It sometimes puzzles people that the church is often referred to as St Martin le Grand. Though never the official name, it was controversially coined in the 1830s and defended as a way of distinguishing it from the church of St Martin cum Gregory on Micklegate.
Today we normally use the name St Martin Coney Street
However it may have seemed to our predecessors in the 19th century, St Martin's today is not 'grand', nor does it aspire to be so. Only the south aisle of the old church was restored and it is a quiet and intimate place. There are good reasons for keeping to our traditional name.
- Using two names, a legal and an unofficial one, is confusing.
- St Martin Coney Street makes clear both which church and where.
- For most of its life the church has been known as St Martin Coney Street
- St Martin's Le Grand is a locality in the city of London, and was also the name of a medieval priory church in Dover. St Martin Coney Street is unique.
The origins of the name St Martin le Grand
Medieval York had over 40 churches, several with the same dedication, so it became usual in these cases to distinguish them by adding the name of the street (eg St Helen Stonegate, All Saints Pavement, etc). This church was known as St Martin Coney Street. The name St Martin le Grand first appears in the 1830s and may be related to the introduction of civil registration of births, marriages and deaths in 1837. Prior to that the only record of life events was in a register of baptisms, marriages and burials at the parish church. Civil registration was recorded by district and sub-district which very often matched ecclesiastical boundaries but were legally distinct and the names did not necessarily match. For whatever reason the districts corresponding to the two parish churches in York dedicated to St Martin were given new names, St Martin le Grand instead of St Martin Coney Street, and St Martin Micklegate with St Mary rather than St Martin cum Gregory. This was not done everywhere in York where there were other churches with similar names, eg St Mary Bishophill Junior and St Mary Bishophill Senior, so there may have been special factors which led to that. They were all combined in a single York district in 1900.
The new name of St Martin le Grand was almost certainly modelled on the City of London ward of St Martin's Le Grand. Coney is a traditional English word for rabbit, and members of the congregation may have thought that this lacked the dignity appropriate to the civic church. Coney Street actually has a very different derivation, but this was a time when some families were also seeking to dignify their own lineage by altering their surname to a supposed Norman-French original, often equally mistakenly. The new name crops up sporadically through the 19th century, even in official documents where it may then be corrected, but it is clear that the usage did not have universal favour from the dismissive comments in a letter from the Reverend Lowther Clarke (later Archbishop of Melbourne) to his successor as vicar of St Martin's in 1891. Back in 1857, Sheahan and Whellan in their county guide had noted tartly that it 'is sometimes denominated the church of St Martin-le-Grand, but for which title there is not the slightest authority'.
Use of the name St Martin le Grand did slowly gain ground in the 20th century, and at the time of its bombing in 1942 was the one generally used, so is the name under which the restoration was described and why it appears in documents and elsewhere associated with that. That explains why it is the name under which the ruins were granted listed building status in 1954. It is ironic that this was the time when the church had ceased to be 'grand' because of its destruction and rebuilding on a much smaller scale, and so the decision was made in the new century to keep to the more historic name for the reasons explained above.