There has been a worshipping community at Holy Sepulchre since at least 1137 when a charter records that Rahere (the founder of St. Bartholomew’s Hospital) appointed ‘Hagno the Clerk’ as priest of Holy Sepulchre.
Over the years God has moved powerfully through the church, most famously in the ministry of the great Bible-translator, preacher, martyr and former vicar, John Rogers (d.1555). This rich spiritual heritage is an inspiration and underpinning to us today, reflected in an on-going passion for scripture, preaching and zeal to seek God.
Through the 20th Century there were significant changes and developments in the life of Holy Sepulchre. New links were formed with the Royal Fusiliers’ whose regimental chapel in Holy Sepulchre was dedicated in 1950. A growing reputation for music was cemented and enhanced when Sir Henry Wood (founder of ‘the Proms’) was buried in the newly dedicated Musicians’ Chapel in 1955 and a Musicians’ Book of Remembrance instituted. At the same time, the declining population of the City of London led to Sunday worship stopping in the early 1980’s, and a greater focus on mid-week and occasional services.
A regular Sunday congregation was re-started in late 2013 by a planting team from Holy Trinity Brompton (HTB) and St. George’s Holborn. The new congregation also enabled the starting of a new Tuesday lunchtime service aimed at local workers, and the moving of the existing mid-week Choral Evensong from monthly to weekly.
Today both the Sunday and mid-week congregations continue to be the backbone of the church. We run a range of other ministries from Discipleship Groups to Alpha courses, and continue to build and cherish strong links with a range of other groups from Bell-ringers to musicians and Royal Fusiliers.
While there has been a church at the site of St. Sepulchre’s for much longer, the current building dates from c.1450 when it was ‘newly re-edified or builded’ by Sir John Popham. The walls, porch and most of the tower all date from this rebuilding.
The interior is a polyglot of different styles and re-designs. The church was completely gutted in the Great Fire of London in 1666 and the interior had to be totally re-built. The legend is that Sir Christopher Wren was supposed to do the work, but the Church Wardens at the time got bored of waiting and organised it themselves! Since then the interior has been substantially changed a number of times: in 1712; in 1737; in 1790 in 1834; in 1878; in 1932; and 1955.
There are two significant chapels in the church, The Royal Fusiliers Chapel in the South-East of the church, The Musicians’ Chapel on the North side of the Nave.
The Royal Fusiliers Chapel
The Royal Fusiliers Chapel is at the end of the south aisle of the church, and is the regimental chapel of the Royal Fusiliers (now part of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers) and the church garden is a memorial garden for the regiment. Designed by Sir Charles Nicholson, and with an East window depicting the virtues of a soldier and representations of Fusiliers from the 17th and 20th Centuries. The whole of the south aisle of the church is lined by past Regimental Colours and panels in memory of deceased members of the regiment, and there are Books of Remembrance recording the names of all Royal Fusiliers who died in the various wars from the Great War onwards. The chapel was dedicated in 1950, and St. Sepulchre’s has been the Royal Fusiliers home church ever since.
The Musicians’ Memorial Chapel
The Musicians’ Memorial Chapel is on the north side of the church. Until 1931 the organ occupied this space, and it was here that a young Sir Henry Wood (founder of the ‘Proms’) learnt to play the organ. Following his death his ashes were interred in the chapel, and funds raised to restore it. The newly restored chapel was re-dedicated in 1955 as a Musicians’ Memorial Chapel. The windows, kneelers, and other furnishings in the chapel have been gifted to the church in memory of particular musicians, and one of the centrepieces of the chapel is the Musicians’ Book of Remembrance. The Book of Remembrance records the names, dates and specialisms of hundreds of musicians. There is an active community of Friends of the Musicians Chapel who organise services and an on-line register of those whose names are recorded in the book.
As well as the chapels, there are a number of other notable features of the building. The organ originally dates from 1676. It was originally built by Renatus Harris as part of a fierce contest to build an organ for the nearby Temple Church. Harris lost the contest, but his loss was Holy Sepulchre gain and the organ was installed in the church. The original casing has been preserved across subsequent rebuildings and still bears the monogram C.R. commemorating Charles II. The last in a series of rebuilds was undertaken by Arthur Harrison in 1932 when the organ was moved to it’s current location. Sadly the organ is currently out of action while awaiting repair, although there is an exceptional temporary Makin organ in temporary use.
