Nicholas Hawksmoor was a farmer’s son who became a pupil of Sir Christopher Wren, and worked with him on St Paul’s Cathedral and Greenwich Hospital. He also worked closely with Sir John Vanbrugh on Blenheim Palace and Castle Howard. However, his talent can best be seen in his six London churches, of which St Alfege Church was the first. Consecration of the new Hawksmoor church in September 1718 is commemorated this year in an exciting series of tercentenary events.
Nicholas Hawksmoor was born in 1661, the son of a Nottinghamshire farmer. Little is known about his life before he became a clerk to Sir Christopher Wren, at the age of about 18. From about 1684 to about 1700, Hawksmoor worked with Christopher Wren on projects including Chelsea Hospital, St. Paul's Cathedral, Hampton Court Palace and Greenwich Hospital. He was named Clerk of the Works at Kensington Palace (1689) and Deputy Surveyor of Works at Greenwich (1705).
He then worked for a time with Sir John Vanbrugh, assisting him on the building of Blenheim Palace for John Churchill, the Duke of Marlborough, where he took charge from 1705, and Castle Howard for Charles Howard, later Earl of Carlisle. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Hawksmoor never travelled to Italy on a Grand Tour. Instead he studied engravings of the monuments of ancient Rome or reconstructions of the Temple of Solomon.
In November 1710, following a severe storm, the roof of St Alfege Church collapsed. The churchwardens petitioned Parliament for a contribution towards the rebuilding of the church. This paved the way for The New Churches in London and Westminster Act, which provided for 50 new churches to be built in London to serve its growing population. Hawksmoor was chosen to design the new St Alfege Church, which was built between 1712 and 1714. To save money the tower was not replaced, and remained as it was until 1730, when it was remodelled by local architect John James. Instead Hawksmoor used his design for the tower for St Anne Limehouse.
In February 2017, during a research project at St Alfege Church funded by the National Lottery (link), an original and beautiful drawing by Hawksmoor of the north elevation of the new church was discovered in a box of old photos and news clippings at Greenwich Heritage Centre (link). It was found by Richard Hill, of Richard Griffiths Architects, conservation architect for the ‘Heart of Greenwich - Place and People’ project. Consecration of Hawksmoor’s St Alfege was delayed for four years because the churchwardens objected to the presence of a royal pew in the church following the death of Queen Anne in 1714 and arrival of George I.
Hawksmoor went on to design five other London churches: Christ Church Spitalfields (1714–29), St George-in-the-East (1714–29), St Anne Limehouse (1714–30), St Mary Woolnoth (1716–24) and St George Bloomsbury (1716–31). Although he designed other things, such as spectacular new buildings at All Souls College, Oxford, and the west towers of Westminster Abbey, Hawksmoor’s reputation rests on his London churches, where he was given full freedom to employ his unique and imaginative approach to ecclesiastical architecture.
This year, 2018, we are planning to mark several significant anniversaries to mark the Tercentenary of the Dedication of Hawksmoor's St Alfege Church building in 1718.
The first event on 14 February 2018 marks the anniversary when, on 14 February 1711, the reading of the petition to parliament from the churchwardens of Greenwich Parish Church to rebuild the medieval church after a storm. This began the whole process towards the Fifty New Churches Act of 1711 under which this building and the rest of the Hawksmoor churches and others like them, for example St Paul’s Deptford, were built. We plan to highlight this with a short re-enactment when our current churchwardens (in costume) will present The Rt Honourable Nick Raynsford, former Minister for London and local Greenwich and Woolwich MP (1992 to 2015), with the same petition.