14 July 2020

Churches built during the Commonwealth (1649-1660)

Staunton Harold church, Leicestershire (1653). Photo: David Stowell (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Various numbers are quoted for how many churches were built during the Commonwealth (1649-1660), usually ranging from four to seven. A web search suggests no consensus, with the lack of clarity seeming to hinge on whether the churches were entirely new constructions, re-modellings of older ones, or whether you include Scotland or not.

Here's a rundown of all the contenders, with a stab at some conclusions ...

Holy Trinity and St Mary, Berwick-on-Tweed (1652)

Holy Trinity Church, Berwick-on-Tweed (1652). Photo: © Copyright Mark Anderson (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Charles I originally gave money for the building of Holy Trinity and St Mary in Berwick-on-Tweed in 1641. Though the civil war intervened, funds were collected throughout the 1640s with John Young of Blackfriars finally being contracted to start work in 1650.

The building was modelled on St Katherine Cree in Aldgate (the only surviving Jacobean church in London), completed in 1652 and consecrated ten years later. The church's website notes its features as:
With our mix of Gothic and Renaissance features, fine stained glass windows including 17thC Flemish Roundels sequestrated by Charles I from The Duke of Buckingham, unique Reredos by Sir Edwin Lutyens, original Communion Table used at our consecration in 1662, magnificent Rose Window, churchyard full of fascinating headstones including Viking and Plague Graves, there is much to interest.
A previous church had existed on the same site slightly to the south but was demolished shortly after the 17th century one was built.

Verdict: new building on ancient site

Staunton Harold, Leicestershire (1653)

Staunton Harold church, Leicestershire (1653). Photo: David Stowell  (CC BY-SA 2.0)

I visited Staunton Harold Hall many times as a child, and often dropped into the church (now owned by the National Trust) with my parents. It was built in 1653 in the gothic revival style by Sir Robert Shirley, a Laudian whose opposition to Cromwellian puritanism drove his architectural act of rebellion. Incensed, Cromwell demanded that Shirley pay for a new ship for the navy, only for Shirley to refuse and later be imprisoned in the Tower.

Shirley died aged only 27, with the church finally being completed by others, including Shirley's wife, in 1665. An inscription above the west tower reads:
In the year 1653 when all things Sacred were throughout ye nation, Either demolisht or profaned, Sir Robert Shirley, Baronet, Founded this church; Whose singular praise it is, to have done the best things in ye worst times, and hoped them in the most callamitous. The righteous shall be had in everlasting remembrance.
Verdict: new church

St Matthias Old Church, Poplar (1654) 

St Matthias Old Church, Poplar (1654). Photo: © Copyright ceridwen (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Built by Mast of the Bricklayers' Company John Tanner, St Matthias Old Church is bordered by Popular Recreation Ground, a fine Georgian terrace and the Lansbury Heritage Hotel. Both the church and the Lansbury building have connections with the East India Company founded in 1600 to focus on trade with the far east, before later coming inextricably linked with the expansion of the British Empire: St Matthias was built on the request of EIC shipyard workers who lived in Poplar and Blackwall. Various bequests were given, with the work completed in 1654. 

The church combines classical and gothic elements, with a barrel-vaulted roof supported by timber Tuscan columns. Rumour had it that the columns were made from ships' masts, which some have suggested gives it a Dutch feel remeniscient of similar churches built in early-seventeenth century Amsterdam, however no evidence has come to light to support this.

Significantly modified in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, St Matthias survived Second World War bombing before being merged with St Anne's, Limehouse. After the new congregation moved to St Annes, St Matthias was declared redundant in 1977 and deconsecrated. It is now an arts and community centre, governed by a Trust.

Verdict: new church

St Barnabas, Brampton Bryan (1656)

St Barnabas Church, Brampton Bryan
St Barnabas, Brampton Bryan

St Barnabus was completed in 1656 to replace the old Norman church destroyed during the 1643 siege of the castle, fifty metres north. The siege is well-documented, its primary sources often quoted in studies of the period as the six-week defence of the castle was commanded by a woman, Brilliana Harley. Historic England, citing a 1981 journal article, has it that Harley held the fortress:
... despite bombardments from a cannon on the church tower, and a poisoned water supply (which killed the cook).
Brilliana died soon after and a second siege the following year resulted in the new governor surrendering the castle.

