St Martin-in-the-Fields - History and Facts | History Hit

St Martin-in-the-Fields

London, England, United Kingdom

Harry Atkins

30 Apr 2021
Image Credit: Shutterstock

About St Martin-in-the-Fields

Located in the northeast corner of Trafalgar Square, St Martin-in-the-Fields remains an active church and music venue, as well as a world class architectural landmark. Given its relatively understated presence amid Trafalgar Square’s more attention-hogging attractions, this beautiful Georgian church might easily go unnoticed, but it deserves a closer look.

St Martin-in-the-Fields history

Before going any further we should probably address the ill-fitting name. These days, the church most certainly isn’t ‘in the fields’, indeed, surveying the inner-city hubbub of Trafalgar Square today, it’s hard to imagine a place that’s further from the fields.

In fact, the church’s strikingly incongruous name offers an indication of its age. In the early medieval period, when a church was first built on the site, the area now known as Trafalgar Square was nothing but farmland. It was quite literally ‘in-the-fields’.

The first records of St Martin-in-the-Fields date back to a land dispute between the Bishop of London and the Abbot of Westminster in 1222. It owes its name to Martin of Tours, a Christian saint most famous for cutting his cloak in half to share it with a beggar.

Henry VIII rebuilt the medieval church and extended its parish in 1542, largely motivated by a desire to prevent plague victims from passing through the Palace of Whitehall, his main residence.

St Martin-in-the-Fields was further enlarged in 1607, by Prince Henry, son of James I. But, despite surviving the Great Fire of London in 1666, a survey from 1710 indicates that, by then, the building was in a state of decay. Ten years later it was decided that the church should be demolished and rebuilt.

James Gibbs, a talented Scottish architect, best known for the Radcliffe Library in Oxford, was entrusted with the task of reimagining St Martin-in-the-Fields. He came up with a striking neoclassical masterpiece that clearly owed a debt to Christopher Wren’s churches. But Gibbs added a number of innovative architectural touches. Most notably, he decided to position the steeple centrally, behind the pediment.

Unconventional enough to attract criticism at the time, his vision nonetheless proved to be hugely influential. St Martins-in-the-Field provided a new, highly popular template for churches across the world.

St Martin-in-the-Fields today

James Gibbs’ 18th century vision has stood the test of time. More than 300 years after its construction, St Martin-in-the-Fields retains its standing as one of Britain’s most important ecclesiastical buildings. Beyond the enduring appeal of its prominent central London location and elegant neoclassical architecture, St Martin remains an active church and concert venue.

Arguably, the best way to take in the beautiful plasterwork and soaring, understated elegance of St Martin’s interior is to attend a concert there. The church hosts an impressive program of classical music performances, including free lunchtime concerts.

Getting to St Martin-in-the-Fields

St-Martin-in-the-Fields couldn’t be more centrally located. All you have to do is find Trafalgar Square – a task most visitors to London seem to manage. The church can be found to the northeast of Trafalgar square, just across from the National Gallery, which dominates the north side of the square. The nearest tube station, just across the road, is Charing Cross, which is on the Northern and Bakerloo lines.