St Martin Coney St has been the site of Christian worship for 1000 years and from humble beginnings grew to be the civic church and one of the most important in York, was bombed in 1942, and is now one of the most impressive of post war churches with a dedication to peace and reconciliation
St Martin was probably founded a thousand or so years ago. Like other of York's city churches of which there were more than 40 in the middle ages, it might not have been built to serve a local community or parish but as a holy place, a place of prayer and devotion, possibly by the act of a single wealthy individual and supporting a priest or monks. York continued to have a mixture of monastic churches, guild chapels and parish churches through the medieval period.
An important medieval church
Coney Street with its river frontage and prosperous merchant houses was at the centre of the town's business life, and by the mid thirteenth century the centre of civic life as well. The church was probably first built of stone around 1080, and rebuilt and expanded in a succession of phases. By the fifteenth century the building was in need of repair, and since York was at the peak of its prosperity it was fitting that St Martin's should have a building appropriate to its location. During the first half of the fifteenth century the church was completely rebuilt largely thanks to Robert Semer, vicar from 1425 to 1443, who is commemorated as benefactor in the great window that formerly stood at the west end of the nave. The aisles were rebuilt and the nave reconstructed with a clerestory, so that what emerged was later acknowledged to be the grandest of York's parish churches. There is more on the medieval building here.
The 16th century reformation brought considerable changes in worship and church organisation as well as belief. The strains that brought may well have been more apparent at St Martin than in some other churches, and it is the church where St Margaret Clitherow was baptised and was married. The interior must have undergone very noticeable changes, with chantry altars and organ removed, but in common with other York churches the decorated glass survived. The clergy appointment was in the gift of the Dean and Chapter of the Minster and although it was not a rich living it was a prestigious one. In the 18th century this part of the city benefited from the building of the Assembly Rooms, the creation of St Helen Square and associated street improvements, and the building of the Mansion House as the residence of the Lord Mayor during his period of office. No major repairs were done to the fabric of the church but the church had a number of embellishments. Time and increasing air pollution were not kind to the exterior stonework and cement patching eliminated much of the exterior decoration giving the church a a plainer and fashionable classical appearance matching a new porch which had been added in the 1740s The east window had been removed to the Minster in 1722, but the rest of the old glass was probably regarded as a quaint oddity. Much seems to have been lost. Fashions changed however and by the middle of the 19th century there was a desire to recreate or even embellish the medieval glories. Major repairs were carried out in the 1850s, 1870s, and 1900s. The three central windows in the south wall today were assembled from panels in other windows in the 1850s and the St Martin window restored in the 1870s, and similar work was done to the other glass though none of the rest now survives. The interior was remodelled. It was a church of which the congregation could be proud. In the 20th century the link with St Helen Stonegate offered the opportunity to diversify the styles of worship from the fairly formal sung matins which was the centre of liturgical life at St Martin. In his report to the annual meeting in March 1942 the vicar was able to report that church attendance had never been better.
It was in the 1830s that an alternative name for the church, St Martin le Grand came into being. Though never the official name, and not historically authentic, it gained ground in the 20th century and for a time became the name by which the church was generally known.
In the early hours of 29 April 1942 the German air force carried out its one successful raid on York. Classified as one of the 'Baedeker raids' the principal target was actually the railway, but at least one load of incendiary bombs was dropped in the city centre landing in a line from New Street to the Guildhall. Most of St Martin was destroyed by fire, though the south aisle survived. Despite an initial determination to rebuild, the real need was for new churches outside the city centre. The initial idea was to keep the remnant aisle as a chapel of remembrance with a garden of rest occupying the remainder of the space. That we actually have something much more owes a great deal to the choice of George Pace as architect.
You can learn more about the story of this.
A very special church
Work on the new building was not completed until 1968. Other churches may contest the claim to be the best post-war church restoration in the country, but we invite visitors to judge for themselves.