London has many beautiful and historic churches. And, contrary to what your guidebook may indicate, Christopher Wren did not design every church in the capital city. Some London churches were built centuries before Wren was born and others were built long after the master architect’s death.
This article takes a look at a few other London churches whose history and beauty make them worthy of a visit.
All Hallows by the tower
All Hallows by the Tower boasts that it is the oldest church in the City of London. The church, which was founded in 675, dates back to Saxon times. A Saxon arch still stands in its southwest corner and three chapels in the Saxon-era undercroft of the original church are beneath the nave of the present church. Its proximity to the Tower of London resulted in a macabre bit of its history—many of the Tower’s beheaded prisoners were sent for temporary burial at the church.
All Hallows by the tower survived the Great Fire of 1666 because Admiral William Penn (father of the founder of Pennsylvania) created a firebreak by destroying surrounding buildings. Samuel Pepys, whose diary contains vivid descriptions of the multi-day blaze, watched the fire’s progress from the church’s tower.
All Hallows was not as lucky during World War II; the tower and walls were all that remained after bombings during the Blitz. All Hallows was rededicated in 1957 following a nine-year renovation. Be sure to check out the Tate Panel, which dates from the 16th Century, and the exquisite wooden baptismal font cover carved by Grinling Gibbons in 1682.
St Bartholomew the Great
St Bartholomew the Great is another City of London church that survived the Great Fire. The church and its nearby hospital (usually called by its nickname, “Bart’s,” it is the oldest surviving hospital in England) were founded in 1123 by a courtier of King Henry I who wanted to thank the saint for his recovery from what was probably malaria. Rahere (sometimes referred to as Raherus) gave up the high life at court and became the church’s first prior; his tomb is in the church.
St Bartholomew’s was much bigger before King Henry VIII dissolved the priory and pulled down most of the church’s nave during his monarchy. The surviving building, with its beautiful interior, is one of the best examples of Norman architecture in London. Films such as “Four Weddings and a Funeral” and “Shakespeare in Love” have used St Bartholomew’s as a backdrop.
The church has an interesting connection with the United States—in 1725, a young Benjamin Franklin manned a printing press here when the site of the present Lady Chapel was used for secular purposes. Should you have the time after viewing the church, the Museum of St. Bartholomew’s Hospital is also worth a visit; admission is free.
St. Mary Woolnoth
St. Mary Woolnoth is located very close to the Bank of England and the Royal Exchange. Evidence of pre-Roman settlement has been discovered at the site, as has a temple dating from the Roman period. A Norman church stood here until the 15th Century when the structure was rebuilt. Damaged during the Great Fire and repaired by Christopher Wren, that building was ruled unsafe and demolished in 1711.
The commission for the new church building for St. Mary Woolnoth was given to Nicholas Hawksmoor, one of Wren’s most talented students who also worked as his clerk.
Hawksmoor designed a spacious and geometrically balanced interior, but it is the church’s Baroque front entrance with its two flat turrets that catches the eye. The Corinthian columns employed in the front are also used throughout the church.
Architect John Nash held the favor of—and, more importantly, commissions from—the Prince Regent (later King George IV); Nash was the man the Prince trusted with the design of Regent’s Park. Nash’s only London church, All Souls, received a fair amount of criticism when it was completed in December 1823. His design for the church prompted a debate in the House of Commons, and no doubt Nash felt the sting of his building being described with adjectives such as “miserable,” “deplorable,” and “horrible.”
All Souls is made of Bath stone and features a classical circular columned portico topped with a sharp spire supported by even more columns. The pointy Gothic spire fueled much of the condemnation. Viewed with today’s eyes, the design does not seem upsetting or shocking.
Broadcasting House, the official headquarters of the BBC, is a nearby neighbor to All Souls; the news organization and All Souls worked together to broadcast a daily church service for more than 40 years.
Westminster Cathedral is a magnificent example of neo-Byzantine architecture. Victorian architect John Francis Bentley studied oriental-style church structures including Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia and Venice’s St. Mark’s Basilica in preparation for the project. Construction began in 1895 and the cathedral was consecrated in 1910. The Roman Catholic cathedral’s exterior consists of terracotta-colored bricks and includes a 274-foot campanile.
More than 100 different varieties of marble are utilized in Westminster Cathedral‘s interior, which also features beautiful mosaics and Eric Gill‘s Stations of the Cross. The 14 carvings were one of Gill’s early commissions; he became a well-known sculptor, typographer, and printmaker in the British Arts and Crafts movement.
The Cathedral of the Holy Family in Exile
The Cathedral of the Holy Family in Exile is the cathedral of the Ukrainian Catholic Church in Great Britain.
Located in Mayfair, the building was designed in 1891 by Alfred Waterhouse as a Congregationalist Church. The building was sold and adapted to its current denomination in 1967.
An icon screen created by a Ukrainian monk, Juvenalij Mokrytsky, luckily was not damaged when the building’s ceiling collapsed in August 2007. The Jesuit priests at the nearby Church of the Immaculate Conception invited congregation members to worship at their sanctuary until the cathedral could be repaired.
by Katie Calvert