16 August 2022

All Hallows Church by the
Tower of London claims it is
London’s oldest Church

All Hallows by the Tower claims to be the oldest church in the City of London (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Patrick Comerford

Two of us spent a few hours in the City of London one evening last week, and we found time to visit a number of City churches, including All Hallows by the Tower. This church claims to be the oldest church in the City of London, although recent research questions these claims.

The church was founded by the Abbey of Barking in the year 675, 300 years before the Tower of London was built. At one time it was dedicated jointly to All Hallows (All Saints) and the Virgin Mary and at times it was also known as All Hallows Barking.

The origin and early history of All Hallows-by-the-Tower are obscure. The Anglo-Saxon abbey in Barking was founded by Earconwald or Erkenwald, along with Chertsey Abbey, before he became Bishop of London in 675. It has been claimed that the land on which All Hallows stands was granted at the time to the abbey, under Abbess Ethelburga, Bishop Erkenwald’s sister.

A charter dated 687 lists properties belonging to Barking Abbey, including two pieces of land in or near London. Neither description, however, accurately describes the location of All Hallows’ Church, inside the wall of the Roman city on the eastern side.

An arch from the Saxon church can still be seen today. In the crypt beneath is a second century Roman pavement, discovered in 1926, evidence of city life on this site for almost 2,000 years.

The proximity of the church to the Tower of London gave it many royal connections (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

According to Domesday Book in 1086, Barking Abbey possessed ‘28 houses and half a church’ in London: although the church is not named, it is usually identified with All Hallows.

All Hallows’ Church was already known as ‘Berkyncherche’ in the 12th century. The church was expanded and rebuilt several times between the 11th and 15th centuries, with elements of the Norman, 13th century and 15th century constructions still visible today.

The proximity of the church to the Tower of London gave it many royal connections, and Edward IV made one of its chapels a royal chantry.

At the time of the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1539, the church belonged to Barking Abbey.

The church become the temporary burial place for a number of distinguished people after their executions on Tower Hill (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

The church became the location for the temporary burial of a number of distinguished people following their executions on Tower Hill, including Sir Thomas More, Bishop John Fisher and Archbishop William Laud. Archbishop William Laud remained buried in a vault in the chapel for over 20 years until his body was moved after the Caroline Restoration to Saint John’s College, Oxford.

The church was badly damaged by an explosion in 1650, caused when some barrels of gunpowder stored in a warehouse beside the church exploded. The west tower and 50 nearby houses were destroyed, and there were many deaths.

The tower was rebuilt in 1658, the only example of work carried out on a church during the Commonwealth era of 1649-1660.

The Great Fire of London in 1666 started in Pudding Lane, a few hundred metres from the church. All Hallows survived through the efforts of Admiral William Penn, father of William Penn of Pennsylvania. Penn and his friend Samuel Pepys, watched London burn from the tower of the church. Samuel Pepys described it as ‘the saddest sight of desolation.’

The church was rebuilt after World War II and was rededicated in 1957 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

The church was restored once more in the late 19th century, but it suffered extensive bomb damage during World War II and only the tower and the walls remained.

The vicar at the time (1922-1962) was the Revd Philip TB ‘Tubby’ Clayton, founder of the Toc H movement, and the church is still the guild church of Toc H.

Clearance work after the bombing revealed an archway built of reused Roman tiles and stonework, set in a surviving wall of the mediaeval church. The reuse of Roman building materials, and comparison with arches in an early Anglo-Saxon church at Brixworth, Northamptonshire, suggested that the All Hallows arch was very early in date, and that an earlier church could have been built as early as the seventh century.

Fragments of three 11th-century stone crosses were also found during archaeological work in the 1930s.

The church was rebuilt after the war. It was designated a Grade I listed building in 1950 and was rededicated in 1957.

Samuel Pepys watched the Great Fire of London from the tower of the church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Many portions of the old church survived World War II and have been sympathetically restored. The outer walls are 15th-century, with the Saxon arch doorway surviving from the original church.

Many brasses remain in the interior. Three outstanding wooden statues of saints dating from the 15th and 16th centuries can also be found in the church. The Baptismal font cover was carved in 1682 by Grinling Gibbons for £12, and is one of the finest pieces of carving in London.

The reredos at the High Altar reredos is a post-war mural by Brian Thomas.

The church museum in the crypt displays portions of a Roman pavement and many artefacts discovered below the church in 1926-1927. The exhibits include Saxon and religious artefacts and the 17th century church plate.

The altar in the crypt is of plain stone from the castle of Richard I at Athlit in the Holy Land.

Many prominent people are associated with All Hallows’ Church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Prominent people associated with All Hallows’ Church include:

• Cardinal John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, beheaded at the Tower, buried 1535
• Sir Thomas More, beheaded at the Tower, 1535
• Bishop Lancelot Andrewes, Caroline divine, baptised, 1555
• William Penn, Quaker founder of Pennsylvania, baptised on 23 October 1644
• Archbishop William Laud of Canterbury, beheaded at the Tower, buried 1645
• Samuel Pepys, watched the Great Fire of London from the church tower, 1666
• Judge Jeffreys, notorious ‘hanging judge’, married 1667
• John Quincy Adams, sixth President of the US, and Louisa Catherine Johnson married 1797
• Albert Schweitzer recorded organ music at All Hallows
• Philip ‘Tubby’ Clayton, founder of Toc H, Vicar 1922-1962
• Cecil Jackson-Cole, founder of Help the Aged, Action Aid, co-founder of Oxfam

All Hallows has connections with many city livery companies (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

All Hallows has connections with many livery companies and the Vicar, the Revd Katherine Hedderly, is chaplain to:

• The Worshipful Company of Bakers, with a history dating back over 800 years, holds its annual Thanksgiving Service and Carol Service at All Hallows.

• The Company of Watermen and Lightermen, established in 1555 to regulate watermen and wherrymen carrying passengers on the River Thames. The company organises an annual race on the Thames, and holds its annual installation service and its Carol Service at All Hallows.

• The Worshipful Company of World Traders, one of the modern Livery Companies, was granted livery status in 2000. The company’s annual Thanksgiving Service and Christmas Carol service are held in the church.

All Hallows by the Tower, together with Saint Olave’s Hart Street, is the Ward Church of the Tower Ward of the City of London.

The Knollys Rose Ceremony, held annually in June, starts at the church and processes to the Mansion House, where a single rose is presented to the Lord Mayor as a ‘quit rent.’ The parish annual Beating of the Bounds ceremony includes a boat trip to the middle of the Thames to ‘beat’ the water that forms the southern boundary.

The Revd Katherine Hedderly is the Vicar of All Hallows. She has been an Associate Vicar for Ministry at Saint Martin in the Fields. She has a background in the film and television business. She is also Area Dean to the City, chairing the Deanery Synod.

The Parish Eucharist is celebrated in All Hallows’ Church at 11 am each Sunday, and services are held in the church throughout the week.

All Hallows by the Tower claims to be the oldest church in the City of London (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

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