St Mary Le Strand Church

London, England

St Mary Le Strand: the first of fifty churches built after the Great Fire of London.

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St Mary Le Strand 5
- James Stringer

Discover St Mary le Strand Church

St Mary le Strand, located at the eastern end of the Strand in Westminster, London, is a Baroque-style Church of England parish church, that is often overlooked in favour of London’s grander ecclesiastical structures. Situated within the Diocese of London and Deanery of Westminster (St Margaret), the original St Mary le Strand Church was named Church of the Innocents. But that structure was demolished in the 16th century and not replaced until 200 years later by the present building.

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- Steve Cadman

The History of St Mary le Strand Church

The church’s origins trace back to at least 1222 when it was initially known as the Church of the Innocents, later St Mary and the Innocents. The original church, located slightly south of its current site, met its demise in 1549 when it was demolished on orders of Edward Seymour, the Duke of Somerset, to make way for the construction of Somerset House. Despite promises of a replacement, parishioners were left without a church for several years, eventually relocating to St Clement Danes and the Savoy Chapel.

The present-day St Mary le Strand was commissioned under an ambitious restorative effort following the Great Fire of London. Part of this project was known as the Fifty New Churches Act of 1711 managed by Queen Anne. St Mary le Strand was the first of the fifty churches to be completed with the steeple finished by September 1717 and its consecration occurring on 1st January 1724.

St Mary Le Strand 3
- Matt Brown

The church’s location along the Strand was strategically chosen as a prominent site along the processional route from St. James’ Palace to St. Paul’s Cathedral, originally intended to serve the palace’s ceremonial needs. It also provided the church with its name: St Mary le Strand.

During the 20th century St Mary le Strand faced potential destruction twice. At the onset of the century, plans by the London County Council to widen the Strand threatened the church. But this was halted after a successful campaign led by artist Walter Crane. During World War II, the church survived bombings in the surrounding area, although it did suffer some damage from nearby explosions.

St Mary Le Strand 1
- Matt Brown

Designing St Mary le Strand Church

St Mary le Strand was determined "the finest 18th century church in London" by architectural critic Simon Jenkins. It was designed by architect James Gibbs in an English Baroque style blending ancient, Renaissance, and contemporary European details complete with Corinthian columns and a graceful steeple. Today, these details make a bold statement against the other buildings on the Strand.

Despite its architectural acclaim, St Mary le Strand Church met challenges from the start. Originally planned without a steeple, the church's design was altered following Queen Anne's death, necessitating the construction of a steeple instead of the intended campanile. This alteration not only changed the visual appearance but also stirred public opinion, with some criticising the Baroque ornamentation as excessive.

Inside St Mary le Strand Church

Step inside St Mary le Strand, and you are greeted with exquisite details. The interior has a lavish plastered ceiling in white and gold, drawing inspiration from Italian Baroque churches. The grand dome above the altar and the absence of an upper gallery contribute to the church's spacious and airy atmosphere, uncommon for its era. The church also features intricate woodwork and stained glass windows, and houses the original 1721 pulpit.

St Mary Le Strand 6
- James Stringer

Preserving St Mary le Strand Church

In 1871, Robert Jewell Withers led reconstruction work on the church. This restoration saw the removal of box pews, replaced with elegant benches that still feature in the church today. Withers also oversaw the installation of the tiled floor in the nave and chancel, earning praise for his tasteful enhancements, which have stood the test of time.

The Jewel in the Strand Project

Currently, St. Mary le Strand is undergoing the "Jewel in the Strand" project, aimed at preserving the Grade I listed building. Recent surveys of the stonework prompted concerns about its condition and so the Jewel in the Strand Project also identified the best conservation and restoration approaches, crucial to ensuring the survival of the church.

The ongoing surveys and inspections have led to temporary closures and cordoning off of sections around the church to limit risks associated with the stonework. As of the latest updates, further investigations at the west end of the church will necessitate the closure of the main entrance in September.

St Mary Le Strand
- Neil Turner

The Cultural Significance of St. Mary le Strand

Over the centuries, St Mary le Strand Church has witnessed many cultural moments. Legend has it that Prince Charles Edward Stuart renounced his Roman Catholic faith to become Anglican during a secret visit in 1750. Furthermore, the parents of Charles Dickens, John Dickens, and Elizabeth Barrow, were married within the church in 1809.

More recently, St Mary le Strand became the official church of the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS) in 1982. This designation was marked by a ceremony on 28th October 1984, where the WRNS Book of Remembrance was relocated to the church. Today, the church holds significant memorials and artefacts commemorating the service and sacrifice of WRNS members, including kneelers and other tributes crafted by former service members.

Visiting St Mary le Strand

Opposite Somerset House and part of the parish of St Clement Danes, St Mary le Strand remains open to the public on select days, serving as a holy place of peace and sanctuary amidst the busy Westminster district. It welcomes all visitors and parishioners to pray, reflect, worship, and remember with the annual WRNS Carol Service in December.

St Mary Le Strand 2
- James Stringer

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What you need to know

St Mary Le Strand Church
Strand, Charing Cross, London WC2R 1ES
51.512196, -0.116834
Official Website
Tips before you visit

Please note: there is currently no step-free access to St Mary le Strand church.