Wednesday, 1 October 2014

The ancient Church of Saint Alfege, Greenwich

On Monday I happened to be in Greenwich, kicking my heels, with half an hour to spare. As I was wondering what to do I saw this amazing building: the Church of Saint Alfege, designed by none other than Nicholas Hawksmoor. As luck would have it the door was open and the welcome mat was out for anyone who wanted to come in and have a look around. 

So who was Saint Alfege? 

Alfege was ordained Archbishop of Canterbury in 1006. In those days the good folk in the County of Kent lived in constant fear of Viking raids. The pagan Vikings would show up, loot, rape, pillage and destroy, leaving a trail of death and devastation in their wake. When the Danes raided Canterbury in 1011, Alfege was betrayed by one of his own monks, and carried away by the Danes as their prize hostage for whom they hoped to extort a huge ransom.

They took him to their stronghold beside the river at Greenwich, whilst they sent their demands to the cash-strapped English. They wanted £3,000, a king's ransom, but Alfege was having none of it. He knew that the English were already over-taxed and struggling to survive so he refused to do anything that might have encouraged them to cough up the money.

Six months into his captivity feelings were running high in the Danish camp. Many remembered how their comrades had been massacred by the English on St Brice's Day (13th November) 1002. Matters came to a head when they went on a Saturday night bender on 19th April, 1012. The fatted calf was killed, the liquor flowed and the captors got to talking about their hostage and grumbling about how his ransom still hadn't been paid. One thing led to another, and before long they had poor old Alfege dragged up from whichever pit they'd been keeping him in. Using the bones of the oxen they'd just been feasting on they set upon him beating him savagely until one of their number put him out of his misery with an axe blow to the back of the head. He was 58 years old.

Soon miracles started happening. A Danish oar dipped in his blood sprouted leaves. Alfege was canonised in 1078, and the church here in Greenwich, reputedly constructed on the site of his martyrdom, was built at about the same time. The medieval building erected to the saint's memory stood here for over five hundred years.

It was here in this parish church dedicated to Saint Alfege that Prince Henry (later King Henry VIII) was baptised in 1491.

Baby Henry had been born just down the road in his father's Palace of Placentia, as the old Tudor palace in Greenwich was known, and a few days after his birth he was brought here to be baptised. In those days they didn't like to leave it for too long as infant mortality rates were high, and there was a fair old chance that the newborn mightn't survive long enough to be welcomed into the Church.

Later, Henry's younger sister, the beautiful Princess Mary Tudor wed her true love, Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk in this church. Princess Mary had always loved Brandon. Brandon had been her brother, the King's best friend, and she had been the jewel of her brother's court. She was the youngest child of the old king, Henry VII, and had been doted on and indulged by her brother, the new King, Henry VIII. When her brother, Henry VIII, came asking her to make a great dynastic marriage to the ailing King of France, Louis XII, the eighteen year-old princess agreed on the understanding that when her frail, elderly husband (of 52) died she would be allowed to marry Brandon, the man she really loved. Henry agreed, and young Mary became the Queen of France. The marriage lasted for a total of 81 days. The old king died on 31st December, 1514 and, when the niceties of mourning had all been conducted, Henry sent Brandon to fetch her home to England.

Mary, fearful that her brother might not keep his word, refused to leave French soil until Brandon married her. She must have been very persuasive. Brandon had promised the King that he wouldn't enter into a secret marriage with Mary, but whatever she said, he was prevailed upon to forget his promise to the King. He agreed to Mary's demands and they wed in secret sometime in February 1515 in the royal chapel at Cluny.

As they returned to Greenwich they were fearful of how the King would react to their union, but Mary was his favourite sister and she worked her magic on her brother. He gave them his blessing and they had a second, public marriage ceremony here in the Church of St. Alfege on 13th May, 1515. The King and Katherine of Aragon attended, and afterwards there was much feasting and celebration. A few in the court disapproved of how the young pair had married in secret, disobeying the King's wishes and without having obtained his permission to do so, but they made a handsome couple and then, as now, few people could resist such a grand love story. They had risked everything to be together and there weren't many who didn't wish them well with it.

The great Tudor composer, Thomas Tallis, the Father of English Church Music, also has associations with the church. Tallis was sent to Court as a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal in 1543. In time he became the Master of the King's Music at Greenwich Palace, and often played the organ here at the Church of St. Alfege.

