AD 675 – A time when London was still Saxon. Before William the Conqueror and the Battle of Hastings. Before the Tower of London. A time between the departure of the Romans and the beginning of a new era of Norman occupation. It was during this time that a church was built on a slight rise near the river. Begun on the foundations of an old Roman building, the church that rose from this spot is today known as the oldest church in London. And is a virtual time capsule of the history of London…as well as an excellent place to wait out a springtime thunderstorm.
That’s exactly what I found myself doing one April afternoon in London. The rainstorm had popped up out of nowhere forcing me to take cover or get wet. I ducked inside the church to wait it out. Inside was very quiet and there were only a few people. The first thing that struck me was the windows. I’ve never seen anything quite like them. Unlike other English churches, these were mostly plain glass panes. Uniformly laid out across each window were the coat of arms for various people, military units, and guilds that have had an association with the church at one time or another. You could actually see the rain falling outside unlike most church windows that are made entirely of stained glass. These windows replaced the original ones damaged by raids carried out by the Germans during World War II.
Like London itself, I soon discovered that this church has many layers. Peeling back each layer allows you to explore over one thousand years of London history. For example, an original Saxon archway built sometime between the 7th and the 11th century, still remains intact in the church of today. Originally built of recycled Roman roof tiles, it was exposed during the World War II blitz that ravaged London.
Leaving the main nave and descending into the crypt, you find yourself walking in the footsteps of the Romans as you encounter original floors from a 2nd century house that once sat where the church is now. Back during a time when London was called Londinium more than a millennia ago. Moving through the narrow passage of the crypt, Saxon arches stand solidly overhead as you moved through the foundations of the 14th century church. Along the way are relics discovered in the foundations of the church and now put on display int he crypt museum.
During the rebuilding of parts of the church after World War II, a portion of a Saxon cross was unearthed from the 9th century. It now sits in the crypt as part of a larger exhibit. Down in the crypt, the sound of the thunder from the passing storm outside was all but silenced. As I walked over the uneven paving stones, past Roman floors, it felt as if London’s layers of stone and dust had peeled back to reveal the London of old underneath. Still in place and waiting all those years to be rediscovered.
Not only does All Hallows contain Roman and Saxon relics, there is also an underground chapel in the crypt that has an alter dating back to the Crusades. The stones of the alter are from a Crusader castle in Israel. It was believed to have been carried on crusade by King Richard II, a son of the Black Prince and King of England in the late 14th century.
Because the church sits just beside the Tower of London, it also served another use during the Middle Ages. It was to this church that the remains of victims of the Tower Hill executioner were brought for temporary burial. Included among those who made their last stop here are Sir Thomas More, beheaded on Tower Hill by Henry VIII in the 16th century. In the 17th century, the church tower helped Samuel Pepys view the raging fire that swept through London from Pudding Lane, just missing the church itself.
If it hadn’t been for the weather, I might not have visited this perfect time capsule of London history. As I descended back into the main church, the rain was letting up and the thunder was rumbling further in the distance. I stole a few moments more to sit on one of the pews and soak it in.
Sitting in the silence, with the gentle patter of raindrops on the payment outside was very peaceful. Something about knowing that everything surrounding me had survived from another age was reassuring. There was comfort in knowing that long after I walked through the door and out into the rain, this place would remain. Indications of lives lived and ages passing make London feel eternal….
…even if I’m only just passing through.
All photos by the author.