History - My Seven Favourite City of London Church Exteriors
Updated: Feb 14, 2021
Because we can't actually get inside the City of London's churches at the moment, it seemed fitting I should do a blog post of my favourite churches as seen from the outside. This was surprisingly harder than I expected, and I did start off with my top five but it just kept increasing. Still seven sounds a nice enough number, and when did top five become such a thing?
These are, in no particular order as it happens, just seven of my favourites, and if I've missed one of yours out please do let me know!
St Bartholomew the Great
If I had to pick a favourite, this one would probably be in the running. Its' long history goes as far back as 1123, when a church and hospital were founded as part of an Augustinian priory. Rahere, a canon and canon of St Paul's Cathedral, had a dream whilst he was in Italy and was told to erect a church in this very area. He travelled back, and was granted the title of the land by Henry I.
Although it's pretty tricky to work out which bits are from the 12th century, you can see some examples of Norman architecture features if you step inside. It survived the Great Fire of London in 1666, but has since been restored.
This is one of Sir Christopher Wren's creations and the rather impressive spire is the reason it's one of my favourite church exteriors in the City of London. So impressive that it inspired the tiered wedding cake!
An apprentice baker working nearby fell in love with his master's daughter and eventually went on to propose to her. As the wedding approached he decided to make a very special wedding cake to celebrate the occasion, and at that very moment he looked up at the tiered steeple of St Brides and was inspired!
I also love the way you only catch a glimpse of it if you're flying along Fleet Street on the bus, if you know exactly when to look.
Over on the western edge of the City of London, in the depths of the Inns of Court is the stunning Temple Church, looking pretty out of place if you ask me.
It was built by the Knights Templar as their English headquarters - the men who went over on Crusades to the Holy Land, first to make sure pilgrims could travel safely.
But it's probably best known for being a round church! It does look quite unusual compared to what we are used to here in the UK. But it no doubt took its inspiration from the round Church of The Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, where Jesus is believed to be buried. It was consecrated in 1185, but sadly saw heavy bomb damage in the Second World War and has since been restored and rebuilt.
St Mary Woolnoth
Probably one of the most uncomfortable looking churches in the City of London, it honestly makes me cringe inside a little, but that just makes me love it even more!
St Mary Woolnoth is pretty unusual as it's not designed by Sir Christopher Wren but Nicholas Hawksmoor. It's not only unusual to look at but it also has an underground station right underneath it, and when that was being planned it was given the go ahead to demolish poor St Mary Woolnoth! But luckily for us it was saved by a public outcry.
It really is a fascinating church! It’s thought that its name “woolnoth” comes from either from Wulfnoth, a Saxon noble who founded the early church, or that it had some connection with the wool trade.
One of the most well known figures associated with the church is the priest John Newton. His early career was spent on slave ships where he worked as a captain, but it seems that came to an end sometime after he converted to Christianity.
He became rector of the church and his congregation gained popularity - William Wilberforce even came to him for some advice, and it seems he suggested to him to use his political position to do God's work. Perhaps this chat was what inspired Wilberforce to rally for the abolition of slavery. Newton actually went on to be involved in the process of the abolition himself, and testified how appalling the conditions and treatment of the slaves really was, and thus helping leading to the abolition.
Later on in his career he worked with the poet William Cowper on a collection of hymns, the most famous being Amazing Grace. Interestingly the hymn, sung to a different tune went to be associated with the struggle for equality in America in the 60s.
He was buried here, but when the station went in, many of the bodies were interred elsewhere!
St Benet's, Paul's Wharf
I always think this is such a cute little church! It's also quite strange as the road is higher than the ground level where the church was built on, so it feels as though it's half underground!
It's important because it is one of only four churches to escape damage from the Second World War, with the other three either affected by the IRA bombings or have since been restored.
It's nice to have a red brick church for a change and that's probably why I like it, with its jazzy layers of Portland Stone at the corners. I particularly like the foliage decoration above the windows!
Today it's a Welsh Anglican church, with a service in Welsh held on Sunday, I'd be really interested to know how many people go to the service. In 2008 it actually closed for a few months because of a "dwindling congregation".
It's mentioned by Queen Anne Boleyn and Lady Jane Grey in their biographies and it's also the burial place of the Welsh architect Inigo Jones.
One of the most popular places for photoshoots in the City and you can even hire it out for weddings, it's the remains of the bombed out church of St Dunstan-in-the-East.
Serving as a kind of memorial to the Second World War, the church has been left as it was after being badly damaged in 1941 by a German bomb, and is home to one of London's most beautiful green space.
Although it does tend to get fairly busy nowadays, it's such a pleasure to have the place to yourself.
St Andrew Undershaft
Another one of the rare survivors of the Great Fire of London of 1666 is St Andrew Undershaft. This church really made it into the top seven because of its surrounding - snuggled in with some of the most iconic modern buildings in London, where else can you capture the real essence of the city where old and new rub shoulders?
There's also something just around the corner from the church, which helps explain its name.
The Undershaft bit comes from the fact that a maypole used to stand nearby, taller than the church tower, so it was quite literally under the shaft of the maypole. Today there's a replica of the it attached to the Cheesegrater (122 Leadenhall) just a short walk away from the church!
Unfortunately the church is normally closed to the public, hence why this should really be included on my favourite exteriors.
Have I missed one of your favourite churches in the City of London? If so let me know in the comments as I'd love to hear from you!
Keep an eye out for my top church interiors as soon as lockdown ends.
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Heard in London