Charles Church, Plymouth - Founding (1634–1665)

Founding (1634–1665)

That day the Mayor and thirty others of the council assembled and passed a resolution to petition the King, Charles I, for permission to divide the old Parish of Plymouth into two and build a second church.

The reason for a second church was not that the existing Church of St Andrew was too small (it could comfortably seat 1,200 and the population was around 8,000 at the time), but rather one of religious controversy. Plymouth had grown into a Puritan town. This is hinted at by the Pilgrim fathers who felt at home here, "kindly entertained and courteously used by divers friends there dwelling". Being a Puritan town it meant the Catholic King did not see eye to eye with the townsfolk on religious matters.

Increasing tensions grew between the King and town over St Andrew's. In addition to the minister the town regularly appointed a "Lecturer" to supplement the minister in his ministry. This lecturer might refute the morning sermon or the minister in an evening sermon. Battles were fought over the choice of ministers for the church and at times the King ordered the town's choice to be refused admission or tried to appoint his own Lecturer. With increasing friction; disappointment with the Royalist tendencies of the St Andrew's incumbents; and a desire for Puritan preaching, the solution of creating a second church was mooted.

That King Charles understood all this may well account for his seven year delay in responding. In the end Robert Trelawny who had become Member of Parliament for Plymouth (and despite his royalist sympathy) most likely persuaded a King who was running out of friends in the West Country to act. On 21 April 1641 the letters Patent were signed and sealed. An Act of Parliament was passed on 6 July 1641 and given royal assent on 7 August. It cost the town £150 and was one of the few pieces of legislation in that limited Parliament.

The Act followed the terms of the letter closely but it was more generous than expected and the new parish was larger than requested. The old parish was split in two on a north-south line and the new parish of Charles was to the east. It stretched much further than the town boundaries first envisioned for the new parish, north to Eggbuckland and further east: the Act also stipulated that no clergyman could hold both livings.

The King insisted the church was named after himself. Given the climate before the English Civil War it is perhaps not surprising that Plymouth sided with Oliver Cromwell and the Parliamentarians. St Andrew's came to be known as "the Old church" and Charles Church "the New church", titles that stuck for a long time.

The plot of land first sited close to Sutton Pool was unsuitable as the extended parish boundaries would make it less accessible, so a second plot of 1-acre (4,000 m2) was found and given to the church by a William Warren who received both a burial plot inside the church and a seat inside. It was well located for the houses of the parish and fairly close to the ruins of a 12th-century Carmelite monastery. Building commenced immediately in 1641 but was halted by the Civil War in 1642 just as the builders were ready to complete the roof and men were needed for the defence of the town. The church remained in that state until 1645 when the town was relieved; staunchly Protestant, it held out against the King's men throughout the Civil War, almost alone in a Royalist West Country.

There is evidence that the incomplete church was used for stabling horses during the siege. However, it seems that some parts were used for worship. A wedding is recorded on 10 May 1644, baptisms from January 1645 and burials from 4 August 1646 (some pages have been lost so there may have been earlier ones). The oldest communion plate is hallmarked 1646 suggesting its early use. Although the church was not consecrated until 2 September 1665, Francis Porter the first minister was in place as the preaching minister at Charles from 1643 as allowed for by the Act. Iron spikes were said to have been driven into the chancel wall and a canvas pulled across part of the church making it useful for worship during the siege. Traces of the spikes have been found in renovation work since. A glance at the map of the besieged city in 1643 reveals that the church is marked but without a roof on the plan.

After the war, work began again, albeit slowly. Money was raised: £100 per annum in 1646 to pay the minister and £500 in 1656 to complete the church. Money problems seem to have continued because the tower was only half finished in 1652. Eventually the church was finished in 1657 although a spire was not added until 1708 and the tower covered in a cap of wood instead. Once complete the church stood out from the city. No house overshadowed it and the building was said to be of very fine quality. It was one of the leading examples of a post-Reformation Gothic style church in the country. The architect was thought to be a degenerate disciple of William of Wykeham. The church at this time possessed no galleries or organ.

The conveyancing happened very shortly before the consecration twenty-four years after the church was started. Francis Porter, who was Presbyterian, conformed and kept his living and the church was consecrated by Bishop Seth Ward of Exeter on 2 September 1665 (after the restoration of the monarchy). In 1670 the churchyard was consecrated. The consecration caused a little controversy as the bishop wanted to dedicate the church (and also a church in Falmouth see the Church of King Charles the Martyr, Falmouth) to "Charles, King and Martyr". However, Puritan Plymouth was not to be messed with and insisted the church be named according to the letters Patent of 1641 signed in Charles's own hand.

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