St James's Church, Clerkenwell
Nunnery of St Mary: c. 1100–1539
The parish of St James, Clerkenwell, has had a long and sometimes lively history. The springs which give Clerkenwell its name are mentioned during the reign of Henry II. The parish clerks of London used to perform their mystery plays, plays based on Biblical themes, in the neighbourhood, sometimes in the presence of royalty. In approximately 1100 a Norman baron named Jordan Briset founded an Augustine nunnery dedicated to St Mary, which became wealthy and influential. It had a place of pilgrimage at Muswell Hill, and the parish kept an outlying tract of territory there until the nineteenth century.
Old Church of St James: 1540–1788
At the dissolution of the nunnery under Henry VIII its church, which by then seems to have acquired a second dedication to St James, was taken into use by its parishioners who had already been using a part of it for some considerable time. The site of the nunnery was granted to Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk, in 1540 but the freehold of the church passed through various hands until it was conveyed in 1656 to trustees on behalf of the parishioners, who at the same time obtained the right to appoint the vicar. Unlike other parishes, they retained it after the Restoration of 1660. Elections of vicars were held, with all the excitement and paraphernalia of parliamentary elections, right down to the early years of this century and a distinctly Low Church tradition was thereby established. This did not prevent a long struggle in the latter years of the eighteenth century with Selina, Countess of Huntingdon. This strong-minded and evangelical lady had taken over a building in the parish called Spa Fields Chapel, and insisted on appointing her own chaplains to preach there. The vicar was furious, and his action against her in the ecclesiastical courts was the cause of her secession from the Church of England.
In 1596, the playwright George Peele was buried in the church.
In 1623 the steeple fell down twice but was eventually successfully rebuilt. Pocahontas and John Rolfe's son, Thomas Rolfe, married Elizabeth Washington here in September 1632. They had a daughter named Anne a year later. Elizabeth died shortly after Anne’s birth. Two years later, he returned to Jamestown, Virginia, leaving his daughter with his cousin, Anthony Rolfe.
It is believed that, in 1632, the playwright Thomas Dekker was buried in the church.
In 1641, the playwright Thomas Heywood was buried in the church.
New Church of St James: 1792–present
By 1788 the old church, which was a medley of seventeenth and eighteenth century sections in various styles grafted onto the remains of the mediaeval nunnery church, presented an appearance of picturesque and dilapidated muddle. In that year an act of parliament was passed for the rebuilding of the church, the money to be provided by the sale of annuities. The architect was a local man, James Carr, and he produced a building which is pre-eminently a preaching-house but with carefully planned and harmonious detail clearly influenced by Wren and Gibbs. The new church was dedicated by Bishop Beilby Porteus in 1792. The upper galleries were added in 1822 for the children of the Sunday-School, founded in 1807 and still flourishing; the back parts of the upper galleries were for the use of the poor. The tower and spire were restored in 1849 by W. P. Griffith, and Sir Arthur Blomfield restored the church and rearranged the ground floor in 1882; both works were done very well. Inside, a noteworthy feature is the curved acoustic wall at the west end. The wall at the east end originally had painted panels in the Venetian window frame; the stained glass in the east windows is by Heaton, Butler and Bayne, 1863.
The organ was built in 1792 by George Pike England to replace the one by Richard Bridge, which he took in part exchange. The new organ had three manuals, toe pedals and a Spanish mahogany case. This, together with much of England's pipe work, still survives. The rococo detail is noteworthy, especially the carved drapery over the pipes. The organ was rebuilt by Noel Mander of Mander Organs in 1978, returning to the original style after some drastic alterations made in 1928. It now has 2 manuals and pedals and 22 speaking stops.
There is a fine peal of eight bells in the tower, dating from 1791, though all the bells were recast in 1928.
The most noteworthy vicar of the nineteenth century was the Rev. Robert Maguire, a prolific writer of Protestant pamphlets, who had enjoyed a peculiarly stormy and exciting election. He was responsible for much work on the fabric of the church and some rearrangement of the interior.
