You never have to search too far around London to glimpse into its history, but if you want to really step back in time and gain an insight into ancient London life, the city’s churches can reveal much more than initially meets the eye.
In these buildings, you’ll find Roman artifacts, tombs of iconic figures from British history and a few rather macabre items, like human skulls guarding a cemetery.
Here are ten of London’s oldest churches to explore.
1. St. Dunstan and All Saints Stepney
It’s believed that this east London church dates back to around 952, when a stone church was built on the site by the Bishop of London. However, this new stone structure may have been a replacement for a pre-existing wooden church, which would make the site even older as a place of worship.
The chancel (the area where the choir and altar are located) of the existing church was built in the 13th century, but extensive renovation and rebuilding in the 15th century created most of the modern structure that still stands.
St. Dunstan’s also has a belfry and its bells are mentioned in the 18th-century nursery rhyme ‘Oranges and Lemons’ (“When will that be? Say the bells of Stepney”). It’s believed that the earliest bells at the church dated back to 1835, although the current set of ten bells were cast in 1806 by the now-defunct Whitechapel Bell Foundry, which also cast famous bells including Big Ben and the United States’ Liberty Bell in Philadelphia.
Founded in 675 AD by the Abbey of Barking, All Hallows claims to be the oldest church within the City of London. Whether it’s true or not, parts of this church are still very old indeed, such as an arch from the original Saxon-built structure. The Great Fire of London started nearby, in Pudding Lane, but the church survived, and it was one of the places that renowned diarist Samuel Pepys watched the fire from.
After the Tower of London was built (some 300 years after the church), All Hallows was used for the grisly but important purpose of holding bodies that had been beheaded in executions at the Tower. These included Thomas More, former Chancellor of England and author of influential socio-political book ‘Utopia’, executed for refusing to accept King Henry VIII as head of the Church of England.
3. St. Bartholomew-the-Great
St. Bartholomew-the-Great (not to be confused with neighbouring St. Bartholomew-the-less) claims to be London’s oldest parish church. It was founded in 1123 (by a priest named Rahere, who also founded St. Bartholomew’s Hospital in the same year) and significantly added to and restored over the following centuries, as well as encountering its share of damage along the way.
In 1539, for example, Henry VIII demolished the church’s nave (the main and largest section of a church) as part of the dissolution of the monasteries. St. Bartholomew’s eventually reverted to a parish church in the 16th century under Elizabeth I.
Depending on how you look at it, the mighty Westminster Abbey could be said to date back to around 960 AD, when a monastery was built on the site near the River Thames. King Edward (also known as Edward the Confessor) extended the monastery, creating a church known as ‘West Minster’. A few arches and columns from this church survive in present-day Westminster Abbey, but little else.
The Abbey in its current form was built by Henry III, beginning in 1245 and consecrated in 1269. Over the years, Westminster Abbey has notched-up more than its share of historical achievements. Every monarch since William the Conqueror (except Edward V and Edward VIII) has been crowned at the Abbey, and 16 royal weddings have taken place there. And in case you’re wondering, Westminster Abbey isn’t a cathedral or a parish church, but a ‘royal peculiar’, a church that belongs to the monarch and not any diocese.
5. St. Pancras Old Church
Some have suggested that St. Pancras Old Church dates back to Roman times, around 313 or 314, as it’s likely that the location once held a Roman camp, potentially including a place of worship where the church now stands. This would make the site one of the oldest places of Christian worship in Europe, but there’s no solid evidence to back up this claim (which is also partly based on the death date of Saint Pancras, who was beheaded in the late 3rd or early 4th century, suggesting the church was set up soon after to commemorate him). However, Roman tiles and bricks were uncovered during a major rebuilding of the church in 1847.
There are records of the church and its vicars in the 12th century (although some architectural features suggest the building was constructed in the 11th century), but the building fell into disrepair during the 13th century, later being used as accommodation for soldiers during the English Civil War. It’s thought that various valuable items were buried under the church during this period (including a silver chalice and paten – a plate to carry the bread of the Eucharist during a service – both from Elizabethan times), which were unearthed during the 1847 restoration.
