Last weekend I was lucky enough to pay a visit to the Sandringham Estate in Norfolk. I’m a bit of a fan of the British Royal Family (this is a massive understatement) so to stand in the actual rooms where the Queen has breakfast and opens her Christmas presents was a massive delight for me.
I deliberated for quite a while over whether or not I should write a post about my visit – like most royal households, photography is not allowed at Sandringham so I felt I had nothing new to show you. However, St Mary Magdalene Church on the estate is equally worthy of a visit if you are in the area. You know those photos of the Queen and the Royal family leaving church on Christmas Day? Well, that’s the small but perfectly formed St Mary Magdalene.
Records show there has been a church near the present site since the 14th Century. However, unsurprisingly the real historical significance of this church derives from its long association with the British Royal Family. Sandringham Estate was purchased by Queen Victoria in 1863 for £22,000 from Charles Spencer Cowper, the stepson of the then incumbent Prime Minister Viscount Palmerston. She bought it for her eldest son the Prince of Wales (the future Edward VII) and his new wife, Princess Alexandra of Denmark, as their own country residence. Since then the royal residents of Sandringham have worshipped at St Mary Magdalene whenever they are at home.
The main core of the current church dates from the 16th Century, with the main building material used being carrstone – a red sedimentary sandstone that can be found locally in Norfolk. In fact, St Mary Magdalene is one of the best examples of a carrstone building in Britain.
Inside, the church interior is decorated in a typical late Victorian style – lots of gilded woodwork and painted ceilings!
Silver, silver and more silver
The first things that hits you when you enter this church is all the highly-polished bling! St Mary Magdalene contains a solid silver altar, pulpit and a silver 17th century Spanish processional cross – all were gifted to Queen Alexandra in remembrance of Edward VII by Rodman Wannamaker, a wealthy American department store magnate.
St Mary Magdalene houses two fonts, both worthy of note. I managed to view the Florentine marble font when I visited, but unfortunately the 9th Century Greek font was not on display. (Side note – members of the Royal Family christened at Sandringham don’t actually use these fonts. All members of the family (bar Princess Eugenie for some reason) are christened in the large silver-gilt Lily Font, which is usually stored in the Jewel House in the Tower of London and bought out only for royal christenings).
Where do I start? This church obviously has a long association with the British Royal Family, and has been used by them mostly for christenings. Notable members of the family who were christened at St Mary Magdalene include;
- King George VI who was baptised on the 10th of February 1896, after being born in York Cottage on the Sandringham Estate on December the 14th 1895 – the anniversary of the death of his great-grandfather Prince Albert. The long list of godparents included his great-grandmother Queen Victoria and the Empress Friedrich of Germany, his paternal great-aunt.
- Mary, Princess Royal and Countess of Harewood (only daughter of the future George V and Queen Mary) who was baptised on the 7th of June 1897, after being born in York Cottage on the Sandringham Estate on the 25th of April.
- The future King Olav V of Norway who was baptised on the 11th of August 1903. He was born at Appleton House on the Sandringham Estate on the 2nd of July. He was the only child of the future King Haakon VII and Queen Maud, the then Prince Carl of Denmark and Princess Maud of Wales.
- Prince John, youngest child of the future George V and Queen Mary, who baptised on the 3rd of August 1905, after being born in York Cottage on the 12th of July at 3:05 AM. His godparents included King Carlos I of Portugal and the Duke of Sparta (yes, that is a real title!) .
- Diana, Princess of Wales who was baptised on the 30th of August 1961, after being born in Park House on the estate on the 1st of July at 7.45 PM. Her parents, John Spencer, Viscount Althorp, and his first wife Frances rented Park House from the Queen.
- The first member of the British Royal family to have a public christening, Princess Eugenie of York was baptised in St Mary Magdelene on the 23rd of December 1990. She was born in London at the Portland Hospital on the 23rd of March 1990. Her parents are the current Duke of York and his ex-wife Sarah Ferguson.
- The most recent member of the British Royal family to be christened at Sandringham was Princess Charlotte of Cambridge, who was baptised on the 5th of July 2015. She was born in London at St Mary’s Hospital on the 2nd of May 2015 at 08:34 AM to Prince William, Duke of Cambridge and his wife Catherine.
As mentioned previously, Prince John was the youngest child of the future George V and Queen Mary, born in 1905 in York Cottage on the estate. Not many people know about his existence. He was diagnosed with epilepsy and a learning disability when he was 4 years old, and as he grew older he was gradually withdrawn from public life – no portraits of him were commissioned after his 8th birthday, and after his 11th birthday he ceased to appear in public.
His illness continued to worsen, and after 1916 John was sent to live in Wood Farm on the Sandringham Estate with his nanny Charlotte Bill, who was affectionately termed Lala. Unfortunately, he died on the 18th of January 1919 in his sleep, aged only 13 years. In the newspaper articles reporting his death, his illness was revealed to the British public for the first time. He was layed to rest at St Mary Magdalene Church three days later in a private funeral, attended by members of staff from the Sandringham Estate. You can still visit his simple grave today.
On the morning of the 6th of February 1952, George VI was found dead in his bed at Sandringham. He had died of a coronary thrombosis in his sleep, but had been suffering several from several severe health issues for some time, including lung cancer.
From the 9th of February for two days his coffin rested in St Mary Magadalene Church, before being transferred to Westminster Hall for the official lying in state. He was interred at St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle.
All in all, St Mary Magdalene is a great little church. Considering you could only fit about 50 people in it, it certainly punches above its weight in terms of historical significance. A must-see church for royal family aficionados and church crawling buffs alike.