Building » Royston – St Thomas of Canterbury and the English Martyrs

Royston – St Thomas of Canterbury and the English Martyrs

Melbourn Road, Royston, Herts SG8

A striking example of Romanità on the outskirts of a Hertfordshire market town. The church was built during the First World War from designs by the architect-priest Fr Benedict Williamson, its façade modelled on that of the church of St Bridget in Rome. The exterior is striking in appearance and somewhat exotic in its local context, tall and narrow in its proportions, with large areas of unarticulated wall space and small, high windows. Unfortunately some of the external architectural enrichment was lost when a new pitched roof was added in 1939. The interior is notable for its three pedimented altarpieces, containing copies of Renaissance paintings. The brass font is said to have come from Hawksmoor’s St Alfege, Greenwich. The presbytery is an attractive design of 1957 by Stephen Dykes Bower.

From 1910 Mass was said in the yard of the Bull Hotel, Royston by priests from the Catholic Missionary Society. In the following year, Mgr H. Barton-Brown was sent by Cardinal Bourne to establish a mission in the town. A small house was taken, in which a chapel was opened on 21 December 1911. In 1912 the Sisters of Providence arrived in Royston, living in Serby Avenue and later in Rock Road. Catholic schools were established. In 1915 Sisters of the Adoration of the Sacred Heart of Jesus from Tyburn Convent purchased a large house in Melbourn Street to establish a foundation (St Benedict’s Priory), and about the same time the Sisters of Providence acquired the adjoining property, known as The Park. The two sites together amounted to some fourteen acres, and were intended to accommodate all the needs of the Catholic population, including a church and presbytery as well as the convent and school buildings.

The foundation stone of the new church was blessed by Cardinal Bourne on 26 August 1916. An illuminated parchment scroll prepared by the Rev Adrian Fortescue DD of Letchworth was placed under the stone. Translated from the Latin, this recorded that: ‘… after the schism, having been left without a legitimate Pastor, at length the Catholic Church in this town of Royston was restored during the reign of Our Apostolic Lord Benedict XV Shepherd of Shepherds, Francis Cardinal Bourne being Archbishop of Westminster, during the rectorship of Henry Barton Brown, Private Chamberlain of the Sanctity of the same Apostolic Lord, first Catholic Rector of the Town after the dire ship-wreck of the XVI Century. The Blessed Trinity having been invoked, the first stone of this Church dedicated to St Thomas of Canterbury and the Blessed Martyrs of England was laid on August 25th 1916 by the same Most Eminent and Most Rev. Lord Francis Cardinal Priest of the Title of St Pudentiana Archbishop of Westminster and may this Church flourish to the praise of God Almighty for the good of Souls and for the Propagation of the Catholic Faith’.

The architect was Fr Benedict Williamson and the builders Messrs Jacklin and Co. Work proceeded slowly, due to the manpower shortages of World War One, and the completed church was opened on 25 March, the Feast of the Annunciation, 1919. The design of the main façade of the church, which was originally intended to have an attached campanile, was based on that of the church of St Bridget on the Piazza Farnese in Rome (Fr Williamson was a member of the Bridgettine Order, sometimes known as the Order of St Saviour).  Trained as an architect before ordination, Fr Williamson was parish priest at Royston from 1920-21, covering for Mgr Barton-Brown during illness (during which time a novitiate at St Benedict’s Priory was built from his designs) and from 1922-24.

The church originally had a flat roof, which was replaced by the present pitched roofs in 1939 at the recommendation of the architect A. H. Archard. He also recommended that the steep ladder to the gallery be replaced with a proper stair.  About the same time the nave pulpit with tester was also removed.   

The parish priest lived at various locations until 1957 when a new presbytery was built, from designs by Stephen Dykes Bower (cost £7,196). The architect wrote to the parish (1973 guide, p.8) ‘the church, to which (the presbytery) stands in close proximity, is a finely proportioned building…with a marked Italianate character. A modest domestic structure could hardly repeat its architectural idiom, but should at least display some affinity of feeling…The most striking feature of the church is its height. To emphasise this by contrast, I have made the house long and low…’ 

In the late 1960s the Sisters of Providence gave some land to the north of the church for the building of a new primary school, which opened in 1970. A car park for the church was also built.

According to Fr J. Miller (typescript history in diocesan archives) the brass font is a Georgian piece from Nicholas Hawksmoor’s church of St Alfege at Greenwich, and was acquired in about 1970 from Vanpoulles, the ecclesiastical suppliers. However, Harding states that it is believed to have been General Gordon’s campaign font, and is collapsible. Close inspection was not possible at the time of the writer’s visit (the sanctuary being alarmed).