6. St. Olave Hart Street
The first Hart Street church may have been built, from wood, as early as 1050 AD, but it’s not until the 13th century that records of the church (rebuilt in stone) begin to appear. The existing church stems from another rebuild in 1450, but it wasn’t until 1658 that one of St. Olave’s most well-known features was added: a row of skulls above a stone gateway to the churchyard, later prompting Charles Dickens to refer to the church as “Saint Ghastly Grim” in ‘The Uncommercial Traveller’, a series of his essays.
The churchyard was the burial place of diarist and lover of London Samuel Pepys, credited with having helped save St. Olave’s from the Great Fire of London, when he ordered nearby wooden buildings to be pulled down to stop the fire spreading. Over 350 victims of the Plague (including Mary Ramsay, popularly credited with bringing the Plague to London) are also buried at St Olave’s.
Built between 1675 and 1710, the domed masterpiece of heralded English architect Sir Christopher Wren is at least the fourth cathedral to have occupied this cherished London spot. The first cathedral on the site is thought to have been founded in 604 AD by Saint Mellitus. After several short-lived cathedrals (destroyed variously by fires and a Viking invasion), a new cathedral, proved to be the longest-lasting version yet. Begun in 1087 AD by William the Conqueror’s chaplain, completed and consecrated in 1240, it stood for almost 600 years.
Like many other churches, St. Paul’s was used as a military barracks during the English Civil War and began to fall into disrepair during the 1650s. The Restoration of 1660, under Charles II, finally prompted repair of the cathedral, and in 1666 Christopher Wren’s plan for the now-famous dome was approved, shortly before the Great Fire of London caused huge damage to the already-dishevelled building.
After almost ten years of planning following the fire, work on Wren’s cathedral started in 1675. Wren is buried in a simple tomb in St. Paul’s crypt, where other famous names also now rest, including Alexander Fleming, the scientist who discovered penicillin.
8. Southwark Cathedral
Although the Domesday Book mentions a ‘minster’ (a cathedral or large church) on the site of Southwark Cathedral in 1086, it’s generally accepted that Southwark Cathedral’s origins date back to the founding of a priory (essentially a small monastery) in 1106, named St. Mary Overie.
Henry VIII took control of the church during the dissolution of the monasteries in 1539 and renamed it St. Saviour’s, creating a new parish church. It remained with the crown (although the building was rented out to the congregation) until 1611, when a group from the congregation purchased St. Saviour’s for £800. Over the coming centuries the building slowly became more and more dilapidated, receiving a large-scale renovation in 1832, after plans to demolish the church were averted. St. Saviour’s became Southwark Cathedral in 1905, under the newly created Diocese of Southwark.
During the 17th century, the church became popular with the actors and playwrights who frequented Southwark’s many theatres. William Shakespeare lived nearby and is believed to have used the church, while his brother Edmund was buried in the grounds.
9. Temple Church
As the name suggests, Temple Church was built by the Knights Templar, a Christian military group formed to protect pilgrims travelling through Europe to the Holy Land. Work began in 1162 and the church was consecrated in 1185. When the Order of the Knights Templar was abolished in 1312 by the pope (under pressure from King Philip IV of France), the church passed into the hands of King Edward II.
Temple Church was later rented out to two law colleges (who are still involved with the building today), before returning to the monarch, Henry VIII, in 1540. Christopher Wren also lent his skills to Temple Church after being commissioned to give the building a significant refurbishment in 1682, creating many distinguishing architectural features that remain in place. The founding contribution of the Knights Templar is commemorated by a series of nine stone effigies of various members of the order in the church crypt.
While it’s not a functioning church anymore, the remains of St. Dunstan in the East are certainly historical, dating back to approximately 1100. They’re also located in what is now a beautiful, tranquil public garden. The church was extended in the late 14th century and repaired in 1631, but was then badly damaged by the Great Fire of London in 1666.
Rather than rebuild the entire church, more repairs were made and a steeple added, designed by Sir Christopher Wren in the Gothic style, to fit with the church’s existing décor. But St. Dunstan’s fate was sealed when it received severe bomb damage during World War Two in 1941, during the Blitz.
Even though Wren’s steeple survived, much of the church was now destroyed and it was decided not to repair or rebuild St. Dunstan’s. It wasn’t until 1967 that the City of London Corporation began renovating the site, opening it in 1970 as a wonderfully wild and untamed garden. Significant portions of the church remain intact around the garden for all to explore.