What Is London's Oldest Church?

Harry Rosehill
By Harry Rosehill Last edited 19 months ago
What Is London's Oldest Church?

Many of London's places of worship are imbued with history, but which technically has the most history? This question opens up many complexities of its own. Do churches that have been knocked down, then rebuilt, count? Or only churches that are in their original incarnation? Let's pray we can untangle and answer this tricky question.

St Bartholomew-the-Great

Photo: mike-mojopin

St Bartholomew-the-Great in Smithfield is the oldest continuous place of worship in London. Founded in 1123, the church survived until about 1539, when the nave was pulled up thanks to Henry VIII's dissolution of the monasteries. A few parts survived however, which enabled it to remain a functioning parish church.

The Tudor architecture at the front of the Church — which can still be recognised by today — was then added to the facade of St Bart's. It's undergone many renovations since. Though the original structure of the church has changed greatly over time, parts of the original building still remain. In that way, you might classify it London's oldest church.

St Paul's Cathedral

Photo: Andrea Vail

The philosopher John Locke once raised a question about his favourite sock. The sock had a hole, so he patched it up. This happened repeatedly until there was none of the original material left and the sock was now made up entirely of patches. Was this the same sock?

That same analogy can be applied to St Paul's Cathedral. The current cathedral is believed to have been at least the fourth on the site. The original church probably dates back to 604. The fate of this cathedral is unknown; they tended to be short-lived structures in this era due to Viking attacks, fires and, at one stage, the city returning to paganism.

The longest lasting iteration of St Paul's came in 1087 when the Normans rebuilt the cathedral. The Great Fire of London obliterated the last remnants of this, though it was in a pretty rough state as it was, and wooden scaffolding that surrounded St Paul's for repair works only served to help spread the fire.

Construction of Wren's replacement began in 1675 and was not declared complete until 1711. You could call St Paul's London's oldest church; equally you're well within your rights to scoff at that statement. Depends what your view is on that patched-up sock.

All-Hallows-by-the-Tower

Photo: Treble2309

All-Hallows-by-the-Tower claims to be the oldest Church in the City of London. It was founded in 675 by Saxons, but only a single arch of that church remains. Life on the site goes back even further, with a 2nd century Roman pavement discovered underneath the crypt in 1926.

Very little remains of the original structure due to the extensive traumas All Hallows has been through. In 1650, gunpowder barrels that were stored in the churchyard exploded, damaging a lot of the church and the surrounding houses. It survived the Great Fire, but was later almost destroyed in the Blitz. The structure is therefore mostly modern, although they do have some Saxon and even Roman artefacts in their museum. If the historic aura of these pieces transfers over to the building itself, then arguably this is London's oldest Church.

St Etheldreda's

Photo: Kcovophoto

A bit of a bonus one: this is not really the oldest church in London, but St Etheldreda's, in Ely Place, does have the prestigious honour of being London's oldest Roman Catholic church. (And, established in 1290, St Etheldreda's is no spring chicken either.)

All the other churches on this list adhered to the Roman Catholic tradition before Henry VIII's Act of Supremacy, but swiftly thereafter joined the new Anglican church. St Etheldreda's' history is more complex, spotted with executions and switches between the two competing sects of Christianity.

The Catholic Emancipation Act took place in 1829 and it became no longer illegal for Catholics to have churches where they could say mass. In 1879 it was purchased by the Catholic rector William Lockhart at auction, and he restored it to its roots. Again this church underwent many changes throughout its history, especially during the Blitz. But there are some traces of the original 1290 church.

The return to its state as a Roman Catholic church, means that St Etheldreda's current services bear the greatest resemblance out of any on this list to its original ones.

Take your pick using your own personal definitions, but one of the churches above is London's oldest.

Last Updated 14 October 2016