The interior was redecorated in 1973, with linoleum covering the stone flagged floor. A new staircase was finally provided up to the gallery, the altar rails removed and new seating installed in the side chapels/transepts. The interior was also redecorated.

In 1988 a new parish hall behind the church was opened by Cardinal Basil Hume and in 1994 a new organ was installed in the church.

In 1998 the Sisters of Providence left the parish. The convent property, except for one house, was sold for redevelopment and the main building demolished, although the gate piers at the convent entrance to the south of the church still read ‘Convent of Providence’.

Planning permission has recently been granted for a new entrance loggia, from designs by Anthony Delarue.


The church is of Italianate design, its tall and narrow pedimented façade based on the design of the church of St Bridget in the Piazza Farnese, Rome.  The roof was rebuilt in 1939, at which time the rich architectural detailing of the pediments and cornices were rebuilt in much simplified form. Over the entrance are the ceramic (?) arms of Cardinal Bourne (‘Ne cede malis’) in a circular scrolled surround. The church is externally faced in painted roughcast render, with (later) pantile roofs with overhanging eaves. On plan it consists of an aisleless nave with west gallery, transepts with side chapels and a short square-ended sanctuary. A weekday chapel (former sacristies) gives off the north side of the nave, externally expressed by two pantiled gables. A confessional gives off the south side of the nave and a priest’s sacristy off the south side of the sanctuary, both externally expressed as lean-tos with plain tile roofs. The exterior is strikingly plain, with large areas of unarticulated wall; the windows all small and high. These consist of a circular window at the west end with a moulded surround, and high clerestory windows at the sides with floating moulded cornices and moulded sills. The openings have segmental arches (arched in the sanctuary) and windows with metal windows with rectangular quarries, mostly incorporating central opening hopper lights.  

A small entrance lobby leads into the main body of the church, under the gallery. To the left on entering, a blocked archway at the west end of the nave (south side)  indicates the position of an opening to the intended campanile, abandoned on grounds of cost. No doubt the campanile would have provided a decent form of access to the gallery, but ladders sufficed until the building of the present timber stairs in 1973.  

The interior is a single space, of tall and narrow proportions, with the three bays of the nave and the perimeter walls of the transepts and sanctuary bays delineated by a giant order of Tuscan Doric pilasters with entablature which continues across the transepts. Above this floats a flat coffered ceiling, possibly dating from 1939. The plaster of the walls is lined to resemble ashlar blocks. There is a high panelled dado running around the perimeter, into which are punched a narrow panelled door with pedimented surround on the south side (confessional) and a wider one, with panelled reveal and also pedimented, on the north side (to weekday chapel). There are three elaborate altarpieces, all with pedimented surrounds. The largest is at the east end over the high altar, and has the coat of arms of St Thomas in the pediment. Within the opening, an arched opening with roundels containing the keys of St Peter and the sword of St Paul frames a copy of a painting of the Martyrdom of St Thomas of Canterbury from the English College at Rome.  This was the gift of Mrs W. H. Brown of Royston.  The painting in the altar in the south transept (Sacred Heart, originally Blessed Sacrament) depicts the martyrdom of St Tarcisius, and is a copy of the painting hanging in the church of San Silvestro in Rome. It was the gift of Miss Ida Watson of Royston. The painting over the Lady altar (north transept) is a copy of Murillo’s Assumption, and was the gift of a Miss Murray and family.  

Other details: 

  • The original marble high altar frontal has been reset into the gradine after post-Vatican II reordering. The frontal has alternating pilasters and  ovals. 
  • The tabernacle was the gift of Cardinal Bourne.  
  • Six brass altar candlesticks came from Florence and were the gift of Mr J. H. Bartlett.
  • The design of the modern timber forward altar and ambo echoes that of the high altar frontal. 
  • The brass font, said to have come from St Alfege Greenwich, is now located in the sanctuary. It is an elaborate design, and is 3 ft 7 ins high.  
  • A receptacle for holy oils at the corner of the sanctuary and south transept was made by Italian prisoners of war interned at Royston Heath from 1941-44.
  • The wooden Stations of the Cross and statues outside the church were donated by the Sisters of Providence when they left the parish in 1998.
  • The pews are modern and not of special interest. 
Heritage Details

Architect: Fr Benedict Williamson

Original Date: 1916

Conservation Area: No

Listed Grade: Not Listed