9. ALL HALLOWS BY THE TOWER

— The Oldest Church in London —

Open: Mon-Fri: 9:30AM-5PM • Admission: Free
Free Guided Tours 2-4PM most weekdays April to October

          The church now called All Hallows by the Tower was already 400 years old when William the Conqueror ordered the construction of its immediate neighbor to the east, the Tower of London. And that occurred 1,000 years ago.

          The original Saxon church dates from 675AD, 71 years after the death of St. Augustine of Canterbury, the Catholic missionary credited with converting the Saxons and establishing Roman Catholicism in England centered at Canterbury. Roman pavement that underlies the remaining Saxon part of the church suggests that the site was used by Romans in Londinium from the time of its founding, 600 years earlier.

          Remarkably, All Hallows by the Tower has managed to survive all of the great calamities that have befallen the City of London. Conquering Normans converted the Saxon church to their own soon after their successful invasion of 1066. Dire and gory goings-on next door at the Tower of London sent All Hallows the headless bodies of many who displeased the Crown. Thomas More and John Fisher, who opposed King Henry VIII’s determination to divorce and remarry, were beheaded in 1535, and then made saints by the Roman Catholic Church. Archbishop of Canterbury William Laud, who championed freedom of religion during the repressive rise of Puritanism 110 years later, lost his head on Tower Hill in 1645.

          The two Great Fires of London (1212

 

and 1666) somehow failed to consume All Hallows. During the 1666 Great Fire, English diarist Samuel Pepys — who lived very nearby — climbed the church tower at

ALL HALLOWS BY THE TOWER CHURCH
Photo © Home At First

All Hallows to watch the spreading

 

conflagration before being forced to evacuate to the South Bank. The 1666 fire began less than ¼ mile away in Pudding Lane and All Hallows was an early target of its flames. British Navy Admiral Sir William Penn, recently retired to shore duty, oversaw efforts to save the church from the fire. His son, William Penn the founder of Pennsylvania, had been baptized in 1644 at All Hallows and educated at a private school in what is now the church’s Parish Room. Ironically, William the younger’s conversion from Anglican to Quaker divided him from his father, who remained a staunch member of the Church of England, although a supporter of the Catholic-leaning Stuart kings. King Charles II repaid a £16,000 debt to Admiral Penn by granting him the American territory he named Pennsylvania in honor of William the elder. William Penn the younger turned the colonization of Pennsylvania into his "holy experiment" of religious tolerance, inviting religiously oppressed peoples from across Britain and Europe to purchase land there cheaply. Although the colonization of Pennsylvania should have made Penn one of the world’s richest men, he managed his wealth poorly, and spent several months in Newgate debtors’ prison near St. Paul’s Cathedral in London from 1707-08. Newgate had been rebuilt in 1672 after the Great Fire had destroyed the original medieval jail.

          The Penns are not the only famous American family with ties to All Hallows by the Tower Church. John Quincy Adams, age 30, who would become the sixth president of the US in 1825, married Louisa Catherine Johnson in All Hallows church in 1797, having just been appointed Minister to Prussia by his father, President John Adams.

          In 1940, All Hallows by the Tower church was almost completely destroyed by Nazi bombs during the Blitz. The brick church tower and the walls were left standing after the raid. Following World War II it was decided to rebuild the old church, and, in 1948, the Queen oversaw the laying of a new cornerstone at All Hallows. Rebuilding took 9 years. In 1957 the Queen Mother (mother of Queen Elizabeth II) was in attendance at the consecration of the restored All Hallows by the Tower church.

          Visitors to the church will be able to see an altar in the crypt that King Richard I Lionheart may have taken on the Third Crusade in 1189. The church museum is found in the Undercroft. Nearby are the coffins of 3 Saxons, buried in the churchyard at the end of the first millennium. An arch from the original Saxon church is, fortunately, still intact. Beneath it, having witnessed — and survived — 2,000 years of war, pestilence, fire, and grisly executions is the masonry flooring of a Roman house.

          After visiting All Hallows by the Tower, and, perhaps, completing a comprehensive walk through the City of London, you might be hungry. We can recommend a stop at The Kitchen @ Tower, a satisfying and reasonably-priced café set in a sunken garden just east of All Hallows along Byward Street on its short way to The Tower of London. The Kitchen @ Tower specializes in traditional English meals (entrees include: fish & chips, bangers & mash, pie of the day, all-day English Breakfast) in a pastoral oasis remarkably close to the touristic madness at the entrance of The Tower.

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