The City of London is full of old buildings with historical connections, however, there are very few remains of the original construction of Londinium in AD43. Visible at Tower Hill station is the remains of the London wall that was built around about the year AD200; the majority of the buildings, on the other hand, would have been made with wood, therefore, no longer exist. Nonetheless, Tower Hill is home to some of London’s oldest buildings, for instance, the Tower of London, but there is one site that is 400 years older.
Situated close to the original border of the London wall sits the oldest church in the city, All Hallows by the Tower. Part of the Diocese of London, this Anglican church is still open today for regular services and events, attracting international worshippers and tourists. Founded in AD675, this church predates all the places of worship in the city and has played a part in many significant historical events.
The original wooden building founded by Erkenwald, Bishop of London, no longer exists, however, some sections of the first stone church on the site are still visible. All Hallows, named in honour of all the saints, both known and unknown, was established as a chapel of the abbey of Barking. Historical documents often refer to the church as All Hallows Barking or Berkyngechirche as a result of the connection.
It is estimated that the first stone building was built circa AD900. Within the current building is an arch that has been dated back to the time of the Saxon and Viking invasions on Britain. Unlike most archways, this particular one – most likely the oldest surviving Saxon arch in London – has no keystone and was built using Roman floor tiles. Further evidence of the age of the original stone church was the discovery of a Saxon wheelhead cross during repair works after the Second World War.
Beneath the church is an undercroft, which is also thought to date back to the original stone structure. This has been converted into the All Hallows Crypt Museum that tells the story of the church throughout history. It is free to enter and also contains a couple of chapels that are still regularly used today.
The museum begins with evidence of the Roman occupation of Britain. This includes a section of tessellated flooring from the 2nd-century, situated at the bottom of the steps into the crypt. A small model of London, made in 1928, reveals what the city may have looked like in AD400 in comparison to the abundance of buildings that now run alongside the River Thames. In a case opposite the model is a range of artefacts that predate the church. These include Samian pottery, which would have been very expensive in that era, suggesting that the homes of wealthy families may have sat on the site before it was purchased by the abbey of Barking.
As visitors progress through the museum, the timeline takes a sudden leap to the 1600s with a display of silver chalices, basins and medals that made up the Church Plate. These date from 1626 until the 20th century and show the influence the Tudor reformation had on the new Protestant church.
The museum progresses through the history of the church until it reaches the first of two underground chapels. The Crypt Chapel or the Vicar’s Vault, as it is also known, contains the Columbarium of All Hallows. This was constructed in 1933 and is the resting place of the ashes of many people who have been associated with the church. During the excavations prior to building the chapel, many of the Roman fragments mentioned above were unearthed. Also discovered, and left where they were found, were three coffins dating from the Saxon era.
The Crypt Chapel is still used for small services today, however, visitors to the museum are asked not to enter, only stand at the back and peer in at the altar on the opposite wall. This altar comes from Castle Athlit or Château Pèlerin in Palestine and has strong connections with the Knights Templar – the Templar cross can be seen carved into the stone frontal. Castle Athlit is thought to have been the last remaining Templar stronghold in the Holy Land during the crusades before being evacuated in 1291.
The Knights Templar were a small band of noblemen founded in the 12th century during the First Crusade who pledged to protect pilgrims journeying to Jerusalem. Unfortunately, they also became money lenders and their wealth gave rise to corruption and jealousy.
The altar in the crypt is not the only connection All Hallows has to these fearless warriors. In 1307, Pope Clement V (1264-1314) ordered the Templars to be restrained and their possessions seized. Edward II (1284-1327) was persuaded to allow the Inquisition judges to use All Hallows as one of the venues for the trials of the Templars. Fortunately, these trials were less violent than those held elsewhere.
Next door to the Crypt Chapel is the Chapel of St Francis of Assisi where the Holy Sacrament is kept in a niche above the altar as a continual reminder of the presence of Jesus Christ. Originally a crypt dating from c1280, it became buried for several centuries, finally being rediscovered during excavation works in 1925. After careful refurbishment, it was opened two years later as a chapel and dedicated to St Francis. It is claimed that this chapel is one of the quietest places in the City of London. Visitors are invited to use the space for their private thoughts and prayers.
Excluding the Saxon arch, the main sanctuary of All Hallows does not look as steeped in history as the crypts and chapels within its foundations. This is because the church has been victim to a number of historical events which caused damage to the architecture and surrounding area. The first recorded disaster occurred on 4th January 1650 when seven barrels of explosives caught fire in a house on Tower Street. Many of the buildings in the vicinity were destroyed and the church’s structure was damaged and every window blown out. Described as a “wofull accydent of Powder and Fyer,” 67 people were killed and many found themselves homeless.
The following year, despite England being under the thumb of the Parliamentarians, permission was granted to rebuild the church. The church’s tower was named the Cromwellian Tower after the original Lord Protector of the Commonwealth. Yet, the door to the tower is known by another name: the Pepys Door.
