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)
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.
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.
St. James, Spanish Place
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.
The Royal Bavarian Chapel (Our Lady of the Assumption and St. Gregory)
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.
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.
St. Patrick’s, Soho Square
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.