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In the reign of Elizabeth I the Bishops of Ely let their palace and chapel in Ely Place to the Spanish Ambassador and, until the reign of Charles I, it was occupied by the High Representative of the Court of Spain. During this period the chapel (now St Etheldreda's Church) was freely used by English Roman Catholics and became a sanctuary to some degree for them, in a manner typical of an embassy chapel.


After the restoration of Charles II the Spanish Embassy was re-established in London, first on Ormond Street and then at Hertford House, Manchester Square, where the Wallace Collection is now housed. Here, in 1793–1796, shortly after the Roman Catholic Relief Act 1791 repealed some of the laws affecting Catholic worship, a chapel was built to designs by Joseph Bonomi on the corner of Spanish Place and Charles Street (now George Street), largely through the efforts of Thomas Hussey, chaplain at the embassy. Most of the objects of piety in the present church are legacies from this older building. In 1827 the official Spanish connection with the chapel ceased and it was handed over to the London Vicariate.


However, there is much in the present church of its Spanish heritage including Alfonso XIII's personal standard which is in a frame over the sacristy door, and the parishioners of Spanish Place have never forgotten their debt to Spain for having established and maintained the mission in the dark days. An unofficial connection with the Embassy of Spain has continued and is still cherished by the Church of St James today.

The church is of early Gothic design. Built entirely of stone it has a purity of line that confers a true sense of majesty, especially in its height, upon the whole building. The arches of the nave are supported by pillars enriched with marble colonettes. As the groining is artistically so perfect nowhere does the weight of stone produce a feeling of oppressiveness. The church entrance in George Street is a copy of the main entrance to Lichfield Cathedral while throughout the church are many details taken from the best type of the English 13th century Gothic style as exemplified, for instance, at Salisbury Cathedral and in parts of Westminster Abbey.

The Gothic chancel is one of the most artistic in London with a high arch rising to the groined roof of the nave, (yet in contrast to the nave which is manifestly English Gothic) and is at once reminiscent of the finest French cathedrals. The apse is heptagonal and has in its lower half seven pointed arches filled with opus sectile. The centre panel portrays the descent of the Holy Spirit upon Our Lady and the Apostles while the other six contain symbols of sacrificial and sacramental aspects of the Holy Eucharist, taken from the Old Testament. High on the wall above the choir stalls can be seen two built-in gilt crowns. It was beneath these that places were always given to King Alfonso and Queen Ena of Spain when they attended the church. In the canopied niches at the ends are gilt bronze statues, on one side St James, on the other St Anne. Above is a gilt hexagonal canopy and suspended behind this is a corona of rock crystals which is lowered over the monstrance during Benediction and Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament. The sanctuary floor is golden mosaic.

High on the wall on the epistle (Blandford Street) side of the church is the large marble statue of Saint James the Greater, Patron of the Church. Besides the sword and palm that symbolize his martyrdom, he carries the staff and bread wallet of the pilgrim. Across from the statue, towards the centre of the church, stands the statue of Our Lady, Queen of Heaven. It is completely covered with gold leaf except for the shoes which are red. It was made locally by a stonemason in 1840 and is reputed to be the second statue to be erected in a London church after the Reformation. The church is orientated contrary to usual church building practice. Traditionally churches are constructed facing east, such that during the celebration of the morning liturgy the priest and congregation face towards the rising sun, a symbol of Christ and the 

Second Coming.

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