Have you heard the old Chinese curse: may you live in interesting times? Well poor old Thomas Tallis would appear to have been thus cursed many times over, but somehow he managed to keep afloat through all the changing religious tides of the Tudor dynasty. Maybe it was his wonderful music that kept him safe, although that self-same music must also have put him at the very eye of the storm.

He served Henry VIII, through the last years of his reign. Henry, having ushered in the Protestant Reformation, remained pretty traditional in his own personal observance. He was succeeded by his son, Edward VI, who was something of a Protestant firebrand. Next came Queen Mary (named after her beautiful aunt, the Princess Mary as it happens), who, being a Catholic firebrand, turned things round completely and brought the nation back to the Church of Rome, and finally there was the wonderfully pragmatic Elizabeth I, a Protestant, who famously dismissed all the theological hair-splitting of her day as a dispute over trifles.

Through all of this Thomas Tallis, an unconformed Catholic, managed to keep his place at court, not to mention his head, whilst serving so many, very different masters. Being tasked with writing church music for such a disparate group sounds like it could easily have turned into a death sentence. Somewhere down the line you'd think someone would have taken theological exception to something that he wrote, especially as he liked to compose in Latin, which many of the Protestants denounced in favour of the vernacular.

Maybe he was a very agreeable fellow, who excelled not only at writing music, but also at keeping people happy. Whatever the way of it he lived to be very old, and died happily in his bed of natural causes.

Thomas Tallis may well have agreed with Elizabeth. His thoughts on the matter were never formally recorded as such, but in the beautiful strains of his music I think we hear the most eloquent argument of all in favour of transcending the inconsequential and embracing the sublime. He died in 1585, and both he and his wife were buried beneath the Chancel. Sadly in the course of the church's reconstruction their remains were mislaid, and no one seems to know what became of them.

In one corner of the church there's an eighteenth century organ keyboard that came to light when they rebuilt the church organ in 1910.

The experts believe that the octaves in the middle are from the Tudor period, and as such are likely to have been played by our friend, Thomas Tallis, and by the Princesses Mary and Elizabeth when they were living at their father's Palace of Pacentia in Greenwich.

The demise of the old medieval church came when a terrible gale struck the building in the early morning of 28th November, 1710 causing the roof to cave in. People blamed the extent of the funeral excavations both within and around the old church, which they said had undermined the foundations.

The present building was designed by Sir Christopher Wren's pupil, Nicholas Hawksmoor. It was the first church to be erected under the New Churches in London and Westminster Act of 1711, which sought to build fifty new churches for the growing conurbation of London to replace those that had been destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666. They only ever managed to build a dozen of those fifty churches, which became known as the Queen Anne Churches.  The whole enterprise was funded by a tax levied on coal coming into London.

Work on St. Alfege's started in 1712 and finished in 1714. Hawksmoor had planned to replace the surviving medieval spire with a new one, but the Church Commissioners could not be persuaded to fund that part of the project. In 1730 another architect, John James, encased the tower and added a spire, leaving the church pretty much as we see it today.

And there you have it: the Church of St. Alfege. If you're passing, do pop in. It oozes history and the volunteers who run the place are just about the friendliest bunch of people you're ever likely to meet. You can find the website here: St. Alfege, and if you'd like to listen to something by Thomas Tallis I'll leave you with his wonderful Spem in Alium.

All the best,

Bonny x


  1. Thanks for the history and the photos. I love old churches.

    1. Thank you, Patrick. Glad you enjoyed it. All the best, Bonny

  2. Replies
    1. Thank you, Fi. Glad you liked it. All the best, Bonny

  3. I enjoyed reading about the famous church.The romantic story of the princess Mary and Brandon was very interesting.

    1. Thank you. I'm glad you found it interesting. All the best and thanks for stopping by, Bonny

  4. Wonderful read on this church and it's history.

    1. Thank you, Ida. Glad you enjoyed it. All the best and thanks for stopping by, Bonny

  5. Great old church. Thanks for sharing. Happy Friday!

    1. Thank you, Carol. Glad you found it interesting. All the best and thanks for stopping by, Bonny

  6. This is such a charming old church, Bonny! You've captured it beautifully. I really must visit Greenwich one day soon. Have a lovely Sunday ahead. :)

    1. Thank you, Kia. Yes, it's a real gem and Greenwich is such a great place to explore. Hope you have a great time when you visit. All the best and thanks for stopping by, Bonny

  7. Such a beautiful place - and before your beautiful photos I even didn't know it exists ...