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St Alfege
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St AlfegeIt is a rare church in England, let alone London, that can claim to be built on the site of the martyrdom of the saint after whom it is named. In this case, St Alfege was martyred at Greenwich by the Vikings on 9 April 1012. A slab in the pavement of the chancel commemorates the event. St Alfege had been Archbishop of Canterbury since 1006, and his remains were eventually enshrined in his cathedral. St Aifege's Church has countless further associations. In its parish a royal palace stood for a couple of centuries and as a result, King Henry VIII was baptized in the parish. His sister, Mary Tudor, married Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, in the palace's chapel in 1515. From later centuries, two British imperial heroes are associated with the church. General James Wolfe, the conqueror of Quebec (died 1759) was buried here and is commemorated by a tablet of 1908; his victory was one of those in the annus mirabilis of 1759, which prompted David Garrick to write Heart of Oak. The other hero is General Charles Gordon (died 1885), the Victorian soldier who fell at Khartoum in the Sudan. He was baptized here in 1833. A lesser known but very worthy commemoration is that of Canon John Miller, a Victorian Rector of St Aifege's, who helped to found Hospital Sunday. This was a valuable means of supporting voluntary hospitals before the National Health Service.

St Alfege

Hawksmoor's impressive south elevation is divided by giant pillasters. James's steeple, seen beyond, was added to the original tower in 1730.

St Aifege's was built in 1712-18 by Nicholas Hawksmoor. John James encased the surviving tower from the previous church in 1730, and added a steeple. The church was rebuilt under the 1711 Act. In fact, it had a prominent position in the Fifty New Churches scheme, because it was a petition from Greenwich in 1711, asking that money from the coal dues be granted for rebuilding the storm-damaged St Aifege's, that led to the Act in the first place. The church was bombed in 1941, and had the privilege of restoration by Sir Albert Richardson. Few architects in the 20th century were so wedded to the Georgian Age as he was; he even went about by sedan chair in his home town of Ampthill in Bedfordshire.

St Alfege

The organ gallery at the west end bears the lion and unicorn and the royal arms to represent the church's traditional royal pew.

The tower and steeple of St Aifege's are designed after the manner of James Gibbs: worthy and pleasing, but unlike Hawksmoor's much more vigorous architecture in the body of the church. The east end faces the centre of Greenwich, and it is that elevation that makes the most dramatic statement. A pediment surmounted by three huge urns crowns the whole, which is divided by four Doric pilasters at the sides and two columns in the middle; the columns frame the recessed east window, above which an arch breaks through into the pediment itself. The side elevations of nine bays are also divided by giant pilasters. The three middle bays project considerably to provide vestibules for north and south doors. Urns surmount the west end of the church proper, as at the east. The post-war interior reproduces Hawksmoor's design and the fittings of the craftsmen who worked with him. The east apse is framed by a shallow arch and by pilasters that still bear monochrome painting of the 18th century by Sir James Thomhill. The painting he executed in the apse itself was redone after the Second World War by Glyn Jones. The half-dome is made to appear coffered. The east window is flanked by pairs of giant Corinthian columns, set diagonally towards the centre; they support short entablatures only, although they appear to support the arch of the window, for the dark woodwork seems to merge into the dark trompe I'oeil painting. The reredos proper consists of four small, evenly spaced Corinthian columns and a straight entablature, immediately under the east window. The stained glass in the window was designed by Ruskin Spear, 1953, and shows the Risen Christ accompanied by four angels holding Instruments of the Passion. Small figures of St Alfege and Cardinal Morton appear at the bottom. Cardinal Morton, who served as Archbishop of Canterbury, was Vicar here from 1444 to 1454. He also appears in a window in the vestibule, which was the only 19th-century window in the church to survive the bombing of 1941. Ruskin Spear also designed the aisle windows in 1956. They represent historical scenes of the church and parish. One worthy not mentioned above but who is commemorated here is Thomas Tallis. He was buried in the previous church and might have known the organ console in the gallery, at least part of which is thought to go back to 1552. He is shown in a south aisle window, at the west end. The Stuart royal arms are placed in the west gallery to represent the church's traditional royal pew.

St Alfege

One of the charities' boards which reveal an extraordinary degree of local benevolence over the centuries.

The benefaction boards at the east end list an extraordinary group of charities. Greenwich has seemingly been blessed with benevolence beyond any other parish. The Royal Hospital for mariners takes pride of place: its premises constituted a palace. The others include Trinity Hospital at the waterfront, a charming almshouse founded by the Earl of Northampton in 1613; the Roan School; Queen Elizabeth's College, also an almshouse, which stands opposite Greenwich Station; and the Jubilee Almshouses in Greenwich High Road. The scale and number of this parish's charities are remarkable.

St Alfege

The east end as restored after the Second World War includes trompe I'oeil painting by Glyn Jones (repeating work by Sir James Thornhill) and stained glass by Ruskin Spear.

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