It may seem surprising to find another large church standing so close to the might and magnificence of Westminster Abbey. Why was an additional church needed in such a position?
To answer that question we have to recall that Westminster Abbey was originally a Benedictine Abbey. In 1065 Edward the Confessor gave orders for the consecration of the abbey church of the Benedictine monastery. That great church was to be the centre of life for the monks of Westminster. Following the Rule of St Benedict, they would assemble at fixed times throughout each day to worship God by singing what is known as 'the Divine Office'. That was their duty - 'office' comes from the Latin word for 'duty'. This was their main task in life, so they called it Opus Dei - 'God's work'. Nothing was allowed to disturb them in carrying out this basic duty.
However, the monks of the newly-founded monastery of St Peter in Westminster were disturbed by the people of Westminster who came to hear Mass. So the monks set about building a smaller church next to the Abbey where the local people could receive all the sacraments and ministrations of the Church, thus leaving the monks in the Abbey undisturbed. The church was dedicated to St Margaret of Antioch about whom little is known, though her cult was extremely popular in the middle ages.
It seems that St Margaret's was built in the latter part of the 11th century, although we do not have a precise date. From then until the dissolution of the monastery by Henry VIII in 1540, ministry to the ever-growing population of Westminster was undertaken by the monks of the Abbey. This arrangement was the basis for the close relationship between St Margaret's and Westminster Abbey which has existed ever since.
The first church was Romanesque in style and survived until the reign of Edward III (1327-1377). Its nave was then replaced with one in the Perpendicular style, the chancel still being in good repair at that time. Towards the end of the 15th century, however, the whole church had fallen into such a state of dilapidation that it needed almost total reconstruction. Robert Stowell started to rebuild the church in 1482. The work continued over many years and the church was consecrated on 9th April 1523. Despite restorations in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, the structure is still substantially the same.
St Margaret's Church interior, 1809
In July 1189, the Abbot and Convent of Westminster received a grant from Pope Clement III which confirmed that St Margaret's Church was outside the jurisdiction of the Bishop of London. In 1222, the Abbey and its property was declared not only to be outside the diocese of London but also exempt from the authority of the Archbishop of Canterbury.
When Elizabeth I re-founded the Abbey as a collegiate church in 1560 she maintained its exemption from episcopal authority and made her new foundation a 'royal peculiar', subject to the authority of the Sovereign as Visitor. St Margaret's church and parish were part of this peculiar jurisdiction until 1840 when they were placed within the diocese of London. By the 1970s the resident population of St Margaret's parish had dwindled to a few hundred and in 1972 the Westminster Abbey and Saint Margaret Westminster Act redefined the church's status. Its parish was re-allocated to neighbouring parishes while the church and its churchyard were placed once more under the governance of the Dean and Chapter of Westminster, with one of the Canons of Westminster serving as Rector of St Margaret's.
St Margaret's Church interior, present day
There really isn’t a more spectacular building to work on. It’s been one of the most gratifying and rewarding experiences of my life.