St Werburga was born in Staffordshire in the seventh century, the daughter of King Wulfhere of Mercia and his wife Ermenilda who is likewise deemed a saint. Werburga spent most of her life as a nun and ended her days as Abbess of Ely (like her mother, grandmother and great-aunt before her: the odour one detects is a subtle blend of sanctity and nepotism). Dying c.699 she was initially buried in Hanbury, Staffordshire but owing to the threat of Viking invaders her tomb was moved to Chester Abbey (since 1540 Chester Cathedral), and she remains the patron of that city. The cult of St Werburga was sufficiently strong for churches to be founded in her name elsewhere, not least in Dublin where the original St Werburgh’s was established close to Dublin Castle around 1178.
The first church was burnt down in 1300 and rebuilt. It subsequently underwent many vicissitudes, being rebuilt in 1601 and enlarged sixty years later but remained in use and Jonathan Swift was baptised here in 1667. At the start of the 18th century, Dublin’s then-Anglican Archbishop William King, who was responsible for restoring many of the city’s old churches, decreed that St Werburgh’s should once more be rebuilt. Ireland’s Surveyor General Thomas Burgh, also responsible for the likes of the library at Trinity College and Dr Steevens’ Hospital, was given the job of designing a new church for the site. It is sometimes suggested that Alessandro Gallilei (original architect of Castletown, County Kildare) had a hand in the task and certainly the original facade was distinctly Italianate in character.
That original facade’s octagonal tower crowned with a cupola – seen above – was replaced in 1729 by a square tower with Corinthian pilasters, the whole being finished by a spire in the late 1760s. It rose to a height of 160 feet and must have been a marvellous spectacle. However in the aftermath of Robert Emmet’s abortive rebellion of 1803, the government authorities were suspicious that the spire St Werburgh’s overlooked Dublin Castle’s Upper Yard (as can be seen in James Malton’s 1792 print above) and so arranged for no less than seven architects to declare the structure unsafe. Although another architect, Francis Johnston, offered to secure the spire, it was nevertheless taken down in 1810. Twenty-six years later the tower, and it is presumed the upper section of the facade, was likewise removed. What remains, looking magisterial but decidedly truncated, is a building of three bays faced in sandstone and dominated by towering Doric pilasters, the centrepiece being a powerful segmental-pedimented Doric doorcase. From the exterior St Werburgh’s conveys the impression of a scarred but still noble giant.
In 1754 St Werburgh’s had suffered another grievous fire when the roof of the church fell ‘all at once’ into the main body of the building (with such an unfortunate history of conflagrations, no wonder the entrance porch continues to hold a number of ancient fire-fighting devices). The interior was accordingly rebuilt seemingly as a re-creation of what had been lost. The main body of the church is a long high hall with a simple coved ceiling. The recessed chancel’s upper walls are decorated with paired and tripled Ionic columns on the parapet above which rest a sequence of oversized urns, interspersed with masks and garlands of flowers; the plasterwork was executed by Michael McGuire and Thomas Tierney. The main body of the stone-flagged church is filled with dark stained boxed oak pews, above which runs a gallery with additional seating. In 1767 a wonderful new organ was installed at the west end of the gallery, its elaborate case designed by John Smyth. Immediately in front was the vice-regal ‘box’ rather like that in an old theatre, faced with a large carved and painted panel featuring the royal coat of arms.
In the early 19th century, St Werburgh’s lost not only its spire but also its status as vice-regal church since during this period Francis Johnson was responsible for building the Chapel Royal within the walls of Dublin Castle. Yet ultimately St Werburgh’s gained something from this deprivation since in 1878 it acquired the oak pulpit designed by Johnston and carved by Richard Stewart for the aforementioned Chapel Royal. In high Gothick manner, the octagonal pedestal is reached by a flight of steps with thin traceried balusters and is supported by a single slender column. On a swollen base sits a copy of the bible from which rises a cluster of colonnettes, their capital being composed of heads of the four Evangelists on each of whose heads can be found a copy of his own gospel. The sides of the pedestal are likewise heavily carved and carry sundry royal and religious coats of arms. Quite different in spirit from the rest of the interior, this virtuosic piece of work somehow finds a place within St Werburgh’s.
Despite its association with the vice-regal court, even in the 18th century St Werburgh’s was never a rich parish; by that period, fashion had moved north and east, and Toby Barnard (in his 2003 book A New Anatomy of Ireland) noted that of 114 named pew holders in 1725 a mere five were listed as ‘esquires’ with the majority being grocers, goldsmiths, printers and so forth, explaining why the previous decade the parishioners had been described as ‘mostly shopkeepers and tradesmen.’ There were a few notable incumbents, not least Dr Patrick Delany (subsequently husband of the wondrous Mary Delany) who was rector in 1730. But mostly St Werburgh’s was left to slumber. The advantage to this state of affairs is that, whatever about its exterior, after the 1760s very little was done to alter the inside of St Werburgh’s probably because of shortage of funds. It therefore remains as an admirable example of the 18th century Anglican church, box pews and gallery still in place, even the windows’ clear glass remaining in place. Even better, unlike many other city centre parishes services continue to be held at St Werburgh’s and the building has undergone a certain amount of refurbishment in recent years, without any loss of its distinctive ambience. At the moment the church is open for a certain number of hours each day, and a visit is to be encouraged.