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British Royals

The regal history of the tiny church which the Royal Family will attend on Christmas Day

It is a little church in a remote part of Norfolk but once a year, all eyes fall on it. St Mary Magadalene on the Sandringham Estate boasts a pretty impressive royal pedigree and for over a century it has been a very special place for kings, queens, princes and princesses. However, its history goes back far further.

The church of St  Mary Magdalene has existed in its current form since the 16th century, around the time of the first queen regnant called Elizabeth. At first glance it looks similar to many of the pretty parish churches that dot the English countryside but this one is celebrated for things other than its royal connections. It is known as one of the finest carrstone buildings in existence – carrstone is a kind of sandstone and it has been widely used in Norfolk as well as nearby areas including Cambridgeshire. And the jewels the church holds inside have also singled it out for attention.

There is sumptuous and extensive stained glass in the church, some of it going back to the 16th century, while the silver altar and reredos were presented to Queen Alexandra in memory of her late husband, King Edward VII.

There are two fonts at St Mary Magdalene – one is Florentine, the other is Greek and dates from the 9th century. And two more gifts to Queen Alexandra are singled out for attention on the church’s website – a 17th century Spanish processional cross and a silver pulpit. All that is hidden inside its rural setting as are memorials to members and relatives of the Royal Family which go all the way back to the time of Queen Victoria.

Royal Christmases at Sandringham always see the family make their way to St. Mary Magdalene to worship on Christmas morning. Some members of the Royal Family attend several services there.

And for some, there are extra special memories. For this little church has also been the setting for several royal christenings.

Two kings have been christened within its walls. The baptism of the future George VI took place there on February 10th 1896 when, with his own great grandmother Victoria as one of his sponsors, he was given the names Albert Frederick Arthur George.

His younger sister was christened Victoria Alexandra Alice Mary in the same church on June 7th 1897, again with great granny as a godmother. Their parents, the future George V and Queen Mary, also chose the church for the baptism of their last child, Prince John Charles Francis, with that ceremony taking place on August 3rd 1905.

Among John’s godfathers was a man called Prince Carl of Denmark who was married to Edward VII’s youngest daughter, Princess Maud. Their only child, Alexander Edward Christian Frederik, had been christened at St Mary Magdalene soon after his birth in Norfolk in 1903. Not long after John’s christening, Carl was chosen as the new King of Norway and he became known as Haakon VII. The son he had baptised at St Mary Magdalene became heir to the Norwegian throne and went on to be King Olav V, one of the most popular and successful monarchs of the 20th century.

There was a real Christmas christening at the church in 1990 when  Princess Eugenie was baptised there on December 23rd 1990 by the Bishop of Norwich. The younger daughter of the Duke of York was given the names of Eugenie Victoria Helena at the ceremony which took place nine months after her birth.

But perhaps the most famous recent royal christening there was that of Princess Charlotte of Wales who was baptised at St. Mary Magdalene in July 2015. There was another poignant family link for Prince William in the choice of church for his daughter’s christening. St Mary Magdalene is the place where, Diana, Princess of Wales was christened on August 30th 1961. This baptismal link between Diana and the granddaughter who now bears her name is obviously of huge importance to William and Kate.

It’s another royal chapter in the history of St. Mary Magdalene, Sandringham which will once again become the focus of global attention on Christmas Day as the Royal Family celebrate the festive season there.

About author

Lydia Starbuck is Jubilee and Associate Editor at Royal Central and the main producer and presenter of the Royal Central Podcast and Royal Central Extra. Lydia is also a pen name of June Woolerton who is a journalist and writer with over twenty years experience in TV, radio, print and online. Her latest book, A History of British Royal Jubilees, is out now. Her new book, The Mysterious Death of Katherine Parr, will be published in March 2024. June is an award winning reporter, producer and editor. She's appeared on outlets including BBC 5 Live, BBC Radio Ulster and BBC Local Radio and has also helped set up a commercial radio station. June is also an accomplished writer with a wide range of material published online and in print. She is the author of two novels, published as e-books. She is also a marriage registrar and ceremony celebrant.