January 4th – On this day in 1650, twenty-seven barrels of gunpowder stored by the church of All Hallows by the Tower exploded, destroying fifty houses, including the “Rose Tavern”, where the parish dinner was being held, and killing sixty-seven people (de Loriol).
The church was originally built in the Saxon period, and considerably added to in the Medieval. It was undamaged in the Great Fire of 1666, thanks to the action of Admiral General Sir William Penn Senior, who ordered the blowing-up of some surrounding buildings to create a firebreak, although it nonetheless required to be rebuilt by Pearson in the late nineteenth century. It was then gutted by bombing in the Blitz of 1940-41, when “the tower of the church acted like a chimney, drawing the flames upwards and intensifying them” and “wood blazed, stones calcinated, lead poured down walls and the bells melted”, and rebuilt again by Lord Mottistone in a “happy blend” of Ancient and Neo-Perpendicular styles, and rededicated in 1957.
A fine stone Saxon arch of 675, incorporating Roman tiles, survives, in the nave; together with, in the crypt, two stone crosses, one of 900 and the other of 1000 (the former plain and simple, and bearing a Runic inscription; and the latter beautifully and intricately carved, and bearing a symbolic depiction of Christ over beasts).
Among the many surviving Medieval to post-Medieval features are: substantial sections of tiled floor; an altar table of stone from the Crusaders’ castle at Atlit below Mount Carmel in the Holy Land; a fine Flemish painted panelled altar-piece, known as the Tate Panel, dating to at least the fifteenth century;
numerous sculptures, including a carved wooden one of St James of Compostella, dating to the fifteenth century, and a carved ivory one of Christ salvaged from the flagship of the Spanish Armada in 1588;
numerous monuments, including the Croke chest, dating to around 1477, and brasses;
and the seventeenth-century tower, from which Samuel Pepys watched the Great Fire of 1666 (noting in his diary entry for Wednesday 5th September, “I up to the top of Barkinge steeple, and there saw the saddest sight of desolation I ever saw”).
Also of note are the exquisitely intricately carved lime-wood font-cover by Grinling Gibbons, dating to 1682;
the pulpit, originally from St Swithin London Stone, also dating to 1682; a series of ornamental sword-rests, dating to the eighteenth century; and, among the Curiosa, numerous large model ships suspended in the south aisle.
On a macabre note, many prisoners executed at the nearby Tower of London are buried here, including Thomas More, Archbishop William Laud and Bishop John Fisher. William Penn Junior, the founder of Pennsylvania, was baptised here.
The church is visited on our “London Wall” and “Tower to Temple” standard walks, and also on our “Dark Age [Anglo-Saxon] London”, “Medieval London”, “Medieval City highlights” and “Lost City highlights” themed specials.
Further details of all our walks are available in the “Guided Walks” section of this web-site.
This blog posting forms part of my occasional series on all the City of London Churches with surviving Medieval features. My postings on the others may be found by clicking the links below