25 January 2020
Saint Botolph without
Aldersgate, a church
with a 1,000-year history
The churches I visited in London this week included Saint Botolph-without-Aldersgate, a Church of England Guild Church in the City. As a Guild Church it does not have its own parish, and like many guild churches in London there are no Sunday services.
The church sees its ministry as working with the midweek working population in this area of the City of London. The main Tuesday talks and associated ministry are known as the Aldersgate Talks. Aldersgate Talks helped start Moorgate Talks in 2010, and there are strong links between the two ministries. The church is in partnership with similar ministries across central London.
Saint Botolph-without-Aldersgate, on Aldersgate Street in the City of London, is also known as Saint Botolph’s, Aldersgate, and is dedicated to Saint Botolph.
The church was one of four churches in mediaeval London dedicated to Saint Botolph or Botwulf, a seventh-century East Anglian saint, each of which stood by one of the gates to the City.
There are other three churches with confusingly similar names dedicated to Saint Botolph: Saint Botolph’s, Billingsgate, which was destroyed by the Great Fire and not rebuilt; Saint Botolph-without-Aldgate, which I also visited this week; and Saint Botolph-without-Bishopsgate, which I have visited regularly.
Before the legend of Saint Christopher became popular, Saint Botolph was venerated as the patron saint of travellers, which explains why churches at the City gates have this dedication.
A church may have stood on the site of Saint Botolph-without-Aldersgate for almost 1,000 years. The first building was erected ca 1050.
The second church was built in the mid-14th century and survived the Great Fire of London in 1666 with only minor damage. However, it fell into disrepair in the mid-18th century.
John and Charles Wesley had spiritual awakenings in 1738 near Saint Botolph’s, probably in a house in Little Britain. Nearby, the Wesley Flame outside the Museum of London reproduces John Wesley’s famous description of his awakening.
The church was completely rebuilt, apart from its east wall, between 1789 and 1791 under the direction of Nathaniel Wright, surveyor to the north district of the City of London, who redesigned the exterior, and Nathaniel Evans, who redesigned the interior.
The new church was built of brick, with a low square bell tower at the west end built on the remains of its stone predecessor.
The plain exterior is in contrast to what John Betjeman called an ‘exalting’ succession of features inside. The interior has wooden galleries supported on square panelled columns, a semi-circular apse with a half dome and a highly decorated plasterwork ceiling.
The church is renowned for its beautiful interior and the organ in the gallery at the west end, which is by Samuel Green and dates from 1788.
The east window is the only surviving painting on glass in a church in the City of London. It was painted by James Pearson in 1788, and depicts Christ’s agony in the Garden of Gethsemane before the crucifixion.
The two smaller windows on either side were originally by the same artist, but they were destroyed in World War II and replaced by modern windows depicting the apostles Saint John and Saint Paul.
Most of the other stained glass in the church is late Victorian, except for the four windows in the lower south aisle, which show incidents in the history of the area, including John Wesley preaching in Moorfields.
Some monuments were preserved from the old church, including the tomb of Anne Packington, who died in 1563.
The east front was demolished in 1831 and the church was shortened to widen Aldersgate Street. This east façade is a screen wall dating from this work in 1831. It is executed in Roman cement, with a pediment and four attached Ionic columns standing on a high plinth, with a Venetian window between them.
The church underwent several restorations in the 19th and 20th centuries, and many of the furnishings are from the late 19th century.
Saint Botolph’s churchyard was combined with those of Saint Leonard, Foster Lane, and Christchurch, Newgate Street, into Postman’s Park in 1880. It now contains the Watts Memorial to Historic Self-Sacrifice, commemorating civilian Londoners who died heroic deaths.
The church was designated a Grade I listed building on 4 January 1950. From the mid-1980s, it was restored by Caroe & Partners. Work on the east front was completed in 2008.
The church is used on Sundays by the London City Presbyterian Church, a congregation of the Free Church of Scotland. During the week, it is used for lunchtime services under the auspices of Saint Helen’s Bishopsgate. It is also the rehearsal venue of the Amati Orchestra.
The church is open weekly from 1 pm for Tuesday lunchtime talks, and from 11 am to 3 pm courtesy of the Friends of the City Churches. Christian Heritage London also runs walking tours in this area of the City, which includes a visit to the building.