Trafalgar Square in London is highlighted by three landmarks – the statue of Nelson in the square itself, the National Gallery on north side, and St. Martin-in-the-Fields Church at the northeast corner.
At ground level, you have to look up (way up) to see Nelson atop his column. The National Gallery is huge, running the entire length of the square, including both the original building and the relatively new (and contemporary) Sainsbury Wing. St. Martin’s, however, has always seemed the most striking building, perhaps because of its steeple and its architecture, which has inspired thousands of church buildings in the United States.
The church is named for St. Martin, born about 316 A.D. in what is now Hungary and right when Christianity was legalized in the Roman Empire by Constantine. He was originally in the Roman army but left because of his faith and settled at Poitiers in France, where he founded the first monastery in France. The monastery lasted until the French Revolution in 1789. Martin was almost kidnapped by the people of Tours to become the bishop. He refused the bishop’s lifestyle and actually lived in a cave outside Tours. He was associated with many acts of healing, including raising the dead to life. He died in 397; the day of his burial, Nov. 11, is still his feast day.
A church has existed on this spot since at least 1222, when it’s first noted in the records. As the area grew in population, an official parish was organized. By about 1544, the old church building was torn down and a new, although small, church was built in its place. In 1603, when James I became king, a considerable number of Scottish nobles settled in the Charing Cross area. The church building was too small, so James had it enlarged.
Finally, in 1720, Parliament passed an act approving the construction of a new church. The architect was James Gibbs, a friend of Sir Christopher Wren. Gibbs built the church known today. The large clear glass window, rather modern in style, behind the altar was added after World War II bombing destroyed the originally stained glass.
The church today is known for its outstanding classical music ministry, with both paid concerts inside the church and free lunchtime concerts outside in the courtyard. Below ground, in what was the church crypt, there is a restaurant, Café in the Crypt, serving lunch and dinner at generally more reasonable prices than can be found nearby (this area is close to being ground zero in London for tourists from around the world).
The café and the church are among our favorite places in London. We’ve eaten here numerous times, had our first real Victoria sponge cake here, used the crypt as a refuge from the rain, and attended concerts and lectures. St. Martin-in-the-Fields is like our home away from home. (The church also has a great shop next to the crypt, and I’ve found numerous books there.)
The church has a small reference in my second novel, A Light Shining, and then only being noted as one of the places damaged during The Violence, a jihadist uprising that happens in London and other cities in Britain. In Dancing King, Michael Kent-Hughes and his chief of staff meet with the church vicar for lunch in the crypt, and Michael commits to underwrite the rebuilding and to help with the fundraising effort. This has its origin in the historical fact that the church and the area have long been associated with Britain’s royal family (the land on which the National Gallery sits was known as the Kings Mews or stables).
If you visit London, St. Martin-in-the-Fields is a must-see, and the Victoria sponge cake in the Café in the Crypt is a must-eat.
Top photograph by Robert Cutts via Wikimedia.