Seat of the Church of England, London has a religious history spanning thousands of years. With the dominating presence of St. Paul’s Cathedral and Westminster Abbey, it’s easy to miss out on some of the city’s smaller spires. With multitudes of awe-inspiring churches in the capital, we profile five churches full of history, architectural beauty, and spiritual significance.
St Pancras Old Church
Behind St Pancras station is St. Pancras Old Church, a charming village church and public garden. Recognized as a parish since the 9th century when its location was considered a village north of London, this church has a quaint and peaceful feel. Though its foundations are medieval, the building sports a deceptively Victorian exterior due to some of the extensive renovations undertaken in 1847 by architects Gough and Roumieu. St. Pancras may appear charming, but it has a rather dark history riddled with scandal. During the 17th century, it organized illegal marriages, was favored as a prime spot for duelling, and served as the site of a vicar’s arrest under charges of debt. Later on, the church merged with St-Giles-in-the-Fields – a graveyard supposedly favoured as a resting place for murderers, blackmailers, and thieves. The church holds the splendid tomb of Sir John Soane, the celebrated architect of the Lincolns Inn Fields Museum and the Dulwich Picture Gallery. For those interested in Dickensian London, St. Pancras Old Church is also mentioned in A Tale of Two Cities, where it is featured as the burial place of an Old Bailey spy who was later stolen by body snatchers.
Between London Bridge and the Tower of London on St. Dunstan’s Hill is the Church of England parish church, St. Dunstan-in-the-East. The church was originally built in 1100, but suffered severe damage during the Great Fire of London in 1666. In 1817, the weight of the roof proved to be too much for the structure and it caved. The rest of the church was mostly destroyed in the blitz of the Second World War, and now stands in ruin. But the public garden, officially opened in 1971, is the perfect place to find nature and calm in the city.
St James’s Church
On Piccadilly sits a small gem by the name of St James’s Church. Situated on a virgin site, St. James’s was commissioned by Henry Jermyn, the Earl of St. Alban, a courtier to King Charles II, and construction of the building of was entrusted to Christopher Wren. Consecrated in 1684, St James’s Church was built out of plain brick with Portland stone dressings and round-headed windows. Its gallery of clear-glass windows light the white walls of the church gently and illuminate the outstanding works of art it holds, such as the reredos. Its beauty incited claims by John Evelyn that there was ‘no altar anywhere in England, nor has there been abroad, more handsomely adorned’. Along with this stunning altar is an exceptional Renatus Harris organ, given to the church by Queen Mary in 1691, and works by the Dutch maritime painter Van de Velde. St. James’s is also a venue for concerts, exhibitions and talks, as well as for weekly events: Piccadilly Market, which sells food on Mondays (11am-5pm), antiques and collectables on Tuesdays (10am-6pm), and arts and crafts Wednesdays to Saturday (10am-6pm).
St. Bartholomew the Great
Behind St. Bartholomew’s Hospital stands St. Bartholomew the Great. Founded by Rahere, a former jester at Henry I’s court, this Augustinian priory was founded after he returned from Rome. After many years of dispute, the hospital and the priory separated from the church in 1420. The church fell into disrepair, financing itself by housing a number of secular craftsmen such as blacksmiths and carpenters in its transepts and sacristies until the 19th century when these crafts were expelled due to the renovations at hand. Today, St. Bartholomew-the-Great’s dark interior is laden with a great stone choir, along with a row of massive pillars supporting its many round arches. Alongside its minimal decoration, this church serves as an excellent example of Norman architecture. A fantastic respite from the bustling city streets, the church has also been featured in several films, such as Four Weddings and a Funeral, Shakespeare in Love, The Other Boleyn Girl, and Sherlock Holmes.
Westminster Cathedral is a stunning neo-Byzantine church located at the top of Victoria Street. It was first constructed under the third archbishop Cardinal Vaughn in 1895, and executed by the architect John Francis. Inside, the vaulted ceilings are decorated with ornate neo-Byzantine mosaics that remain visually arresting despite a general lack of light. This cathedral is also celebrated for its emergence in contemporary religious politics; the Queen visited in 1977 for a flower show in celebration of her Silver Jubilee, and again in 1995 as the first reigning monarch in the UK to visit a Catholic church liturgy for many years. Moreover, this church was marked by Pope Benedict XVI’s arrival for Mass in 2010. This spectacular church is well worth the visit, boasting impressive views of south-west London from the top of its tower for only £5.