In 1666, a great fire ravished the streets of London, devouring hundreds of buildings. The flames worked their way down Tower Street, scorching the south side of the church but, thankfully, progressing no further. The tower of All Hallows remained safe from the blaze and it is from here, the diarist, Samuel Pepys (1633-1703) took in the sight of the devastation as he later recorded:
“I up to the top of Berkeing Steeple, and there saw the saddest sight of desolation I ever saw. Everywhere great fires, the fire being as far as I could see … ”
– Samuel Pepys, 1666
The greatest destruction All Hallows suffered transpired during the Second World War in December 1940. The church had survived all the events of the past centuries, however, in less than a minute, a great amount of history was destroyed forever. A firebomb landed on the church, flattening most of the main body of the building. By some miracle, the Cromwellian Tower remained standing, which, thankfully, sheltered the ancient Saxon arch beneath it.
The vicar at the time, Tubby Clayton, was determined to rebuild the church and was supported by connections worldwide. Donations of money and building materials poured in and in July 1948, Queen Elizabeth, the wife of George VI, laid the foundation stone. A photograph of the occasion and the trowel she used can be seen in the crypt museum.
The Australian born Reverend Philip Thomas Byard “Tubby” Clayton (1885-1972) was installed as the Vicar of All Hallows in 1922, however, he was already well-known in the Christian community. After his ordination in 1910, Clayton spent time as an army chaplain during the First World War. During this period, Clayton and fellow chaplain, Neville Talbot (1879-1943) set up a rest house for soldiers in Poperinge, Belgium. Officially called Talbot House but often referred to as Toc H, the international Christian establishment allowed soldiers of all ranks to spend their time on leave in a safe, friendly place.
In a corner of All Hallows known as the Lady Chapel, a lamp sits on the altar tomb of Alderman John Croke (1477). This “Lamp of Maintenance” is a replica of the oil lamp that burnt in the top room of Talbot House during the First World War. Clayton and his work are also remembered by an effigy in the south aisle of the church. His ashes are interred in the Crypt Chapel.
The architecture of the reconstructed church is not as grand as places of worship built in the past, however, it is a large, well lit, open space suitable for a number of different services. Although the majority of the structure was built after the Second World War, the inside houses items from a range of eras. The pulpit originally stood in St Swithin’s Church near Cannon Street and is similar to the one that sat in All Hallows in 1613. The sounding board above it, in the shape of a scallop shell, is a much more modern design.
Like many other churches, the high altar sits in front of a mural of the Last Supper. This painting was produced by Brian Thomas in 1957 after the rebuilding of the church. It shows Christ blessing the bread surrounded by his apostles, however, on the right-hand side, Judas Iscariot is depicted leaving the room to betray Jesus to the Romans. The altar, apart from a cloth decorated with a phoenix-like bird, remains fairly bare – a cross would obscure the face of Jesus in the painting behind it.
To the right of the high altar is an open plan chapel containing memorials of sailors and maritime organisations. Situated near the River Thames, All Hallows was popular with dock workers and their families; the Mariner’s Chapel honours the workers and sailors who lost their lives at sea. Windows along the south wall also contain memorials, such as for the seamen lost on HMS Hood. The crucifix above the altar in the chapel is made from the wood of the Cutty Sark and ivory from one of the Spanish Armada ships.
There are other memorials around the church dating from Tudor times until the World Wars. Up above, and easily missed, is the Organ Loft containing an organ built for the reopening of the church in 1957. Hanging on the balcony is a set of arms that belonged to the Stuart king, Charles II.
Due to its lengthy history, a number of famous names have become associated with All Hallows by the Tower. Miraculously preserved in a dry lead cistern, documents of births, weddings and events in Tower Hill record the names and dates of many who passed through the church, including a couple of well-known individuals.
Handwritten on the baptismal register dated 23rd October 1644 is the entry “William, Son of William Penn & Margaret his wife of the Tower Liberties”. This baby boy, William Penn (1644-1718), would grow up to become an admiral, play a significant role protecting the church during the Great Fire of London, and, finally, move to America and found the state of Pennsylvania.
Another American connection can be found in the marriage register under the date 26th July 1797. On this date, soon to be the sixth president of the USA, John Quincy Adams (1767-1848), was married to Louisa Catherine Johnson (1775-1852). Louisa was a local London girl and, until now, was the only First Lady to have been born outside the United States.
All Hallows by the Tower is so steeped in history, it is impossible to list every connection. Many people and events are remembered through memorials, artefacts, windows and so forth around the church, and special services take place throughout the year. A medieval custom, Beating the Bounds, is observed yearly (this year on Ascension Day) and the Knolly Rose Ceremony, a symbolic event dating from 1381, is held every June.
The church holds regular Sunday services beginning at 11am, which includes a sung communion. There are also a few services throughout the week, for instance, Morning Prayer and a Taizé service. As well as regular attendees, All Hallows attracts an international community and welcomes all visitors to the area.
Free to enter and sheltered from the hustle and bustle of the capital, All Hallows by the Tower is worth a visit. Whether you come for religious purposes, to learn about the history of London or just out of curiosity, you are assured of a warm welcome.