Sitting picturesquely on the banks of the River Thames, I must have walked past St. Mary’s Church, Battersea, dozens of times without once realising that it’s history matches it’s splendid Georgian architecture. This has been a site of Christian worship for over a thousand years, and although there was probably nothing wrong with the Medieval church that stood on this site, the wealthy citizens of Battersea insisted on rebuilding the church in the 1770s. It was then that it acquired the graceful 130 foot spire, which still dramatically rises above the River Thames.
As with most churches in Britain these days, St. Mary’s is only occasionally open, for services and a weekly nursery. The rest of the time, having the doors open would probably result in the theft of everything valuable. It was only by chance that, walking past on my way to Hammersmith, I discovered the church open and I was able to sneak inside for a look around. Fortune was on my side, because inside I met the vicar, Canon Simon Butler, who had a couple of minutes to spare to point out some of the history.
I’d already spotted a stained glass window dedicated to the pantomime villain of the American War of Independence, Benedict Arnold. This church is the burial site of one of the most notorious names in American history. I couldn’t quite believe that this fact had escaped my attention all this time. At the time of the American War of Independence (1775 – 1783), Arnold was considered a defector and traitor by Americans, a patriot by the British. He’s still reviled as a traitor in the United States, but is largely forgotten in the country where he lived out the rest of his life.
The inscription on the window reads, “The two nations whom he served, in turn in the years of their enmity, have united in this memorial as a token of their enduring friendship.” It is decorated with the flags of the two nations from both periods in history. For those who still bare a grudge against Arnold, he was originally buried in the crypt, but when the crypt was converted into a usable room his remains became mixed up with those of all the others buried there. His remains now reside in a mass grave, unmarked and unidentified.
You might think one famous name enough for any church, but St. Mary’s has a host of famous connections. Walking around the church, three other stained glass windows are dedicated to eminent people associated with the church. One belongs to the poet and artist William Blake (1757 – 1827). Largely regarded as mad, or at least eccentric, by contemporaries for his views, including free love; he is, today, recognised as one of the most important poets of his age. Blake was married at St. Mary’s in 1782.
One of the other windows is dedicated to the artist, J. M. W. Turner (1775 – 1851), who painted river scenes on the Thames from the vestry window of St. Mary’s. He also sketched St. Mary’s from across the river, a picture which can be seen on the Tate website. The final window is dedicated to William Curtis (1746 – 99), a long forgotten botanist and entomologist, who collected many samples from the churchyard and surrounding area. The church has even more illustrious connections yet though…
There was probably a church on this site in 800 AD, a typical Anglo Saxon church. The church is recorded in the Doomsday Book of 1086, where it was noted that King WIlliam (the Conqueror) had given the church and its lands to Westminster Abbey. The church was remodelled and added to over the years, growing significantly in size, until its eventual rebuilding in the 1770s.
After Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries, the church passed into the hands of the St. John family. That is, until the ownership of Battersea Manor was bought by Earl Spencer in 1763. Today, Charles Spencer, the 9th Earl Spencer and the brother of Diana, Princess of Wales, is still its patron. It was his ancestor who gave the permission to build the current church to better represent the aspirations of the increasingly wealthy inhabitants of newly fashionable Battersea.
By the 1760s, Battersea was considered a fashionable country retreat from the crowded streets of London – not that you’d guess that today. In 1766, Battersea Bridge was opened, meaning access to the area was much easier, and there was an influx of wealthy residents. There are still plenty of examples of the houses of that period in the Battersea area, and today it is still a very well-healed area of London. This stretch of the River Thames is tidal, when I was there the tide was out, allowing me to wander around on the temporary ‘beach’ created on the river bank.
St. Mary’s reopened in 1777, unusually for London, the church was given a portico, which ironically gives it a similar feel to churches in New England. Today it is a Grade I listed building, which has been somewhat overshadowed by a new block of apartments made from steel and glass – such is London’s regard for its historic treasures.