In September 1666, the Great Fire devastated London. In a desperate scramble, the authorities at the Tower of London set about destroying buildings to create a fire block between the city and the Tower of London.
Diarist and man about town Samuel Pepys ran from the flames towards the tower. He stopped off at the church of All Hallows by the Tower, and climbed its steeple. From it, he watched the world burn. He wrote in his diary:
“So I made myself ready presently, and walked to the Tower, and there got up upon one of the high places, Sir J. Robinson’s little son going up with me; and there I did see the houses at that end of the bridge all on fire, and an infinite great fire on this and the other side the end of the bridge; which, among other people, did trouble me for poor little Michell and our Sarah on the bridge.”Samuel Pepys Diary, September 1666: see here.
Most of the medieval and early modern city passed away on a single day. But the actions of the men at the tower meant that a little pocket of the medieval and early modern city survived in the very east corner of the London.
Today I want to look at All Hallows by the Tower, one of London’s great survivors. Today this little church is a time capsule for two thousand years of London’s history.
Above: All Hallows by the Tower in 1955. The tower, built in 1658, is the same one that Pepys would have climbed. Commons license
The earliest architecture on the site can be found in the basement, where a Roman pavement peeks through the floor. It is thought to be the floor from a second century house.
The church was built on top of this Roman layer. Its origins can be dated as far back as 675, when it was founded by the nun and saint, Ethelburgh (Aethelburh) of Barking. On this blog we have met Ethelburgh and her brother Erkenwald bishop of London in other posts.
It was long thought that there were no traces left of this early Anglo-Saxon church. However, in 1940 the church was hit by a falling German bomb. Amid the tumbling masonry some fascinating discoveries were made. Within the walls was hiding an old Anglo-Saxon arch.
We can’t date this arch precisely, but one interesting feature is that the top of the arch is made up mostly from recycled Roman bricks and tiles – this probably suggests that it was put up at a time when Roman ruins were still visible and accessible. It probably argues for an early date.
A little later in the Anglo-Saxon period, a crypt was built. This is now the under-croft chapel. There are still some Anglo-Saxon burials here.
Several other Anglo-Saxon and medieval artifacts can be seen in the church’s museum, including an Anglo-Saxon stone cross with an inscription that states that it was made by Thelvar.
The church also has numerous medieval and Tudor tombs. Perhaps the most remarkable survival is this Tate panel, a late fifteenth century Flemish altarpiece
All Hallows by the Tower is a building with so many layers of history buried within it. People sometimes think that all of Old London passed away with the great fire. In All Hallows by the tower we can get a little window onto Anglo-Saxon and medieval London.
If you liked this blog post then why not check out the virtual tour of All Hallows by the Tower on the parish website; or maybe listen to this podcast by London Undone.