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  • Writer's pictureLucy Walker

A Brief History of St Martin-in-the-Fields

What is St Martin-in-the-Fields?

St Martin-in-the-Fields is an 18th-century neoclassical church designed by one of Britain’s most influential architects, James Gibbs.

St Martin-in-the-Fields

St Martin-in-the-Fields History

The reign of King Henry VIII was punctuated with outbreaks of the bubonic plague, as well as another mysterious malady known as the sweating sickness. Henry was particularly terrified of this new disease, which appeared to affect the upper classes disproportionately. The sickness also heightened his fear of the plague: when the ‘pestilence’ resurfaced each summer, Henry travelled up and down the country to avoid local outbreaks. During the summer months, parts of London were often placed in quarantines of various severity.

As many as a thousand plague victims might be buried in the churchyard of St Martin’s, and this grisly statistic has its origins in the history of the plague. Body-collectors would perform their unenviable work under the cover of darkness, piling infected corpses onto wooden carts. Some were wheeled past Henry’s palace at Whitehall, and the proximity of the corrupted bodies to his court concerned the king. At this time, the unassuming medieval church of St-Martin-in-the-Fields lay outside the city of London, near the village of Charing Cross. Henry chose St Martin’s as a new burial site at a safe remove from the city. He wrote a letter ordering that the church be rebuilt in expanded form to accommodate the bodies that he was diverting from Whitehall.

Henry’s concern for the health of his courtiers wasn’t extended to the lower orders. Opposite St Martin’s at this time were stocks and a whipping post, which were used to punish disorderly vagrants and other poor miscreants. The crypt, which is open to visitors, displays the church’s retired whipping post, dating from 1752.

St Martin’s was rebuilt again, in the 1720s. Its architect, James Gibbs, was heavily influenced by the neoclassical churches of Sir Christopher Wren, many of which can be found in close proximity. Gibbs was secretly a Catholic, but ironically, his new design for St Martin’s became a blueprint for Protestant churches throughout the western world. Gibbs’s elegant, airy structure reconciled this ancient site with the modern era.

St Martin, the church’s namesake, was a young Christian who reluctantly joined the Roman army. While he was serving in France, Martin came across a beggar on a cold winter’s night. Martin cut his cloak in two with his sword and gave half to the beggar. Today, the church stays true to its founder’s character, and is known for the humanitarian agenda it promotes. During the First World War the vicar of St Martin’s, Dick Sheppard, worked as a chaplain on the western front. He suffered a breakdown due to the horrors he encountered. A former soldier, Sheppard became a pacifist, and made it his mission to honour the kindness of the church’s patron saint. Ever since, St Martin’s has been known as the church of the ever-open door.

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