A Grade 1 listed building, St Alfege Church is a key part of the Maritime Greenwich World Heritage Site.
St Alfege Church is the Anglican parish church in the centre of Greenwich, with a diverse congregation, a rich musical tradition and a thriving church school. There has been a church here for over a thousand years, dedicated to the memory of Alfege, the Archbishop of Canterbury who was martyred on this site in 1012. Henry VIII was baptized here and many other key historical figures in Greenwich’s royal, maritime and scientific history have close links with the site including Thomas Tallis, General James Wolfe and John Flamsteed.
St Alfege Church was the first church built under the Fifty New Churches Act of 1711, and the first major church project undertaken by Sir Nicholas Hawksmoor, one of England’s most original and significant architects. Between 1712 and 1718 he created a new church for a new era: accessible, functional and in a classical style that looked for inspiration to the early Christians and the Roman Empire. When the roof of the nave of St Alfege Church collapsed after a storm, his moment had come.
There was little to link the medieval church of St Alfege with the royal palace at Greenwich, or the Royal Hospital for Seamen that replaced it. Passersby would have seen only a blank wall and a couple of large Gothic windows. In their place Hawksmoor, who had worked with Sir Christopher Wren on Greenwich Hospital, designed a spectacular east facade. Anyone approaching for the first time from the hospital would imagine that this was the main entrance to the new church. Only when they came close would they see the two small entrances at the top of the stairs beneath the huge pillars. If they had been brave enough to use them, it would mean entering the church from behind the altar.
Hawksmoor reinforced the connection between the new St Alfege Church and the royal hospital by creating a large niche beneath the pediment of the east facade. This was designed for a statue of Queen Anne. The queen's untimely death before the new church was finished, and the parishioners' hostility to the Hanoverians, which was reflected in a long-running dispute about a royal pew, meant that the niche was left empty and it has remained that way. Nevertheless Hawksmoor's east facade succeeds perfectly in uniting his first London church with the collonades and courtyards he helped design at Greenwich Hospital.