Throughout its history, St Giles-in-the-Fields has been at a crossroad. Standing on St Giles High Street we can hardly forget that the parish is at a physical junction between the great western road that is now Oxford Street and the north-south thoroughfare through Drury Lane. Yet, in the words of the historian of London Peter Ackroyd, this area is also a ‘crossroads between time and eternity’, the place where the mortal trials of life in the metropolis are confronted with the eternal promise of redemption through the Christian faith.
Throughout its history, St Giles has been, as Ackroyd puts it, a place of ‘entrance and exit’, whether for those arriving in the capital for the great medieval fairs of the city of London, for the condemned men and women making their way west to their executions at Tyburn or, more prosaically, for the thousands of tourists who will soon pour into London from the new Crossrail station beneath St Giles Circus. Its position at one of the great crossroads of London has given St Giles much of its character and indelibly shaped its history.
If your family has a historical connection to St Giles-in-the-Fields church then you may wish to consult the parish records. All of our records are now kept at the London Metropolitan Archive. The staff at the LMA will be very happy to assist you in your research.
There has been a house of prayer on the site since 1101, when Queen Matilda, wife of Henry I, founded a leper hospital here. At this time, St Giles stood outside the city of London with the lepers isolated from the population as a whole; the chapel probably became the church of a small village, which serviced the hospital.
In common with the monasteries, the hospital was dissolved by Henry VIII in 1539 and its lands sold. The hospital chapel became a parish church and the first Rector of St Giles was appointed in 1547. This was when the words ”in-the-fields” were added to its name.
1631: the second church
At the start of the seventeenth century, St Giles-in-the-fields was still on the outskirts of London. The earliest illustration that remain of St Giles dates from this period and shows a church with a round tower, capped by a dome. This dome was replaced by a larger spire in 1617 but shortly afterwards the church was considered ruinous and was consequently demolished. A Gothic brick building was built between 1623-1630 to replace it.
This was largely paid for by Alice, Duchess Dudley, daughter-in-law of Queen Elizabeth I’s favourite Robert Dudley. The church was consecrated by William Laud, Bishop of London in 1631. The church still has an illuminated manuscript listing the subscribers to this rebuilding, known as the Doomsday Book.
St Giles during the English Civil War
During the early seventeenth century, the church retained the links to the monarchy that had existed at the time of its founding: the then-rector Roger Mainwaring served as chaplain to Charles I and was a supporter of Bishop Laud’s reforms to liturgy. As a result, the second church was decorated in an advanced ‘high church’ style, with a screen separating the chancel and nave, as well as painting of the apostles on the organ loft and stained glass windows. This approach put brought the clashes over religious observance that developed in England during the 1630s to the heart of the parish.
As civil war approached in the late 1630s, St Giles’ parishoners petitioned parliament about what they claimed were the ‘popish reliques’ in the church. As a result, the church vestry was ordered to dispose of statues and tapestries in the church, the stained glass was removed and, between 1640-43, two successive rectors were ejected from the parish on charges of ritualism and subsequently imprisoned.
Following the restoration in 1660, the pendulum swung back again as stained glass was returned to the windows and a number of new fittings were ordered for the church, including a new pulpit (which can still be seen in the church today) and a significant amount of silver.
1664-65: the plague years
Shortly after the restoration of the monarchy, a great disaster was visited upon the parish of St Giles when, at the end of 1664, the first victims of what became the Great Plague of London, fell ill and died in the houses at the northern end of Drury Lane. In the subsequent year, thousands of victims were buried in pits in St Giles graveyard and the parish became synonymous with the plague. The diarist Samuel Pepys recorded his reaction to the plague, the effects of which he first encountered while passing through the parish of St Giles. On 7 June 1665 he wrote:
‘much against my will, I did in Drury Lane see two or three houses marked with a red cross upon the doors, and “Lord have mercy upon us” writ there; which was a sad sight to me, being the first of the kind that, to my remembrance, I ever saw.’
1733: the third and present church
By the early eighteenth century, the church building was once again in a poor condition due to damp, which was probably caused by the large number of plague victim burials that took place in the churchyard. At the same time the population of the area was booming with the development of Bloomsbury. This resulted in the division of the old parish of St Giles and the construction of a new church for the parish of St George’s Bloomsbury.
The parishoners of St Giles petitioned the Commissioners appointed in 1711 to build new churches in the London suburbs, for a grant to rebuild the church. After initially being refused because St Giles was not a new foundation, the parish was eventually allocated £8,000 and a new church was built in 1730-34, designed by the architect Henry Flitcroft in the palladian style (Flitcroft went on to design Woburn Abbey, the seat of the Dukes of Bedford, one of the principal landowners in this part of London). At the same time the elegant Vestry House was built, for meetings of the Vestry, the council of laypeople and clergy who managed parish affairs. The new church was consecrated Edmund Gibson, Bishop of London, on Christmas Day 1733.
The 19th Century
The ”rookeries” between the church and Great Russell Street, and the area called Seven Dials, were among the most notorious in London for poverty and squalour. Iconically, the parish of St Giles became the setting for William Hogarth’s famous engraving ‘Gin Lane’, which satirised and condemned the living conditions of the London poor. Yet the parish was also home for a time to leading lights in the romantic movement – indeed the children of Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Shelley were baptised in the font.
The nineteenth century also saw regular alterations to the fabric and furnishings of the church. The pulpit was moved at least five times between 1807 and 1896 and stained glass was placed in all the windows. Meanwhile the distinguished architects Sir Arthur Blomfield and Wiliam Butterfield made alterations to the interior in 1875 and 1896, including the introduction of the checkered black and white tiles seen in the church today.
The 20th Century and the present day
St Giles escaped severe damage in the bombing in the Second World War, which merely removed most of the Victorian glass. The church underwent a major restoration in 1952-3 described by John Betjeman as ‘One of the most successful post-war church restorations,’ (‘The Spectator, 9th March 1956).
Since the 1950s the area has changed enormously, with the loss of small shops and houses in St Giles’ High Street and the construction of the massive St Giles Court and Centre Point. The resident population is now about 4,600, and the church and churchyard have become an oasis of calm and contemplation in the midst of a vibrant commercial and cultural district.