Getting Married With the Fashionable Set
Welcome to Annie Burrows, author of The Viscount and the Virgin, the fifth in the Regency Silk & Scandal continuity, out this month.
In order to be able to give an accurate description of the interior of the church, for the wedding scene, and to be able to stage the action outside convincingly, I needed to find out quite a bit about the appearance of the church, as it would have been in early spring of 1815. Since the church still stands today, and is still in use as place of worship, I was lucky enough to be able to visit their website.
St George’s became such a sought after venue for marriage, because of where it is located, right in the heart of the most fashionable part of London. London had grown rapidly during the eighteenth century, engulfing the surrounding villages and farmlands. Though the merchants and tradesmen tended to live and work as close to the centre as possible, the nobility and gentry moved westwards. Hanover Square was the first of the West End squares to be built, between 1716 and 1720. In 1711, Parliament had passed an act for the building of fifty new churches “in the Cities of London and Westminster or the Suburbs thereof”, to provide for the spiritual needs of those who dwelt in the new districts. Money to pay for the churches was to be raised by a tax levied on coal. The new inhabitants of Hanover Square successfully petitioned the Commissioners for Building New Churches for a convenient place of worship. General the Hon. William Stuart, Queen Anne’s Commander-in-chief in Ireland, offered a plot of land at the nearby junction of Maddox Street and George Street, and the contract for its design was awarded to John James, on the condition that it should cost no more than £10,000.
Compared with other churches of this period, St George’s is rather plain. James may have been influenced by his early contact with Sir Christopher Wren, under whom he served an apprenticeship. Wren thought visibility and audibility were of paramount importance when designing Anglican churches. James is certainly quoted as saying, “the Beautys of Architecture may consist with the greatest plainness of the Structure.”
St George’s is bounded on three sides by busy streets, and on the fourth by a narrow passage. There is no large churchyard to enable people to admire the building from any great distance, but James managed to make the west frontage look sufficiently imposing by having a portico jutting into the street. The pediment is supported by six great Corinthian columns, which I found extremely useful as a place of concealment for Stephano, the villain who turns up to try and wreck my heroine’s wedding.
In the 1870’s changes were made to the interior, but I did manage to find a sketch made of a wedding which took place in 1840, which shows the original box pews, the upper galleries on three sides, the canopy over the pulpit, and the huge, “double decker” reading desk to the left of the altar, which helped me describe the action which took place in the interior.
Only thirty wedding ceremonies took place in St. George’s first year, but numbers steadily increased until by 1816, which was a record year, there were one thousand and sixty three, nine of which were carried out on Christmas Day.
Joseph Grimaldi, the famous actor and clown married there in 1798. And again, in 1802! (After his first wife died.) The poet Shelley married Harriet Westbrook there on March 24th 1814, the novelist George Eliot (real name Mary Anne Evans Lewes) married John Walter Cross there in 1880, and on December 2nd, 1886, the politician Theodore Roosevelt, the future president of the United States, married Edith Carow.
Since the church was in the heart of fashionable London, many famous people must have attended services there as a matter of course. But the parishioner I was most fascinated to read about, was George Frederick Handel. He came to live in Brook Street in 1724, just before the church was consecrated, and was consulted about the suitability of the organ. He provided a piece of music to test the powers of the candidates for the post of organist, had a pew in the church, and was, apparently, a regular worshipper there. Handel became a British citizen in 1726, and it was in his house in Brook Street that he composed the “Messiah”.
I think any organist must have been extremely nervous about performing with such an outstanding musician in the congregation!