St Margaret's, Westminster

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St Margaret's, Westminster
St-Margaret's- Westminster.P1130954-PS (cropped).jpg
St Margaret's Church, Westminster, with the Elizabeth Tower of the Palace of Westminster in the background.
Location City of Westminster, London, UK
Coordinates 51°30′00″N00°07′37″W / 51.50000°N 0.12694°W / 51.50000; -0.12694 Coordinates: 51°30′00″N00°07′37″W / 51.50000°N 0.12694°W / 51.50000; -0.12694
Founded12th Century
Rebuilt1486 to 1523
Official name Palace of Westminster, Westminster Abbey and Saint Margaret's Church
Criteriai, ii, iv
Designated1987 (11th session)
Reference no. 426
CountryUnited Kingdom
Region Europe and North America
Open street map central london.svg
Red pog.svg
Location of St. Margaret, Westminster Abbey in central London

The Church of St Margaret, Westminster, is in the grounds of Westminster Abbey on Parliament Square, London, England. [1] It is dedicated to Margaret of Antioch, [2] and forms part of a single World Heritage Site with the Palace of Westminster and Westminster Abbey.


History and description

The church was founded in the twelfth century by Benedictine monks, so that local people who lived in the area around the Abbey [3] could worship separately at their own simpler parish church, and historically it was within the hundred of Ossulstone in the county of Middlesex. [4] In 1914, in a preface to Memorials of St. Margaret's Church, Westminster, a former Rector of St Margaret's, Dr Hensley Henson, reported a mediaeval tradition that the church was as old as Westminster Abbey, owing its origins to the same royal saint, and that "The two churches, conventual and parochial, have stood side by side for more than eight centuries — not, of course, the existing fabrics, but older churches of which the existing fabrics are successors on the same site." [5]

St Margaret's was rebuilt from 1486 to 1523, at the instigation of King Henry VII, and the new church, which largely still stands today, was consecrated on 9 April 1523. It has been called "the last church in London decorated in the Catholic tradition before the Reformation", and on each side of a large rood there stood richly painted statues of St Mary and St John, while the building had several internal chapels. In the 1540s, the new church came near to demolition, when Edward Seymour, 1st Duke of Somerset, planned to take it down to provide good-quality materials for Somerset House, his own new palace in the Strand. He was only kept from carrying out his plan by the resistance of armed parishioners. [6]

In 1614, St Margaret's became the parish church of the Palace of Westminster, when the Puritans of the seventeenth century, unhappy with the highly liturgical Abbey, chose to hold their Parliamentary services in a church they found more suitable: [7] a practice that has continued since that time.

Between 1734 and 1738, the north-west tower was rebuilt to designs by John James; at the same time, the whole structure was encased in Portland stone. Both the eastern and the western porch were added later, with J. L. Pearson as architect. In 1878, the church's interior was greatly restored and altered to its current appearance by Sir George Gilbert Scott, although many Tudor features were retained. [8]

In 1863, during preliminary explorations preparing for this restoration, Scott found several doors covered with human skin. After doctors had examined this skin, Victorian historians theorized that the skin might have been that of William the Sacrist, who organized a gang that, in 1303, robbed the King of the equivalent of, in modern currency, $100 million. It was a complex scheme, involving several gang members disguised as monks planting bushes on the palace. After the stealthy burglary 6 months later, the loot was concealed in these bushes. The historians believed that William the Sacrist was flayed alive as punishment and his skin was used to make these royal doors, perhaps situated initially at nearby Westminster Palace. [9]

By the 1970s, the number of people living nearby was in the hundreds. Ecclesiastical responsibility for the parish was reallocated to neighbouring parishes by the Westminster Abbey and Saint Margaret Westminster Act 1972, and the church was brought under the authority of the Dean and Chapter of Westminster Abbey. [1]

An annual new year service for the Coptic Orthodox Church in Britain takes place in the church in October, and in 2016 Bishop Angaelos gave the sermon. [10]

The Rector of St Margaret's is often a canon of Westminster Abbey. [11]

Commemorative windows

St Margaret's, Westminster interior, 2016 St Margaret's, Westminster interior, 2016.jpg
St Margaret's, Westminster interior, 2016

Notable windows include the east window of 1509 of Flemish stained glass, created to commemorate the betrothal of Catherine of Aragon to Henry VIII. [12] This has had a chequered history. It was given by Henry VII to Waltham Abbey in Essex, and at the Dissolution of the Monasteries the last Abbot sent it to a private chapel at New Hall, Essex. That came into the possession of Thomas Boleyn, 1st Earl of Wiltshire, the father of Anne Boleyn, then Thomas Radclyffe, 3rd Earl of Sussex, next George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham, after him Oliver Cromwell, from whom it reverted to the second Duke of Buckingham, next General Monk, Duke of Albemarle, and after him John Olmius, then Mr Conyers of Copt Hall, Essex, whose son sold the window to the parish of St Margaret's in 1758, for four hundred guineas. The money came from a grant of £4,000 which parliament had made to the parish that year for the renovation of the church and the rebuilding of the chancel. [13]

Other windows commemorate William Caxton, England's first printer, who was buried at the church in 1491, Sir Walter Raleigh, executed in Old Palace Yard [14] and then also buried in the church in 1618, the poet John Milton, a parishioner of the church, and Admiral Robert Blake.


As well as marrying its own parishioners, the church has long been a popular venue for society weddings, as Members of Parliament, peers, and officers of the House of Lords and House of Commons can choose to be married in it. Notable weddings include:

Other notable weddings include some of the Bright Young People. [20]



Other notable events

On Easter day in 1555 a former Benedictine monk, William Flower entered the church and attacked a priest who was administering the sacrament. Although he repented for the injury he caused the priest, Flower would not repent his motive which was based on a rejection of the doctrine of transubstantiation. He was thus sentenced for heresy and burned at the stake outside the church.

During the First World War, Edward Lyttelton, headmaster of Eton, gave a sermon in the church on the theme of "Loving your enemies", promoting the view that any post-war treaty with Germany should be a just one and not vindictive. He had to leave the church after the service by a back door, while a number of demonstrators sang "Rule Britannia" in protest at his attitude. [31]


The treble choristers for St Margaret's are supplied by Westminster Under School. The church also hosted the first performance by the UK Parliament Choir under Simon Over in 2000.


An organ was installed in 1806 by John Avery. The current organ is largely built by J. W. Walker & Sons Ltd. A specification of the organ can be found on the National Pipe Organ Register. [32]


Mackenzie Walcott lists the following as officiating clergymen: [33]

Under the Ecclesiastical Commissioners Act 1840, the rectory of St Margaret's was annexed to the canonry of Westminster Abbey held by Henry Hart Milman, such that Milman and his successors as Canon would be Rector ex officio. [37] This arrangement continued until 1978. The Rector was often (and continuously from 1972 to 2010) also the Chaplain to the Speaker of the House of Commons. [38]


Organists who have played at St Margaret's include:

See also

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