The site of Tunbridge Wells was empty fields until Dudley, Lord North (1581-1666) came upon a chalybeate (iron-bearing) spring in 1609 while staying at a lodge in nearby Eridge for his health. He publicised the therapeutic powers of the waters –
These waters youth in age renew,
Strength to the weak and sickly add,
Give the pale cheek a rosy hue
And cheerful spirits to the sad.
– and attracted royal approval when Queen Henrietta Maria, consort of King Charles I visited in 1630.
The Lord of the Manor, Donagh MacCarthy, 1st Earl of Clancarty (1594–1665), enclosed the spring and built a meeting hall “to shelter the dippers in wet weather”. Nevertheless, when Queen Catherine of Braganza took the waters in 1664, her court was accommodated in tents.
The spa’s first assembly room was in fact the Church of King Charles the Martyr, built as a brick chapel of ease in 1684. Its unusual dedication memorialised the executed monarch, whose death was until 1859 remembered as an Anglican feast-day on the anniversary of his execution, January 30th.
The land for the church was given by Viscountess Purbeck and the fundraising and subsequent building programme was supervised by the MP and entrepreneur Thomas Neale (1641–1699) as part of his nearby development of shops and inns.
The fine plaster ceiling of five domes was installed in 1678 by John Wetherell, who had worked for Sir Christopher Wren at Greenwich. Five years later a further dome was installed to the north, opposite the original doorway.
This building quickly became too small for either an assembly or its congregation.
In 1688-1690 Henry Doogood, Sir Christopher Wren’s chief plasterer, took down the west wall, replacing it with the tall columns that still stand in the middle of the nave, and doubled the size of the interior, duplicating the plaster ceiling with, as Pevsner remarks, “more bravura” than the original.
Strict social separation was maintained between the high-status worshippers in the body of the church and the tradespeople and servants above: the oak-panelled seventeenth-century galleries were originally accessible only from outside.
Ironically, when the then Princess Victoria, aged sixteen, with her mother, the Duchess of Kent, visited in 1835 she sat in the north balcony which was at the time close to the pulpit and the altar.
St Charles the Martyr became a parish church – with an unusually small area, 65 acres, much of it common land,– only in 1889, when for the first time the interior was oriented to the east by the architect Ewan Christian.
The three-decker pulpit was removed and the seating reversed to face the present-day chancel, removing the anomaly that the communion table stood at the side of the church, out of sight of most worshippers.
In this refurbishment the Credo and Paternoster boards by William Cheere were brought from the church of All Hallows, Bread Street, in the City of London (built 1681-84; demolished 1878).
The Church of King Charles the Martyr is a highly unusual building and well worth a visit. The greeters are particularly welcoming: http://kcmtw.or