St Giles-in-the-Fields Church is a Grade I listed building. Consecrated in 1733, the present church was designed by Henry Flitcroft, a protegee of Lord Burlington who was later responsible for the rebuilding of Woburn Abbey in Bedfordshire and Wimpole Hall in Cambridgeshire.
The church we see today was designed in the palladian style and is reminiscent of the origins of Christianity in the Roman Empire. The interior is like a Roman basilica, lined with columns, and with galleries at first floor level. This building is at least the third place of worship to stand on this site. Unlike its predecessors, which are believed to have been built of brick, the exterior is constructed entirely of portland stone.
The layout of a church reflects the Christian journey through life, beginning with baptism. As you come in the main door, look to the right, and you will see the font, where Christians are baptised into membership of the Church of God. The font is an elegant Regency design, dating from 1810. Above the font is a relief of St Giles which was formerly on the St Giles National School in Endell Street. Among the many people who have been baptised in the font, in 1818, are the children of the poets Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Shelley (the author of Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, published in 1818), who lived in the parish.
To the left of the choir as you face the front stands the pulpit, from which the word of God is expounded in sermons. It was given to the church by John Sharp, the rector in 1676, who subsequently became Archbishop of York, and is therefore older than the present building.
It is of carved oak, with inlaid panels depicting the cross, a communion cup, the Bible, a fiery cross, and a star. Originally it was almost as high as the galleries, where the well-to-do sat.
The east wall
The east wall behind the altar is designed like a Roman triumphal arch, reminding Christians of Christ’s triumph over evil in his crucifixion and resurrection. The window above depicts Christ’s transfiguration before his three closest followers, reminding us of the hope of being united with Christ in heaven.
Behind the altar is the finely carved reredos. It is surmounted by a pelican feeding her young by plucking blood from her breast, an ancient symbol of what Jesus does for humanity on the cross. Below is an angel’s head, reminding us that in the Holy Communion we are rejoicing with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven, in the presence of God. On the frieze of the reredos are heads of wheat, and bunches of grapes, from which are produced the bread and wine, which become for us the body and blood of Christ in the Holy Communion.
On the reredos is written the Ten Commandments, the basis of the old covenant between God and his chosen people, which is renewed for us in the new covenant between God and all humanity by Jesus on the cross, and in the resurrection. The panels on either side of the altar were painted by Francisco Vieira, the younger, Court Painter to the King of Portugal, when he was in England between 1798 and 1800. The depict Moses, the prophet, and Aaron the priest. The altar rails date from 1734.
Memorials on the north wall
To the left of the pulpit by a window is the gravestone (formerly in the Churchyard) of George Chapman, (d.1634), dramatist, and the first translator of Homer’s Odyssey into English. The stone is possibly a Roman altar, discovered in the locality, and reused, or designed in the form of a Roman altar, by Inigo Jones, the most distinguished architect of the early seventeenth century.
Here you will also see the model for the new church in a glass case, constructed by the architect, Henry Flitcroft, so that the rector, churchwardens and vestrymen would know what the new building would look like. The details, of the model, which is in pear wood, including the interior, are almost exactly as the church was built. Close by is the cream painted pulpit from the former West Street Chapel, in the parish, which was the first headquarters of John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. Both John and his brother Charles, the hymn writer preached from this pulpit many times.
Further along between the 2nd and 3rd windows is a memorial to the Andrew Marvell (d.1678) the poet, who lived in the parish and is buried in the Churchyard and at the far end is an effigy of Lady Frances Kniveton, (d. 1663) in a shroud, carved by Joshua Marshall, of nearby, High Holborn. Lady Frances was the daughter of Duchess Dudley, one of the greatest benefactors of the parish.
On the west wall (by the main public entrance)
Nearby is a modern tablet commemorating Dr William Balmain, (d.1803) who was one of the founders of Sydney, New South Wales, who is buried in the Churchyard. Also here is a modern tablet commemorating Lord Cecil Calvert, second Baron Baltimore (d.1675) founder of Maryland, who is also buried in the Churchyard. Behind you, on the column is a memorial to Sir Roger L’Estrange (d 1704) who was the last public censor in England.
