Black abolitionists in Westminster

WESTMINSTER ABBEY IS costly for tourists to enter. Currently (November 2021) the entrance ticket ranges in price from £10 for a child to £24 for a full-price adult ticket. Without doubt, the Abbey is well worth a visit, but if you do not feel like spending so much money, its neighbour, the St Margaret’s Church is also full of interest but charges no entry fee.

Because the present Abbey was once the church attached to a monastery, St Margaret’s was built in the 11th and 12th centuries to provide a place of worship for the (non-ecclesiastical) residents of Westminster. When the residential population of the area declined, it became what it is now, the parish church for The House of Commons. The first church on the site was built in the Romanesque style, but when this deteriorated in the 14th century, it was replaced by the present structure built in the Perpendicular (gothic) style. Since then, like many old churches it has undergone various modifications over the centuries.

Amongst the many fascinating things within the church, which are described in an excellent booklet by Tony Willoughby and James Wilkinson, several things particularly attracted my attention. First of all, several of the windows in the south wall of the church contain superb modern stained glass designed by the painter John Piper (1903-1992) and created by Patrick Reyntiens (1925-2021). The were installed in 1966 to replace Victorian windows that were destroyed during WW2. Piper’s windows alone are a good reason to visit the church.

Another thing that caught my eye is a pair of doors on the north side of the church. These are covered with red leather, each one embossed in gold with a portcullis, surmounted by a crown, the symbol of Parliament. Some of the prayer kneelers are also decorated with this symbol.

Amongst the many tombs and funerary memorials within the church, there is one to the artist Wenceslaus Hollar (1607-1677). Born in Prague, he left the city when the Emperor Ferdinand the Second ordered Bohemian nobility to convert to Roman Catholicism or leave the country. A highly prolific and much-admired artist, creator of many works including detailed views of London, he died a poor man in Westminster. His monument is on the north wall.

Amongst the many memorials on the south wall there is an oval plaque commemorating the fact that in 1759, Olaudo Equiano (aka Gustavus Vassa) was baptised in the church when he was a slave owned by a sea captain, Michael Henry Pascal. Equiano (c1745-1797) was a black African slave, who gained (purchased) his freedom in 1766. After numerous adventures, which he related in his autobiographical work “The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano”, published in 1789 in London, he became active in the nascent movement to abolish the slave trade. In addition to his book, he wrote a great number of pamphlets and letters to the press.

Whereas I was able to spot the plaque for Equiano with no difficulty, I was unable to see the grave of another abolitionist, also a former slave, Ignatius Sancho (c1729-1780), who was born on a slave ship and is buried in the churchyard of St Margaret. He married a West Indian woman, Anne Osborne, in St Margaret’s, ran a grocery shop in Westminster, acted, composed music, and wrote against slavery using the pseudonym “Africanus”. He was the first black Briton to vote in a parliamentary election. He cast his vote both in 1774 and 1780.

In addition to these two black abolitionists, the church contains memorials to two men who tried to alleviate the suffering of slaves in the Americas, Richard Burn (c1744-1822) and Thomas Southerne (1660-1746). The latter was one of the first writers in English to denounce slavery.

I hope that what I have written above will help to distract you from the idea of visiting only Westminster Abbey and to encourage you to make plenty of time to explore St Margaret’s.  

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