Friday, 30 December 2011

St Alphege, Greenwich

The historic parish church of Greenwich sits imposingly in its town centre. Although unfortunately hemmed in on the east by the main road, both the green at the west end and the interior are oases of calm.


The church is built on the alleged site of St Alphege’s martyrdom at the hands of Viking pirates in 1012. Alphege, then Archbishop of Canterbury, had been taken hostage but refused to be ransomed, and so was (by tradition) killed by being pelted with animal bones, before one Viking struck him with an axe to the head to spare his suffering. He was canonized in 1078.

Details of the first church erected on the site after the martyrdom are scanty, but it was an important shrine. A new church was built to replace it in the 13th century, and was witness to many Royal visitors up to the 17th century due to its proximity to the royal palace at Greenwich. Thomas Tallis, the composer, was one of the notable people buried there.

The church roof collapsed in a storm in 1710, and the present church was built to replace it, as the first of the 50 churches sanctioned under the New Churches in London and Westminster Act of 1711. Designed in the Baroque style by Nicholas Hawksmoor, it was completed in 1714 and consecrated in 1718. The intended tower was never built: instead, in 1730, the remains of the old tower were encased to match the rest of the church to designs by John James. Much of the interior woodwork was by Grinling Gibbons.

The church was gutted by incendiary bombs in 1941. Restoration began in 1946 and was completed in 1953. The interior is largely new, but incorporates remnants from the original fabric and is largely faithful to the Hawksmoor's design.

The church

The exterior – particularly the splendid east front (oddly, the original entrance) with its bold Doric portico - is a beautifully balanced example of Baroque architecture, although the proportions of James's tower are unfortunately not a match for the rest.

The interior has galleries on three sides, with delicately carved wooden columns, and the ceiling consists of a huge plaster disc suspended on corbels on the exterior walls. At the west end, the organ is mounted a fine portico of a gallery. Fittings of note include two original benefactor boards on the east wall, impressive ironwork in the east galleries, memorials to James Wolfe and Thomas Tallis, and stained glass depicting other (mostly royal) associations with the church.

The church today is the centre of a bustling parish life, and is the venue for regular concerts.

Greenwich Church Street, London SE10 9LZ

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