When Henry VIII decided to create his own church and then outlawed Catholic churches for British citizens, the only place Catholics could legally attend Mass was in the foreign embassies of Catholic countries (Spain, France, etc.). The Spanish were particularly diligent in supporting the Church, and even bought the bodies of martyred Catholics. The Spanish ambassador bought the body of St John Southworth, a priest hanged, drawn and quartered under Oliver Cromwell, had it stitched together again, and sent it to Douai. At the time of the French Revolution, it was hidden, forgotten and then rediscovered years later during the building of a road. It was returned to Westminster Cathedral in 1930, and is now in the Shrine of the English martyrs (with a silver face mask and hands covering the skeletal remains). But all thanks to the Spanish Ambassador.
But here is the gem: the Church of St James Spanish Place, which is a 19th building on the site of the Spanish Embassy and chapel under Elizabeth I. Spanish Place refers to the traditional name of the street, which it still bears.
It had a long and complicated history, but the church that currently stands on the site was built in 1890 and finally consecrated in 1940. It’s still in existence and has regular masses, with several Latin or English Novus Ordo and a couple of Traditional Rite masses every Sunday. To learn more about its fascinating history, go here:
It is filled not only with beautiful items from the earlier Spanish chapels, but with very fine artworks by English religious artists of the early 20th century. There’s a truly beautiful chapel in memory of parishioners who lost their lives in WWI, for example, with stunning carvings by Geoffrey Webb (who did most of the work in the chapel). Much of the earlier work in other parts of the church was done by our old friends Mayer of Munich, who did the windows at the Cathedral Basilica of St Augustine in 1909.
In any case, here’s the remarkable stone altar frontal. It is a Virgin and Child, made of marble according to one account that I read (although it looks more to me like alabaster), painted or stained. The haloes are mother of pearl inlays. One of the features of this church – and every English church that I saw – is the use of different marbles and other stones, a specialty of which I was unaware, although I did know that prior to the advent of Henry VIII, the English specialized in making affordable alabaster altar pieces and carvings, which were sold throughout Europe. There are a number of them in Spain.
I wish my cell-phone picture had turned out better, but this will at least give you an idea of it…