London’s oldest Catholic churches

The large Victorian and twentieth-century parish churches of London and the splendour of Westminster Cathedral tend to distract attention from the surviving traces of an earlier substratum of Catholic places of worship. In spite of the Gothic revival, urban planning and the Blitz a little survives. St. Etheldreda’s, Ely Place is usually regarded as the oldest Catholic church in London, and it was briefly used as the Spanish ambassador’s chapel between 1620 and 1623. However, St. Etheldreda’s only became a Catholic church again in 1873. The Queen’s Chapel next to St. James’s Palace, now one of the Chapels Royal, was originally built in 1623 for Henrietta Maria and continued in use as a Catholic chapel until 1705.

Four London churches (Ss. Anselm and Caecilia, St. James, Spanish Place, Our Lady of the Assumption and St. Gregory, and St. Patrick’s, Soho) trace their origins to the Catholic Relief Act of 1791 and beyond. These churches are reminders of a different kind of Catholic worship that took place not in gloomy Gothic edifices or overcooked Baroque magnificence but in warehouse-like buildings resembling nonconformist chapels, hidden down side streets and away from public view.

The Sardinian Chapel, Lincolns Inn Fields (St. Anselm and St. Caecilia)

St. Anselm and St. Caecilia on Kingsway, formerly the Sardinian Embassy Chapel

The church of St. Anselm and St. Caecilia at Lincolns Inn Fields has the longest continuous history of any Catholic worshipping community (if not as a building). A Franciscan chapel existed in Lincoln’s Inn Fields in the reign of James II and by 1700 the Portuguese Embassy had a chapel there. In 1720 a chapel on the line of the present Kingsway passed to the Kingdom of Sardinia, and this became one of the principal centres of London Catholicism and a base for the Vicars Apostolic. The original chapel was damaged in the Gordon Riots in 1780 and finally demolished in 1909, by which time (in 1902) the present chapel had already replaced it. Although not in the original location, the restrained baroque and inconspicuous frontage of the Sardinian Chapel is in keeping with its history, and it is gratifying that this parish (in contrast to St. James’s Spanish Place and Farm Street) did not give into the temptation to indulge in Gothic excess.

Arms of the Kingdom of Sardinia in St. Anselm and St. Caecilia

The Sardinian Chapel's original altarpiece

Several features of the Sardinian Chapel were original to the old church; the coat of arms of Sardinia, the original altarpiece (the Deposition of Christ, now consigned to the south side of the sanctuary) and, perhaps most poignantly of all, the font in which so many eighteenth century Catholics were baptised. The Lady Altar was original but the present one is largely a reconstruction of what was destroyed by a bomb in 1940.

The original font of the Sardinian Chapel

Interior of St. Anselm and St. Caecilia

The Lady Altar in St. Anselm and St. Caecilia, a reconstruction of an 18th century original

St. James, Spanish Place

The exterior of St. James, Spanish Place occupying a cramped position

This Gothic church is the successor of a series of Spanish embassy chapels at which English Catholics in London worshipped throughout the penal era. The present church was built between 1890 and 1949 and succeeded a chapel built in 1791 following the Catholic Relief Act of that year, which allowed Catholic chapels to be built provided they were sufficiently inconspicuous. In 1827 the church’s association with the Spanish Embassy came to an end, but this did not prevent King Alfonso XIII giving the church his royal standard in 1908. Little remains of the contents of the original church – in fact, the only item that seems to have survived and found a place in the new building is the gilded statue of the Virgin and Child, made in 1840.

Standard of Alfonso XIII given to St. James, Spanish Place in 1908

Statue of the Virgin and Child in St. James, Spanish Place (1840)

The Royal Bavarian Chapel (Our Lady of the Assumption and St. Gregory)

The Royal Bavarian Chapel in Warwick Street

Interior of the Royal Bavarian Chapel, facing East

Interior of the Royal Bavarian Chapel, facing West

This church is one of the few intact 18th century Catholic churches in England, dating from the 1791 Relief Act. Apart from some stars and angels added in the 1950s, the front of the church has a warehouse-like appearance that was typical of the era. However, like the Sardinian Chapel and St. James, Spanish Place, this church has a much longer history than its appearance suggests. The Portuguese Ambassador had a house on Golden Square with a chapel from at least 1747; the house and chapel later passed to the Bavarian Ambassador. The Bavarian chapel was gutted in the Gordon Riots in 1780 but seems to have remained standing. However it was replaced in 1790 by the present chapel which was built over the site of the existing chapel and the stables that shielded it from public view on Warwick Street. The walls of the chapel are a yard thick and originally its doors were lined with metal to protect the church from fire. Inside, the roof and apse are later additions but the gallery is original; originally, it extended all the way to the east end. The organ also dates from the original church. As in the Sardinian Chapel, the original plasterwork altarpiece was retained and, in this case, displayed on the wall to the left of the sanctuary. The font, too, is original to the church, albeit not in its original position.