The crypt was used for burials, but early in the twentieth century 300 coffins were moved and stored under the main West entrance. The crypt was then excavated and equipped to form a large hall. The new hall was opened by the Princess Marie Louise of Schleswig-Holstein in 1912. It was later remodelled and opened by the Rt Revd Richard Chartres, Bishop of Stepney, on 18 June 1994. The latest work created a dedicated youth space in part of the crypt and was opened by Rt Rev John Sentamu, Bishop of Stepney, on 19 December 1999.
During the 20th century, the parish of St John, which had been carved out of St James's in 1721, was reunited with it, as was the parish of St Peter. The latter had been established in 1869 for the Smithfield Martyrs Memorial Church of that name; the present church contains a memorial to the Martyrs as a commemoration of St Peter's, which suffered heavy war damage in 1941 and was finally demolished in 1955. The parish church of St John was a remnant of the priory of St John, which is now the headquarters of the Order of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem, and the church became the chapel of the Order.
The current church retains many reminders of its past.
- The communion table and communion rail are part of the original furnishings. Both are curved toward the west. The table is of mahogany, inlaid with box wood, decorated with plumes of feathers and a dove – the emblem of the Holy Spirit.
- A wooden figure of St James which stood over the poor box in the former church is now over the west door of the Nave.
- There are several monuments from the old church. These were neglected at the rebuilding, but during the nineteenth century were rescued by the church wardens and set up in the church and porch.
- In the church are the following:
- A wall tablet to William Wood, a noted archer who died in 1691 and whose memorial at the end of the south aisle was restored by the Toxophilite Society in 1791.
- A large wall tablet with armorils to Elizabeth, Countess Dowager of Exeter, at the east end of the south aisle, it records her illustrious lineage and the brilliant marriages she made for her three daughters. Next to her lies Mico Wagstaff, ironmonger.
- A sixteenth century brass to John Bell, Bishop of Worcester, 1539–43, who lived in retirement in Clerkenwell and was buried in the old church in 1556.
- Among the memorials in the porch are those to:
- Gilbert Burnet, Bishop of Salisbury, and a well-known preacher and writer, who died in 1714 at his daughter's house in the parish; there is a floor slab to him under the communion table. The wall tablet was executed by Robert Hartshorne, to a design by Edward Stanton.
- Henry Penton, who died in 1714: his grandson of the same name developed the area now known as Pentonville.
- Thomas Crosse and his wife, 1712, a sculpture by Roubiliac.
- In the church are the following:
- The porch also houses the benefaction boards, recording the numerous charities still being distributed among the elderly folk of Clerkenwell and going back to the reign of Elizabeth I, when the parish was a fashionable place to live.
- Over the west door are the royal arms of George III. Made of Coade stone and dated 1792, they were formerly over the reredos.
- The church contains a memorial to the victims of the "Fenian Conspiracy", an escape plot from the nearby Clerkenwell Prison which killed 12 and injured 120.
- The church contains a modern memorial to 66 martyrs, from 1400 to 1558, of the Smithfield Fires in a blocked-up doorway that is referred to as the Martyrs Door.
Many images of the current church, including much of the internal detail, may be found here.
The church now
After several years of declining attendance, the post of vicar was taken over in 1998 by the current incumbent, the Rev Andrew Baughen, son of the retired Anglican bishop, Michael Baughen.
The church's motto is "Community, Discovery, Engagement" meaning "all people matter to God and ought to matter to us; no previous experience; from head knowledge to life transformation".
The church maintains its Low Church tradition aiming to teach faithfully and accurately the word of the Bible unfettered by the distractions of tradition and ceremony. This is reflected by the lack of use of robes, altar cloths, candles or liturgy. The church has made much use of technology in its attempts to be accessible to everyone, including the recording and internet publication of bible talks (here), an in-church audio and video system, and live video-links/webcasts during services.
The crypt under the church is split into a main room, a side room and a kitchen.
The main room has a vaulted brick ceiling and parquet flooring, and has a floor area of 213m2 (2500 ft2). The side room is similar in its features but has an area of 75.5m2 (790 ft2).
Because of its magnificent architecture and location in the heart of London the crypt is a popular venue for exhibitions, film shoots, parties, conferences and wedding receptions.
The crypt was used for the filming of the London Community Gospel Choir for an episode of BBC Songs of Praise broadcast on 24 May 2009. This performance may be seen here although the church at the start of the video is not St James.
The exterior of the church also features briefly in the 2002 film About A Boy.