Close by on the second column along is a tablet commemorating Luke Hansard, (d.1828) who initiated printing and publishing verbatim reports of proceedings in Parliament, and a memorial tablet in the corner commemorates John Coleridge Patteson, first bishop of Melanesia in 1861, who was baptised here in 1827, and was murdered by natives of Nukapu in 1871.
The organ case was designed when the church was built in 1734 but much of the organ itself dates from 1678 and was built by George Dallam. It was in ‘repaired’ in 1699 by Christian Smith, a nephew of the great organ builder ‘Father Smith’. It was rebuilt in the new case in 1734 by Gerard Smith the younger, assisted by Johann Knopple. It was rebuilt and enlarged by Gray and Davidson in 1856, finally it was restored & rebuilt by William Drake in 2005-6, when the 17th century pipework was reinstated. The royal arms on the gallery front, a reminder that the monarch is the supreme governor and guardian of the Church of England, are those of George II, King when the church was rebuilt in 1734.
On the staircase of the right hand (north) lobby is a cast of bronze by John Flaxman,(d.1826) the distinguished sculptor, who lived in the parish, and on the east wall is a sculpture in wood of the resurrection dated 1687 by a carver called Love, which was originally over the gate to the Churchyard. A copy is now over the gate at the west side of the Churchyard. In the south lobby is a fine seventeenth century iron-bound chest dated 1630, and part of the tombstone, originally in the Churchyard, of Richard Pendrell (d. 1671) who helped to rescue Charles II from an oak tree after the Battle of Worcester in 1651.
Above is a memorial to Thomas Earnshaw, (d.1829) the inventor of the marine chronometer. On the staircase wall is a mosaic, after G.F.Watts of Judgement made for St Jude’s Whitechapel in 1884. Above the chest in the south corner is a ‘blue plaque’ from the demolished 18 St Giles High Street, commemorating George Odger (d.1877), who was secretary of the third congress of trade unions in 1871, which established the Trade Union Congress, whose headquarters are in the parish, in Great Russell Street.
The west end
The exterior of the church, built in Portland stone, is, according to the tenets of the Palladian style, austere, with little ornament, apart from the rusticated ground storey, and the window surrounds. The triple keystone above the north and south doors reminds those who enter that this is a church dedicated to the worship of one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The architect has boldly signed his name across the high level frieze at the west end of the church ‘H. Flitcroft, Architectus’.
The gate at the west end of the Churchyard was designed by Thomas Leverton, in 1800 and its tympanum contains a copy of the sculpture of the resurrection of Christ, the original of which is now in the church. Originally this gate stood at the main entrance to the Churchyard on St Giles High Street so that everyone who passed through the gate could raise their eyes and be reminded what the Christian faith is all about. The gate was moved in 1865, when it was thought that a new main street was to be cut through here, but eventually Charing Cross Road was cut through one block to the west.
Tower and spire
The tower and spire are distinctively Christian elements, which would not have been found on a Roman building. They are designed to lead people’s eyes and minds and hearts to the goal of the Christian life, with God in heaven.
The Vestry House (just behind the church)
This was also designed by Flitcroft and built with the present church in 1734. The ancient parish of St Giles-in-the-Fields was governed from here by the rector, churchwardens and vestrymen, until the 1830’s, when responsibility for the poor, maintaining the highways, drainage, and public order were gradually transferred to various statutory agencies. It comprises the panelled vestry room, where the members of the ‘vestry,’ comprising the rector, and the churchwardens and vestrymen, elected by ratepayers in the parish, met. The names of rectors from 1547 and churchwardens from 1730 are painted in gold on the panelling.
The Vestry Minutes record the purchase of the large central table in 1702, at a cost of 36 shillings, and an order for the chairs in 1811. The ante room for the vestry room contains a collection of portraits of rectors from John Sharp, by the studio of Sir Godfrey Kneller (d. 1723), who is buried in the Churchyard until today.
In the passageway the ‘seal’ fixed to the wall is copied from a charter of Henry VIII to the Earl of Dudley, depicting St Giles. It was carved by N. Crabb, a carver of High Holborn on the instructions of the churchwardens in 1806, to be used on markers to be placed at the boundaries of the parish.