St Olave Southwark

Another in the series on historic churches in the City of London …

By the time of the Great Fire of London in 1666, there were over a hundred parish churches and other places of Christian worship within and immediately without the walls of  the City. To be precise, according to  Parish Clerks’ records, there were 97 churches within the walls of the City, and 16 without, making a total of 113. 

St Olave Southwark (“S. Tovolles” on sixteenth-century “Agas” map/Map of early Modern London) was originally built at least as long ago as the late eleventh century, that is, not long after the martyrdom of St Olaf in 1030.  At this time it was  owned by the Warenne Earls of Surrey and later by the Priors of Lewes.  It was subsequently repaired after having been damaged by a flood in 1327. In his “Survey of London” of 1598, Stow referred to it as a “faire and metely large church”.  By then, though, it had been stripped of many of its treaures during the Protestant Reformation, by which time they had come to be seen as superstitious or  idolatrous.    As Richard Tames put it, in his estimable “Southwark Past” (Historical Publications, 2001), “ …  between 1546 and 1552 [during the reign of Edward I], … books in Latin, a fine monstrance and much plate were sold off, and images of saints, the rood screen and the churchyard cross were taken down.  Altars were replaced by a communion table”.  And later, “A final stripping of the altars  followed under … Elizabeth”.

The church was unaffected by the Great Fire of London of 1666, and by the Great Fire of Southwark in 1676 (it is not known whether or not it was affected by two earlier fires in Southwark, in 1212 and 1390). However, it suffered a partial collapse in 1740, and had to be substantially rebuilt afterwards, in the Classical style, by Henry Flitcroft. 

The rebuilt church was then almost destroyed by a  fire in 1843, and itself had to be rebuilt after that, only to be demolished in 1926. 

The art deco St Olaf House stands on the site today. On the south-west corner of the building is a mosaic depicting a slimline Olaf, who in his lifetime was known as “the Fat”.

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