St. James’s Church – A Fashionable Place to Marry During the Regency Era

Not too long ago, I traveled to London to celebrate the release of An Unsuitable Duchess. It seemed an appropriate place to celebrate since my Secret Lives of the Ton series takes place there during the Regency era. While in London I had fun searching out locations to include in the third book of the series entitled An Unexpected Countess, which will be released June 1, 2017.

Whenever possible, I like to use locations for my stories that still exist today so readers can visit them if they have the opportunity. I knew I needed a church for this story, and most Regency romances that I’ve read use St. George’s Hanover Square in Mayfair. I wanted to find a unique location and knew there had to be other churches from that time period that members of the British aristocracy would have gone to. I just needed to find one. My search led me to St. James’s Church on Piccadilly in the exclusive area of St. James’s, and I thought I’d give you an armchair trip to see it with me.

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The Piccadilly entrance to St. James’s Church.

When St. James’s Square and the area around it began to be developed in the 17th century, it created a need for an extra church to accommodate the additional parishioners of St. Martin in the Fields. Henry Jermyn, the 1st Earl of St. Albans, gave some of his land for an additional church and churchyard. In 1672 he hired noted architect Christopher Wren to design an Anglican church. It was finished in 1684, and in 1685 the separate parish of St. James was created.

Wren designed the church to be built of red brick with Portland stone dressings. Grinling Gibbons, who was a noted sculpture and woodcarver of the day, made the carved marble font and limewood altarpiece.

 

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According to the church’s website, “accounts by visitors to St. James’s during the eighteenth century stress the fashionable element in the congregation. John Evelyn remarked that a sermon which he had heard elsewhere on the subject of costly apparel would have been more appropriately delivered at St. James’s or some other of the theatrical churches in London, where the ladies and women were so richly and wantonly dressed and full of jewels. James Macky complained that a stranger had to pay for a convenient seat so that it cost one almost as dear to see a play, but he still thought the church worth a visit on a holiday or Sunday, when the fine assembly of beauties and Quality come there. In later years, James Boswell confessed that his mind was distracted when he attended a service at the church but excused himself because his warm heart and a vivacious fancy made him give in to love and to the most brilliant and showy method of public worship.”

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The back entrance of the church from Jermyn Street.

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The door leading up to the spire.

The interior of the church, which had been admired for its beauty by contemporary writers, owed its brilliancy not only to the richness of the congregation’s dress but also to the whiteness of the walls, the gilded fittings, and the handsome furniture all illuminated in winter by scores of candles.

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The English poet and painter William Blake was baptized in St. James’s Church in 1757 and the musician George Thomas Smart was baptized here in 1776.

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William Ince and John Mayhew, who were partners in a successful furniture business, married sisters in a double wedding in St. James’s in 1762. Fredrick de Horn married the artist Angelica Kauffman here in 1767. For those interested in scandal, the groom was an imposter who was already married. And Philip Hardwick, the architect, married Julia Shaw in St. James’s in 1819.

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James Gillray, the famous caricaturist was buried in St. James’s in 1815. Mary Beale, one of the first professional women artists, was buried here in 1699. And William Douglas, the 4th Duke of Queensberry, was buried here in 1810.

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A simple gravestone, now used as a paver stone at the entrance of the church.

In May of 1940, a bomb destroyed the rectory and vestry, and incendiary bombs also took out the spire and most of the roof. The churchyard and outside graves were destroyed as well. While I roamed around the churchyard, I had the opportunity to talk with Reverend Lucy Winkett. She informed me that after the explosion many of the tombstones were left scattered about the churchyard. Because supplies were scarce due to the war, the parish decided to use those tombstones in front of the church as pavers leading to the building when they rebuilt the church in 1947. You can see them today if you enter the grounds through the Piccadilly entrance.

 

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The churchyard is raised and behind this wall on Jermyn Street.

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St. James’s Church is the black square you see under the “i” in Piccadilly. Map courtesy of Greenwood’s Map of London from 1826.

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This is a map of the parish boundaries for St. James’s Church.

If you have the opportunity to travel to London and are in the area, it’s worth a stop to see this lovely church which I found a way to use in An Unexpected Countess. You’ll have to read the book to find out how.

 

How a Fashionable Lady Showed Her Status in Society

If you walk through any major city across the world, you’ll most likely see women dressed in the latest fashions with the most expensive accessories. The well-trained eye can spot them a half a block away, carrying that rare designer handbag that costs as much as a car or sauntering along wearing a pair of red-lacquered sole shoes. Wearing fashionable accessories like these carries a certain cachet and silently informs the world that you’re financially successful.

While this sounds like a twenty first century concept, in reality, it isn’t. Women throughout history have been using fashion and beauty accessories to announce their status in society. Only back then, many of these items would have been kept at home, displayed on or near a dressing table where visiting guests would see them. I recently attended the “Vanities: Art of the Dressing Table” exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and thought you might be interested in seeing some of the lovely accessories they had on display.

British Toilet Service 1683-84

During the Renaissance, containers in various sizes and shapes were used store an array of beauty items. These containers were either laid out on a table that was designed solely for the toilette or one that was multifunctional. This is how the cosmetic box slowly gave way to the dressing table. The British toilet service pictured above is ca.1683  and is made of gilt silver and glass. The various items are decorated with chinoiserie scenes, which were popular at the time. This set would have been displayed in an aristocratic lady’s bedroom or in a smaller connecting room.

Wig Cabinet

I thought this item was fun. It’s a wig cabinet, ca. 1685. After Louis XIII began to wear a wig in 1624, elaborate cabinets were made to store and protect these hairpieces. This cabinet is embellished with marquetry of pewter and mother-of-pearl on horn over paint, simulating tortoiseshell. It contains drawers for combs, brushes, perfumed powder, powder bag, and pins.

By the early eighteenth century, the European elite sought out luxury goods that would proclaim their social status. One such item, intended more for display than any utilitarian purpose, was the nécessaire. It is a small box made of precious materials, designed to hold miniature implements and personal grooming tools. Based on paintings of the period, it most likely was displayed on a dressing table along with other precious objects. Here are three that the Metropolitan Museum of Art had one display:

German Necessaire ca. 1700-1725

German Necessaire ca. 1700-1725

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This German nécessaire dates from 1700-1725 and is made of wood, tortoiseshell, gold, glass, and ivory.

British necessaire by John, Barbot ca. 1760.

This nécessaire is one of a pair made by the British craftsman John Barbot around1760. It is made of gold, agate, diamonds, rubies, wood with gold piqué ornaments; and gilt-brass mounts.

French necessaire 1775-1800

And finally, this French nécessaire dates from 1775-1800 and is made of shagreen on wood; gold, porcelain, glass, and steel fittings. This portable nécessaire holds numerous personal grooming items, from tweezers and an ear spoon to scent bottles.

Sources used include:

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Vanities: Art of the Dressing Table Exhibition (2013-2014)

Adlin, Jane, Vanities Art of the Dressing Table (2013)