Font of the Royal Bavarian Chapel (1791)

Original altarpiece of the Royal Bavarian Chapel by J. E. Carew

This church’s association with Bavaria is especially significant today, given the Duke of Bavaria’s position as senior descendent of the House of Stuart, and this fact was not lost on the Royal Stuart Society who erected a tablet in the Baptistery commemorating King Rupert, the father of the present King Francis II. There is a also a small perspex Bavarian royal arms at the west end of the church.

Tablet commemorating HM King Rupert in the Royal Bavarian Chapel, Warwick Street

Arms of the House of Wittelsbach in the Royal Bavarian Chapel, Warwick Street

St. Patrick’s, Soho Square

St. Patrick's, Soho Square

St. Patrick's, Soho Square

St. Patrick's, Soho Square from 'Centrepoint'

Interior of St. Patrick's, Soho

St. Patrick’s is the mother church of the Irish community in London. The present church, whose apse can currently be seen jutting out over the enormous construction site beside Tottenham Court Road station dates from 1893. It replaced a barn-like church built by the Franciscan Arthur O’Leary in 1791 and consecrated by the Vicar Apostolic John Douglass in 1792. O’Leary served the immense Irish population of the ‘rookeries’ in the west end. Although not the original church, the Neoclassical interior recalls the old church and is, in my view, the most beautiful Catholic church in London (it has recently been restored and is gleaming). Several items from the old church were retained in the new, such as the monument to Fr. O’Leary, an eighteenth century Pieta, some of the woodwork of the side altars and, most importantly, the inscription recording the church’s consecration in 1792.

Monument to Fr. O'Leary, founder of St. Patrick's

Inscription commemorating the dedication of St. Patrick's (1792)

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15 Comments

Filed under antiquarianism, jacobitism

15 responses to “London’s oldest Catholic churches

  1. It is most interesting to see and read about these historic Catholic churches.
    Thank you
    Charles McKerrell of Hillhouse

  2. royabu

    Another helpful summation of disparate evidence. Yr ‘original’ altarpiece at Warwick St is that Carew of c1815. And that BVM statue at Spanish Place can’t be 1840. Amusingly the link to the ‘Queen’s Chapel’ at http://www.royal.gov.uk does not illustrate it, and gives its Catholic use only under Henrietta Maria

  3. In Treue fest

    Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria, my godfather, was in fact Duke Franz of Bavaria’s grandfather!

    • Morgan Murchison

      Dear Sir,I have always honoured the Royal house of Wittelsbach & have deep admiration & support for Crown Prince Rupprecht & now Duke Franz & also the Liechtenstein Royal family.For me as a Catholic they show a much better example of religious & family life.I would like to meet them one day.

      • Charles McKerrell of Hillhouse

        I too have a great respect for this Royal House whose then Head refused to fly Hiltler’s swastica flag and also refused to accept the crown of Barvaria from the Nazis.
        The Duke of Barvaria unlike other Royals would have nothing to do with that regiem

  4. Pretty nice post. I just stumbled upon your blog and wanted to say that I have really enjoyed browsing your weblog posts. After all I will be subscribing in your rss feed and I hope you write again very soon!

  5. Pingback: London’s Oldest Catholic Churches « Catholic Family History

  6. An intriguing discussion is definitely worth comment. There’s no doubt that that you should write more on this issue, it might not be a taboo matter but usually people don’t talk
    about these topics. To the next! Many thanks!
    !

  7. Amazing blog! Is your theme custom made or did you download it from somewhere?
    A design like yours with a few simple tweeks would really make my
    blog shine. Please let me know where you got your
    theme. Thanks

  8. Pingback: Bradshaw’s Hand Book, The West, Sixth Day, Regent Street & surrounds, (no.31) | London Life with Bradshaw's Hand Book

  9. This is interesting, and helpful. I am exploring London with Bradshaw’s Hand Book of 1862 at http://londondiaryblog.wordpress.com and am going to link to your site for a post which includes the Sardinian Chapel, as well the post on the Churchs of Soho Square.

  10. Pingback: The Churches of Soho Square | London Life with Bradshaw's Hand Book

  11. Pingback: Bradshaw’s Hand Book to London, Day 6, A warren of streets & Covent Garden (no.34) | London Life with Bradshaw's Hand Book

  12. Hello I found your blog after looking up the Bavarian Chapel on google – I was walking up and down Warwick Street looking for no 9 where my great-great-gran was born – and was very interested in the idea of a Bavarian Chapel – so glad these days one can just come home & google these things! Thank you, I may link back to your blog if I get round to posting about trip to London.

  13. Pingback: Reflections | thesememorieswhich

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