All Hallows-by-the-Tower, Byward Street EC3R
Close by the Tower of London runs Byward Street which forms part of the A3211 route into and out of the City of London. On the river side of the road close by the modern monstrosity that is the Marsh Centre you will find a church called All Hallows-by-the-Tower which is reputed to be the oldest church in England.
It was founded in 675 CE by the Saxon Abbey of Barking and was known for many years as All Hallows Barking. Like many parts of the original city it stands on a former Roman building of which traces have been found in the crypt. Underneath the Saxon arch which is still extant can be seen traces of a Roman pavement.
As you might imagine for a building of this age and particularly one so close to the Tower of London, it has had a rather chequered history. The original church was expanded and rebuilt during the 11th to 15th centuries and Edward IV made it a royal chantry. The plain stone altar in the crypt is said to have been brought back from the Crusades by Richard I – not the most convenient thing to have packed away in your suitcase, I would have thought, but there’s no accounting for taste!
The Tower of London did a regular trade in despatching so-called traitors and heretics to their doom and All Hallows being the nearest religious settlement to the Tower became the intermediate resting place for unfortunates whose heads had been severed from their bodies. Some of the more notable individuals whose bits found temporary solace in the building include Thomas More (1535), Archbishop Laud (1645) and Bishop Fisher (1535). Our American friends may be interested to know that William Penn was christened here in 1644 and John Quincy Adams got hitched whilst serving as Ambassador to the Court of St James.
The 17th century saw turbulent times and All Hallows had its fair share of excitement. In 1650 it was severely damaged as a result of an almighty explosion caused when barrels of gunpowder which were being stored in the churchyard went bang. The west tower 50 of the adjacent houses were destroyed and there were many fatalities. However, the tower was quickly rebuilt, the only example of church (re)construction during Cromwell’s period in power.
If the church is associated with anyone it is Samuel Pepys, who lived across the road in Seething Lane, and clambered up the tower to observe the progress of the Great Fire in 1666 and
what he called the saddest sight of desolation. The church itself was saved thanks to the good offices of Admiral William Penn who had his men stationed in a nearby naval yard demolish the surrounding buildings to act as a fire break.
The church’s next flirtation with danger came during the Second World War when it was severely damaged during the blitz, only the tower and walls surviving. Fortunately the church was tastefully and sympathetically restored, although it was not re-commissioned until 1957.
Today it is well worth a visit. As well as the interior of the church itself to marvel at and an exquisite carved baptismal font cover carved by Grinling Gibbons in 1682, there is an informative museum in the Undercroft and one of only two brass rubbing centres in London, if you feel the need. Oh, and the heart of Richard I is said to be buried in the north part of the churchyard where once stood a chapel built by the Lionheart.
A church with a fascinating history, to be sure!