The Five Oldest Church in London

When it comes to ancient architecture, the oldest buildings in most cities are usually churches and cathedrals.

While London has a history dating back almost 2,000 years, unfortunately most of it’s churches were lost in the Great Fire in 1666.

And in a double-whammy, some of those which survived were then destroyed in the Blitz during the Second World War or to modern redevelopment.

While all of this has meant London has become the fantastic modern city that we’ve come to know and love, it does mean that we’ve lost some great old buildings.

However, this is also testament to those that have survived, and we’ve picked out five of the capital’s oldest churches which are still standing for you to go and check out nowadays.

It’s important to note however that many of these churches have been heavily refurbished and partially destroyed over the years, they’ve all stood since the years stated (without being fully rebuilt).

St Olave Hart Street – 1450

St Olave Hart Street

This church was initially built in the 13th century when it was known as St Olave-towards-the-Tower, dedicated to the patron saint of Norway, King Olaf II.

It was a favourite place of worship of the diarist Samuel Pepys, and he and his wife Elizabeth are both buried in the nave of the church.

The present building was erected in 1450, and survived the Great Fire in 1666 thanks to Sir William Penn (whose son would found Pennsylvania) and his men from the local naval yard.

Penn actually ordered his men to blow up local houses to create a firebreak to protect the church, showing just how valued these buildings were!

The men were ultimately successful though, as the flames came within 100 yards of the church, before the wind changed direction and saved the building from destruction.

The church was also gutted by German bombers in the 1941, before being restored in 1954 and nowadays is open to visitors from 9:00am until 5:00pm.

As an honourable mention, St Sepulchre-without-Newgate was also built in 1450, and is one of the bigger churches in the city.

It is opposite the Old Bailey and is perhaps most well known as housing the “bells of Old Bailey” referenced in the nursery rhyme Oranges and Lemons.

St Giles-without-Cripplegate – 1394

St Giles-without-Cripplegate

This Church of England church was built just outside the city wall, next to the Cripplegate, hence the name (without means outside).

It was initially built in the 11th century before the current building was constructed in 1394, with the stone tower being added in 1682.

While it survived the fire of 1666, it has been severely damaged on three other occasions, from fires in 1545 and 1897 and from an air raid during the Blitz in 1940.

The church was extensively damaged following the bombing, but using plans from the 1545 reconstruction is completely restored.

You can visit the church, which is found in three Barbican complex between 11:00am and 4:00pm on weekdays.

St Helen’s Church, Bishopsgate – 1210

St Helen’s Church, Bishopsgate

Not only is St Helen’s one of the oldest surviving churches in the City of London, but it is also the largest, and contains more monuments than any other church in London (except Westminster Abbey of course).

The church was designed with two parallel naves, which is why is it is so much wider than a usual church, and it was actually divided in two at one point, with half serving the nuns and the other half serving the parishioners (it is also the only nunnery still standing in the City of London).

Among the more famous parishioners of this church was William Shakespeare who lived nearby in the 1590s.

While it survived both the fire and the Blitz, the church was actually damaged as recently as 1992 and 1993, both times by nearby IRA bombs, destroying many of its older monuments and shattering one of the largest surviving stained glass windows from the medieval period.

You’ll have to get up early if you want to visit St Helen’s, as it is only open to visitors from 9:30am to 12:30pm.

St Bartholomew-the-Great – 1123

St Bartholomew-the-Great

This church (often shortened to Great St Bart’s) was built in 1123 and adjoins the St Bartholomew’s Hospital which still operates today.

As with most of these ancient churches, St Bart’s has had its fair share of ups and downs and was ransacked and partially demolished in 1542 during the Dissolution of the Monasteries.

While it then went on to survive the Great Fire, the church then fell into a state of disrepair and was occupied by squatters in the 18th century!

It was restored in the 19th century, and survived the Blitz, and can now be visited from 8:30am until 4:00pm.

All Hallows-by-the-Tower – 675

All Hallows-by-the-Tower

Finally, All Hallows-by-the-Tower is believed to be the oldest surviving church in London, and overlooks the Tower of London on Byward Street.

The church was founded in 675, and while it has obviously undergone extensive restoration since then, it still contains an Anglo-Saxon arch from the time which we believe qualifies it to take the crown as London’s oldest church!

Thanks to its proximity to the Tower of London, this church was frequented often where beheading victims were sent for a temporary burial!

In 1666 the church was saved from the fire by the same firebreak that Sir William Penn set up to save St Olave Hart Street, and Samuel Pepys actually climbed the church’s spire to survey the damage being caused by the blaze.

The church underwent restoration in the 19th century but was then further damaged during the Blitz and wasn’t fully reopened until 1957.

Despite all the damage and restoration, many ancient statues and artefacts still exist, and the walls of the church themselves date back to the 15th century.

The church nowadays has a virtual tour or a traditional guided tour to show you all the historic sights of the ancient church, and opening hours are between 8am and 5pm.

To explore more Churches together with an expert guide, join one of of London’s Free Tours.