There are a number of notable stained glass windows in the church, perhaps surprisingly all dating from the 20th Century, their predecessors having been destroyed by fire or bombs. The East Window (1949) depicts “the Living, Victorious Christ on the Cross” above a background of the Heavenly City represented by some of the churches of London past and present. At the foot of the cross are Mary Magdalen, the Virgin Mary and St. John, and the arch of the window depicts the emblems of Jesus’ passion (dice, a scourge, lance, robe and hammer and nails), cherubs and a Pelican (an ancient emblem of Jesus). There are also windows representing the Resurrection (in the South wall), the Royal Fusiliers (in the Fusiliers’ Chapel), and St. Stephen Harding (in the Musicians’ Chapel). There are also a number of memorial windows. There are four in the Musicians Chapel commemorating Sir Henry Wood, Dame Nellie Melba, John Ireland, and Walter Carroll. There are two in the south wall commemorating Archibald Nicholson (a leading glass painter and congregation member, who painted the Stephen Harding window), and Captain John Smith (one of the founders of Virginia, see below).
There are a series of excellent carvings from the late 17th and early 18th Centuries within the church, including the counter-weighted font-cover in the south-west corner of the nave, the twin pulpits (one of which was possibly used by John Wesley when preaching here on Christmas Day in 1777), the reredos on the east wall and the organ casing.
People associated with the church
John Rogers was vicar of St. Sepulchre’s from 1550-1553 and one of the most significant figures of the English Reformation.
Rogers spent much of his life in exile in Antwerp, where he was a close friend and associate of the great Bible translator William Tyndale. Before his execution in 1536, Tyndale managed to pass the partial manuscripts for his translations of the Old Testament to Rogers. Rogers then completed the work, supplemented it with the first full-Bible commentary in the English language, and published it under a pseudonym (Thomas Matthew) in 1537.
After the death of Henry VIII, Rogers returned to England, where he became the Vicar of St. Sepulchre’s and gained a reputation as one of London’s finest preachers.
His ministry at St. Sepulchre’s was cut tragically short when Mary I came to the throne in 1553. After being imprisoned in Newgate prison for over a year, he was eventually burnt at the stake in Smithfield market on 4th February 1555 – the first martyr of Queen Mary’s reign.
Captain John Smith
John Smith was one of the founders Jamestown and of the State of Virginia, USA, and one of Virginia’s first governors. Under his governorship the fledgling settlement, which had been in dire straits, became established and viable.
Smith is perhaps most famous for the events surrounding his capture in 1607 by the nearby Powhatan tribe. He was initially in danger of being executed until the chieftain’s daughter, Princess Pocahontas, threw herself across his body to save him. For more details see Disney’s Pocahontas…or any number of more scholarly accounts!
Smith was also the first man to explore the Chesapeake Bay region (where Washington DC now is) and the first Admiral of the region to the north that he named ‘New England’.
He finally returned to England in 1615, where he remained until his death in 1631. He was buried in the south aisle of St. Sepulchre’s (although the precise location of his grave was lost in the Great Fire) and he is commemorated in a beautiful stained-glass window on the south wall.
Sir Henry Wood
Henry Wood was the founder of the ‘Proms’ concerts (which he conducted for 50 years until his death in 1944). He is buried in the Musicians’ Chapel at St. Sepulchre’s.
Wood’s connection with the church stretched back to his childhood, as he grew up at St. Sepulchre’s. His father was a member of the choir and he himself learnt to play the organ in the church, becoming the assistant organist aged 14.
He became famous for instituting the Promenade concerts in 1895, which are now the longest running series of orchestral concerts in the world.
Despite offers to conduct some of the world’s greatest orchestras (including the New York Philharmonic and Boston Symphony), Wood remained based in the UK throughout his life. As well as the annual Proms, he would conduct concerts and festivals throughout the country.
He died in 1944, and is buried in the Musicians’ Chapel at St. Sepulchre’s, which was created using money raised in his memory. There is a magnificent memorial window in the Chapel above his grave.
Thomas Culpeper was a favoured courtier of Henry VIII…until he decided to have an affair with Henry’s fifth wife, Catherine Howard. Culpeper predictably lost his head (literally – as did Catherine). He was buried at St. Sepulchre’s, but for some reason no-one thought to mark his grave.
Roger Ascham was a famous scholar and writer of the 16th Century, who was buried at St. Sepulchre’s on his death in 1568. These days he is most famous for having been Queen Elizabeth I’s tutor.