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Off the Beaten Path

The minor but important churches of a once-Catholic city.
by Julian Worker | Source:

When visiting the main sights in London, you should always be aware that there is a historical church close by.

A church might not be as famous as St. Paul’s Cathedral or Westminster Abbey, but you won’t have to pay to go inside, and you could well be the only person there.

Such churches offer an insight into London’s unique history and bring one closer to local legends and characters, so take a moment at each stop to gather your thoughts and reflect on what you have seen, before dashing off to the next sight.

Visitors to the Barbican Centre or the Museum of London should go see the Church of St. Bartholomew the Great, a rare example of Norman architecture. It’s the surviving remnant of a priory founded in 1123 by Rahere, who was both court jester to King Henry I and a monk — surely a unique combination.

On a pilgrimage to Rome, Rahere almost died of malaria and was so thankful to survive that he vowed to found a hospital upon his return, a vow he not only kept, but improved upon by establishing a priory, too. In a dream, possibly induced by the illness, St. Bartholomew saved Rahere from a frightening monster; thus, the hospital and the church bear the saint’s name. In an unusual turn of events, the Tudor gatehouse visitors see today was actually discovered after a Zeppelin raid during World War I.

Speaking of the effects of war, another church, St. Michael Paternoster Royal was badly damaged during World War II. It’s on College Street near the Mansion House tube station and was rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren in the 1690s.

The main reason to come here is the stained glass window of Dick Whittington and his cat, a legend that began 200 years after Whittington was alive. Dick, or to give him his proper title, Sir Richard, helped finance the rebuilding of the church and was lord mayor of London four times.

A noted philanthropist in the early 1400s, loaning money to Richard II and Henry IV on many occasions, Whittington is thought to have made his fortune from coal, which would explain the cat reference: “cat” was another name for a coal barge. In all likelihood, however, he made his money from expensive cloths.

Oldest Church

The Church of All Hallows by the Tower of London can claim to be the oldest church in the City of London (a smaller city within London), having been founded in 675. Although the church was almost totally destroyed during World War II, an arch from the original Saxon church survives. Beneath the arch is a Roman pavement, discovered in 1926. Being the nearest church to Tower Hill, where executions took place, the beheaded bodies of such notables as St. Thomas More were brought into the church.

It’s not known where St. Thomas More’s remains are, but they’re not at this church — they’re more likely to be found in his family tomb in Canterbury, Kent.

This church boasts of American connections, as well: The founder of Pennsylvania, William Penn, was baptized here, and John Quincy Adams, the sixth president, was married here in 1797.

St. Stephen Walbrook in the City of London, close to the Mansion House, the Stock Exchange and the Bank of England, is the official church of the lord mayor of London. It’s considered Sir Christopher Wren’s finest church, after St. Paul’s Cathedral. The 21-year-old stone altar by Henry Moore sits uncomfortably amid the Corinthian columns in the light-filled interior.

Chad Varah was the rector of St. Stephen’s when he founded the Samaritans in 1953. The group mans telephones to help people overcome suicidal urges, and a glass-encased phone in the church is a tribute to the all-volunteer organization.

The 590-foot Swiss Re building is an eye-catching structure, even in a city like London. “The Gherkin,” as it is sometimes called, sits on the site of the Baltic Exchange, which was badly damaged by an Irish Republican Army bomb in 1992 and eventually demolished in 1998.

The nearby church of St. Ethelburga, which survived both the Great Fire and the Blitz of World War II, was destroyed in 1993 by another IRA bomb. In 1607 Henry Hudson and the crew of the Hopewell took their final Communion here before setting off on their voyages to the New World.

The new church has become a center for peace and reconciliation and is open to visitors on Fridays.

Templar Church

In an island in the middle of The Strand, near the Royal Courts of Justice and Twinings Tea Shop, sits the Church of St. Clement Danes. Destroyed during the Blitz, the church was given to the Royal Air Force in the 1950s and commemorates the 120,000 Air Force personnel who died during World War II. Though not the St. Clement’s church mentioned in the nursery rhyme “Oranges and Lemons,” which refers to churches in or near the City of London, the church bells play the tune at various times during the day.

A further 100 yards toward the city is the Temple Church, built by the Knights Templar. The church is in two parts: the Round and the Chancel. The Round church was consecrated in 1185 by the patriarch of Jerusalem. Its recent publicity in relation to The Da Vinci Code has meant more visitors, but it’s still an incredible oasis of calm not 50 yards from the busy streets. A column outside the church marks the point where the Great Fire of London was finally extinguished. Atop the column is a small statue of two knights riding a horse, showing that the Templars couldn’t always afford their own horse and had to share. Nearby is the Inner Temple Hall, where Mahatma Gandhi studied in the late 1880s.

Visitors to the Victoria and Albert Museum or Natural History Museum in South Kensington should make sure to visit the Brompton Oratory, which is also close to Harrods department store. The Oratory was built in 1884, and thus became the first Catholic church to be built in England after the Reformation. In fact, it’s the only church in this article that is still Catholic. The style is Italianate baroque and is an exact imitation of the Gesu Church in Rome. Some beautiful, exported genuine Italian fittings predate the building. The crowning dome is 50 feet in diameter.

All these churches have a story to tell. Their connections bring alive various aspects of London’s history. These churches may have suffered crises in the past, but they have risen again and stand tall, proudly taking their place as part of London’s essential fabric.

Planning Your Visit

Summers in London don’t get very hot and winters don’t get very cold. The weather is unpredictable and inconsistent from one year to the next. The only sound advice is to pack for all eventualities — including lots of rain. There are around 40 churches in the City of London, so you will be doing a lot of walking. London is a safe place to be a tourist, but be sensible at night in certain places.

The Brompton Oratory ( has Sunday and weekday Masses throughout the day, including Latin Masses in the ordinary and extraordinary faorms.

Getting There

The nearest airport is Heathrow, though Gatwick is nearly as close. Heathrow is on the Piccadilly Line and will get you to central London in about 50 minutes, by far the cheapest way of getting there. The Underground is extensive and will get you to most of the churches in the article — but walking with a good guidebook is recommended. 

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