There has been a worshipping community at St. Sepulchre’s since at least 1137 when a charter records that Rahere (the founder of St. Bartholomew’s Hospital) appointed ‘Hagno the Clerk’ as priest of St. Sepulchre’s.
Over the years God has moved powerfully through the church, most famously in the ministry of the great Bible-translator, preacher, martyr and former vicar, John Rogers (d.1555). This rich spiritual heritage is an inspiration and underpinning to us today, reflected in an on-going passion for scripture, preaching and zeal to seek God.
St. Sepulchre’s 20th Century history is dominated by music and it’s growing ministry as ‘the Musicians’ Church’. The Church began to gain a reputation for musical excellence during the early 20th Century. This was cemented and enhanced when Sir Henry Wood (founder of ‘the Proms’) was buried in the newly dedicated Musicians’ Chapel in 1955 and a Musicians’ Book of Remembrance instituted.
Most recently, in September 2013, the existing church community was joined by a planting team from Holy Trinity Brompton (HTB) and St. George’s Holborn and a new partnership established. The vision behind this partnership is to bring together the best of the existing ministry at St. Sepulchre’s, with new services, mission and ministries made possible by the injection of new people and resources from the planting team.
People often ask who “Saint Sepulchre” was – and the answer is that there is no “Saint Sepulchre”! Sanctus Sepulchrum is the Latin for ‘Holy Tomb’ and the church was named after the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. The wonderful thing about the ‘holy tomb’ is that it is also the empty tomb and we like to say that we are a church dedicated in memory of Jesus’ resurrection.
While there has been a church at the site of St. Sepulchre’s for much longer, the current building dates from 1450. The interior was completely gutted in the Great Fire of London in 1666 and had to be totally re-built (the legend is that Sir Christopher Wren was supposed to do the work, but the Church Wardens at the time got bored of waiting and organised it themselves!). Since then the interior has been substantially changed a number of times in the 18th Century; in 1834 and again in 1878. There are also two significant chapels in the church, The Musicians’ Chapel and The Royal Fusiliers Chapel.
People associated with the church
Captain John Smith
John Smith was one of the founders Jamestown and of the State of Virginia, USA, and one of Virginia’s first governors. Under his governorship the fledgling settlement, which had been in dire straits, became established and viable.
Smith is perhaps most famous for the events surrounding his capture in 1607 by the nearby Powhatan tribe. He was initially in danger of being executed until the chieftain’s daughter, Princess Pocahontas, threw herself across his body to save him. For more details see Disney’s Pocahontas…or any number of more scholarly accounts!
Smith was also the first man to explore the Chesapeake Bay region (where Washington DC now is) and the first Admiral of the region to the north that he named ‘New England’.
He finally returned to England in 1615, where he remained until his death in 1631. He was buried in the south aisle of St. Sepulchre’s (although the precise location of his grave was lost in the Great Fire) and he is commemorated in a beautiful stained-glass window on the south wall.
John Rogers was vicar of St. Sepulchre’s from 1550-1553 and one of the most significant figures of the English Reformation.
Rogers spent much of his life in exile in Antwerp, where he was a close friend and associate of the great Bible translator William Tyndale. Before his execution in 1536, Tyndale managed to pass the partial manuscripts for his translations of the Old Testament to Rogers. Rogers then completed the work, supplemented it with the first full-Bible commentary in the English language, and published it under a pseudonym (Thomas Matthew) in 1537.
After the death of Henry VIII, Rogers returned to England, where he became the Vicar of St. Sepulchre’s and gained a reputation as one of London’s finest preachers.
His ministry at St. Sepulchre’s was cut tragically short when Mary I came to the throne in 1553. After being imprisoned in Newgate prison for over a year, he was eventually burnt at the stake in Smithfield market on 4th February 1555 – the first martyr of Queen Mary’s reign.
Sir Henry Wood
Henry Wood was the founder of the ‘Proms’ concerts (which he conducted for 50 years until his death in 1944). He is buried in the Musicians’ Chapel at St. Sepulchre’s.
Wood’s connection with the church stretched back to his childhood, as he grew up at St. Sepulchre’s. His father was a member of the choir and he himself learnt to play the organ in the church, becoming the assistant organist aged 14.
He became famous for instituting the Promenade concerts in 1895, which are now the longest running series of orchestral concerts in the world.
Despite offers to conduct some of the world’s greatest orchestras (including the New York Philharmonic and Boston Symphony), Wood remained based in the UK throughout his life. As well as the annual Proms, he would conduct concerts and festivals throughout the country.
He died in 1944, and is buried in the Musicians’ Chapel at St. Sepulchre’s, which was created using money raised in his memory. There is a magnificent memorial window in the Chapel above his grave.
Thomas Culpeper was a favoured courtier of Henry VIII…until he decided to have an affair with Henry’s fifth wife, Catherine Howard. Culpeper predictably lost his head (literally – as did Catherine). He was buried at St. Sepulchre’s, but for some reason no-one thought to mark his grave.
Roger Ascham was a famous scholar and writer of the 16th Century, who was buried at St. Sepulchre’s on his death in 1568. These days he is most famous for having been Queen Elizabeth I’s tutor.