A rare glimpse into the St Alfege Crypt, in Greenwich, opens up a whole world of history

I adore Greenwich. It’s one of those character-filled parts of London that has everything: history, great restaurants, beautiful architecture, excellent museums, quirky tea shops, riverside views…you name it, there is something for everyone.

It is also proud home to St Alfege Church, which I visited earlier today and whose history is both unique and enthralling: this is a church that has survived war, foreign raids, persecution, bombing and countless other calamities. It’s where Henry VIII was christened, in 1491, and where his younger sister, Mary, married Thomas Brandon. It is also the resting place of a number of influential British personalities connected to Greenwich.

Although the current church was constructed between 1712 and 1718, there has been a place of worship on this site for over 1,000 years – dedicated to the memory of Alfege, the Archbishop of Canterbury who was martyred here by Viking raiders in 1012. Now a grade-I listed building, the present incarnation of St Alfege was designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor, a pupil of Sir Christopher Wren and one of the UK’s most esteemed architects.

Commissioned under the Fifty New Churches Act of 1711, Hawksmoor designed this to be a space for the living and, possibly, a school as well – however, soon after the church’s consecration in 1718, the parishioners of Greenwich decided that they had other plans, with those who could afford to do so paying sums of money to be buried on the floor of the church’s Crypt and wealthy local families setting up family burial vaults.

Today, I took advantage of a unique opportunity to see inside the Crypt, which is rarely open to the public. Incredibly, it contains 60 vaults, which in turn contain over 1,000 coffins. Although the majority of these vaults were commissioned by families, there are also several communal (and therefore cheaper) vaults. A good example is Vicer’s Vault, which was sealed in 1810 and is a communal vault containing 400 coffins. The Crypt itself was sealed during the 1850s, following an Act of Parliament which demanded that all crypts be closed up, due to a serious cholera outbreak in the country.

You might think entering an underground passageway which is essentially a burial room for the dead would be a macabre experience, but in fact we found the opposite to be the case. The Crypt is dark, of course, but some lighting has been installed and we were all given torches, so that we could pick out the inscriptions on the various vaults. It is also much dryer than I expected – I had thought, wrongly, that it would be cold, and damp.

During the Blitz, the Crypt was used as a shelter by 30 – 40 families – four of whom actually lived here until the church’s nave was destroyed by a bomb in March 1941. The same bomb caused untold damage to the rest of the church, but fortunately restoration proved possible and was undertaken post-war by Professor Richardson RA, who followed the principles laid down by Hawksmoor.

St Alfege’s Crypt is where the Wolfe family vault resides. General James Wolfe was the most celebrated British general of the 18th century and, although born in Kent, spent most of his childhood in Greenwich. As a soldier, he fought in a number of battles, including Culloden, and is famed for his victory over the French at the Battle of the Plains of Abraham in Canada in 1759, at which both he and the top French military commander, the Marquis de Montcalm, were fatally wounded. Wolfe was just 32 when he died, and was laid to rest alongside his father, who had died earlier the same year.

The Wolfe family vault
The Wolfe family vault.

 

Fascinating though its Crypt is, St Alfege itself is well worth a look around – its interior is beautiful, and contains a number of items of great historical interest. Here, you will find the Tallis keyboard, which is named after the ‘father of English church music’, Thomas Tallis, who was an organist at St Alfege during the 16th century and is buried beneath the chancel. Thomas was a member of the Chapel Royal in the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I and Elizabeth I. Demonstrating that music was far more important than the religious differences which existed at the time, Thomas served each monarch dutifully, managing to survive the Reformation, the country’s return to Catholicism and the Elizabethan Settlement. In recognition of his achievements, the Thomas Tallis Society regularly gives concerts both here and elsewhere.

Thomas Tallis keyboard
The Thomas Tallis keyboard – the middle part of which dates back to Tudor times. It is thought that Princesses Mary and Elizabeth both practiced on this keyboard when they lived at Greenwich Palace.

 

I loved the church’s stained glass windows, with their depictions of various historical events – the marriage of Princess Mary to Charles Brandon, the baptism of Henry VIII, the martyrdom of St Alfege and an image of General Wolfe standing above crossed cannons. It was also interesting to see the original church register containing an entry in respect of General Wolfe’s burial – a photo of which is below.

St Alfege church register
Church register in which the burial of General Wolfe is recorded

Do pay St Alfege a visit if the opportunity arises – it has such a fascinating history and we were given an exceptionally warm welcome. The church also has some very exciting plans for the future, having been awarded £150,000 by the Heritage Lottery Fund to assist with its Heart of Greenwich project – more on which here.

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