priory closed in 2019, and the remaining members moved to Saint Antony’s Priory, Durham.

The former village school is now a private house (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

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

Sunday services at 9:30 are 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 10 am until evening.

The long avenue to the west of the church is lined with lime trees (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Daily prayer in Easter 2024:
14, 13 April 2024

‘Peace. Be still’ … Christ calming the storm (see John 6: 16-21) … a window in Saint Seiriol’s Priory Church, Penmon, Anglesey (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Easter is a 50-day season that continues until the Day of Pentecost. Tomorrow (14 April 2024)is the Third Sunday of Easter (Easter III). Throughout this Season of Easter, my morning reflections each day include the daily Gospel reading, the prayer in the USPG prayer diary, and the prayers in the Collects and Post-Communion Prayer of the day.

Before this day begins, before the weekend begins, I am taking some quiet time this morning to give thanks, for reflection, prayer and reading in these ways:

1, today’s Gospel reading;

2, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary;

3, the Collects and Post-Communion prayer of the day.

They ‘got into a boat, and started across the lake’ (John 6: 17) … boats at Messonghi in Corfu (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

John 6: 16-21 (NRSVA):

16 When evening came, his disciples went down to the lake, 17 got into a boat, and started across the lake to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. 18 The lake became rough because a strong wind was blowing. 19 When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the lake and coming near the boat, and they were terrified. 20 But he said to them, ‘It is I; do not be afraid.’ 21 Then they wanted to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the land towards which they were going.

Fishing boats tied up at the Quays in Wexford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Today’s Prayers (Saturday 13 April 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), has been the ‘Certificate in Youth Leadership Programme in the West Indies.’ This theme was introduced last Sunday by the Right Revd Michael B St J Maxwell, Bishop of the Diocese of Barbados.

The USPG Prayer Diary today (13 April 2024) invites us to pray:

Let us pray today for the work and ministry of the Diocese of Barbados and the Anglican Province of the West Indies.

The Collect:

Almighty Father,
you have given your only Son to die for our sins
and to rise again for our justification:
grant us so to put away the leaven of malice and wickedness
that we may always serve you
in pureness of living and truth;
through the merits of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Post Communion Prayer:

Lord God our Father,
through our Saviour Jesus Christ
you have assured your children of eternal life
and in baptism have made us one with him:
deliver us from the death of sin
and raise us to new life in your love,
in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit,
by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Additional Collect:

Risen Christ,
for whom no door is locked, no entrance barred:
open the doors of our hearts,
that we may seek the good of others
and walk the joyful road of sacrifice and peace,
to the praise of God the Father.

Collect on the Eve of Easter III:

Almighty Father,
who in your great mercy gladdened the disciples
with the sight of the risen Lord:
give us such knowledge of his presence with us,
that we may be strengthened and sustained by his risen life
and serve you continually in righteousness and truth;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued Tomorrow

‘Then they wanted to take him into the boat’ (John 6: 21) … 45 seconds on the Grand Canal in Venice (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