1663, The churchwardens of the parish of St Martin in the Fields plead for £100 on behalf of the poor at Christmas

Transcription from ‘Petitions in the State Papers: 1660s’, in Petitions in the State Papers, 1600-1699, ed. Brodie Waddell, British History Online, The churchwardens and overseers of the poor of the parish of St Martin in the Fields on behalf of their poor. SP 29/67 f. 207 (1663).

To the right honourable Sir Henry Bennet knight principall secretarie of state to his royall majestie

The humble peticion of the churchwardens and overseers of the poore of the parish of Saint Martin in the feilds in the behalfe of thyre poore

Humble showing that his majesty hath byn pleased yearely at this blessed tyme of Christmas to give 100 pounds towards the better releife of our poore by your honours assisting our predicessours with their peticion to his majesty

Wee doo theirfore most humbly pray your honour to continue your former favours in this our humble address to his sacred majestie

And your peticioners shall pray etc

[For a related petition dated 1668, click here.]

Report by Julia Fidler

In this petition, the Churchwardens are seeking an annuity of £100 per annum to help the poor of the parish.

The history of St Martin-in-the-Fields

To give context to this petition in 1663, it is important to look back at the history of the Church of St Martin-in-the-Fields. To remember the religious upheavals of the Reformation that had happened to the Church in England during the reigns of Henry VIII, Mary I and Elizabeth I in the 16th century, and the social and political history of the 17th century, with the execution of Charles I in 1649, the Civil Wars, the enlarging population in London and the onset of the bubonic plague. Eventful times!

Little is known of the earliest church of St Martin-in-the-Fields except that ‘it came into being between the date of the Domesday Book and the reign of Henry II and that it was a Parish Church by the close of the 12th Century’.[1]

In 1222 in a dispute to determine ‘the boundaries of St Margaret’s parish, Westminster’, when the Bishops excluded ‘the church and burial place of St Martin’, it was ‘a small chapel’ and ‘probably paid its priest with alms given by pilgrims on the way to the Abbey’ but by 1525 there were Church Warden accounts and burial registers.[2]

Between 1536 and 1542 the King made St Martin-in-the-Fields a separate parish. Separate from St Margaret’s of Westminster, as Henry VIII did not like coffins, especially those of the early plague victims, passing the Palace of Whitehall or St James’s Palace to reach St Margaret’s Church.[3] The new parish of St Martin’s had open fields reaching north to Oxford Street and with new burial grounds of 50 acres.[4]

Around 1544 the old church was demolished, or partly demolished and extended and rebuilt. There were few houses in the parish and only a small congregation to pay for upkeep.  However, several Bishops had their houses nearby in the Strand, and there were continual squabbles as to who should pay to keep the Church in good repair. Accounts recorded that ‘parishioners did have to pay for their new church and accounts list this’, however ‘the king did not have to contribute’.[5]

Throughout the 16th and 17th centuries the number of inhabitants in the Parish grew and the Church needed constant repairs and enlargement.  Vestry minutes and Church Warden accounts exist from 1574.  Money was also raised for almshouses and for the poor of the Parish. Charity houses were built nearby and the poor were petitioning the Vestry for help.

The Parish Church of the Monarch and the 1663 Petition

On 27 June 1630, King Charles II was baptised at St Martin’s, making it ‘the Parish Church of the Kings of England. The births of all the Royal Children are entered on its registers’.[6] It is the only church in London with a Royal Pew. One might have assumed that the King would have supported the Church on a regular basis, but the petitions of 1663 and a later petition from 1668 show that the Church Wardens and Overseers of the Poor had to petition the King regularly for money.

From 1570 to 1665 references to plague deaths appear in records most years. For example, in 1603 the burial register for St Margaret’s, Westminster, shows more than 900 deaths with the plague mark attached, in a parish of few residents. It could be assumed that is why, in 1608 James I gave new land where the National Gallery is now for a new burial ground.[7]

So, by the year 1663, when this Petition to the King is dated, after the Civil Wars, money was much needed for the widows, orphaned children, needy parishioners and to support the almshouses.

This petition was granted by the King on 23 January 1663 with a Warrant to pay £100 to the Churchwardens as the bounty for the poor, and a docket for the payment written 28 January 1663.[8]

Money was also granted to St Martin’s from various other sources, as evident in the research into Walter Brydall’s petition of 12 January 1661, who was a Churchwarden at St Martin’s Church.

There were disputes between The Churchwardens and Overseers of adjacent parishes.  St Margaret’s and St Martin’s petitioned the Justices of the Peace in Sessions at Westminster over who was financially responsible for the poor, as evidenced in the Westminster Archives.  Should a mother born in one Parish, be entitled to alms for her daughter born in the neighbouring parish? That reminds us of the workhouse rules 200 years later when children orphaned in one Parish were returned to the Parish of their birth.

Petition of 1668/9

Another, almost identical petition from The churchwardens and overseers of the poor of St Martins in the Fields SP 29/232 f. 58 (1668) has also been transcribed for this project.

For context, the Great Fire of London of 1666 is estimated to have destroyed 87 churches, four of the City’s seven gates, and the homes of 70,000 of the 80,000 City’s inhabitants. To stop the fire spreading from the City to the Palace of Whitehall, the Duke of York had a command post near Temple Bar where Fleet Street met The Strand. Strong wind caused the fire to jump the Fleet River, but the wind dropped and no buildings in the Strand were destroyed and the church of St Martin-in-the-Fields survived the fire.

Yet, by the year 1668/9, when the later petition to the King is dated, money was needed even more than in 1663, for the widows, cripples, orphans, needy parishioners and to support the almshouses.

This later petition was granted by the King on 23 January 1668 with a Warrant to pay £100 to the Churchwardens as the bounty for the poor.[9]


[1] ‘The church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields: Description’, in Survey of London: Volume 20, St Martin-in-The-Fields, Pt III: Trafalgar Square and Neighbourhood, ed. G H Gater and F R Hiorns (London, 1940), pp. 19-30. British History Online, http://www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vol20/pt3/pp19-30.

[2] Rev M. Johnson, St Martin-in-the-fields, pp. 3-5.

[3] Johnson, St Martin-in-the-fields, p. 6.

[4] Johnson, St Martin-in-the-fields, p. 10.

[5] Johnson, St Martin-in-the-fields, p. 7.

[6] J. McMaster, Short History of the Royal Parish of St Martins-in-the-fields (1916).

[7] P. Holland, St Margaret’s Westminster (1993), p. 47.

[8]  Charles II – volume 67: January 1663′, in Calendar of State Papers Domestic: Charles II, 1663-4, ed. Mary Anne Everett Green (London, 1862), pp. 1-36. British History Online, http://www.british-history.ac.uk/cal-state-papers/domestic/chas2/1663-4/pp1-36.

[9] ‘Charles II: January 1669’, in Calendar of State Papers Domestic: Charles II, 1668-9, ed. Mary Anne Everett Green (London, 1894), pp. 143-177. British History Online, http://www.british-history.ac.uk/cal-state-papers/domestic/chas2/1668-9/pp143-177.

This report is part of a series on ‘Petitioners in the reign of Charles II, 1660-1685’, created through a U3A Shared Learning Project on ‘Investigating the Lives of Seventeenth-Century Petitioners’.