The church appears to have been allowed to be rebuilt due to the standing of Brilliana's husband, Sir Robert Harley, a staunch puritan and a long-standing political colleague of Cromwell. A distinguishing features is its hammer beam roof, possibly salvaged from the ruins of the castle. The church was altered in the nineteenth century, though a number of 17th century additions, such as the north vestry doorway, survive.

Verdict: new building on ancient site

Ninekirks (St Ninian's), Brougham (1659-1660?)


Ninekirk's, Brougham (1659). Photo: Ken Brown (CC BY-SA 2.0) 

Sources disagree on when St Ninian's (known locally as 'Ninekirks') was built, with a completion data of 1658-1660 suggested, though its planning certainly fell before 1660, so we'll give it the benefit of doubt.

The site is remote: Ninekirks is located beside a bend in the River Eamont, in a field near the village of Brougham, Cumbria. A Norman church existed on what was thought originally to be a Roman settlement, with the building standing now a remarkably preserved 17th century re-building by Lady Anne Clifford

Ninekirks' interior is white-washed, with a flag-stoned floor and original pew boxes (including family pews). Lady Anne's restoration work is recorded in plasterwork above the altar. Repair work in the 19th century added a porch, though what remains is largely unaltered since 1660.

Verdict: new building on ancient site

Charles Church, Plymouth (1658 - Historic England date)

Charles Church, Plymouth
The ruins of Charles Church, Plymouth (now a war memorial). Photo: Partonez (CC BY-SA 4.0)

A tricky one, due to its long and rather tortuous birth. Charles Church, as the name alludes, was named by Charles I as a stipulation of its building. Plymouth was a puritan town, and the request to split the parish of St Andrew into two in 1634 led to protracted negotiations with King. This would would drag on to 1641, when royal assent was finally given for the construction of the new church. The Civil War interrupted building, though sources indicate that Charles Church was used for some baptisms, weddings and burials in the 1640s. Historic England has 1658 as a completion date for the building, with the church's consecration finally coming in 1665.

Charles Church continued as a place of worship until March 1941, when it was destroyed during an air raid. Its Wikipedia page has a good listing of alterations made from the 18th to 20th centuries. What 17th century features survived until the Second World War, and may even be visible now in its ruined state, requires further investigation.

Verdict: not built during the Commonwealth (due to a large part of the church having been built/in use before it and consecration coming after it) 

St. Michael and All Angels, Great Houghton (1650)

St. Michael and All Angels, Great Houghton. Photo: Neil Theasby (CC BY-SA 2.0) 

St Michael and All Angels in Great Houghton (near Barnsley), was built in 1650 by Sir Edward Rodes, High Sheriff of Yorkshire and a Colonel of Horse under Cromwell as a private chapel for family and tenants. Cromwell is said to have visited and been pleased at its simple interior, and the chapel became a haven for non-conformist preachers in the later 17th century.

The chapel was only ‘episcopally licensed' in 1849, with its dedication to St Michael and All Angels only coming in 1960. The church's webpage has some before-and-after photos showing the results of renovation work in 2013.

Verdict: though originally a private chapel and not designed to serve a parish, St Michael's was newly built for worship during the Commonwealth, so classing it as a new church.

In summary

How many churches were built during the Commonwealth? Half of the buildings listed above were completely new places of worship, and half were built to replace older, Norman, structures: to what extent their 17th century incarnations are built these earlier foundations, and incorporate more ancient features, requires more detailed enquiry. So to summarise:

New churches: 3 (Staunton Harold; St Matthias Old Church; St Michael's, Great Houghton)
New/rebuilt building on previous church site: 3 (Holy Trinity, Berwick;  St Barnabas, Brampton Bryan; Ninekirks, Bougham
Work largely completed outside of Commonwealth period: 1 (Charles Church, Plymouth)

This brief summary of each church focuses on construction dates; others interesting angles to explore might be the motivations and allegiances of the people/patrons who built them (including the role of women), or what legal/ecclesiastical mechanisms allowed them to be built when they were.

What have I missed? If there's another church that appears to have been built during the Commonwealth, please get on touch at struan(at)englishcivilwar(dot)org

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