Austin Friars | The history of one of London’s lost monasteries
This City of London road was named after a 13th century religious order.
Prior to the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 1530s, the City of London was home to several monastic orders. Although a few buildings were preserved in existing churches, others were demolished and their legacy today is often only a street name. After King Henry VIII established the dramatic religious change so he could marry Anne Boleyn, he swiftly closed a succession of London monasteries. Those shuttered include the Bermondsey Abbey, Blackfriars, Charterhouse Priory (Smithfield), Crutched Friars, Grey Friars, Holywell Priory (Shoreditch), St Bartholomew’s Priory, St. Helen’s priory (Bishopsgate), St Martin’s le Grand, Whitefriars (Fleet Street), among others.
One order within the City of London boundaries was Austin Friars – located in between the present stations of Bank and Liverpool Street. The Austin Friars was an Augustinian order, believed to have arrived in England in the 1260s. They acquired land from two older churches, with St Olave Broad Street apparently being demolished to make way for the friary. Over the years, the friary’s wealth grew, allowing them to gain more land, eventually covering 5.5 acres. The complex was surrounded by a high wall, bordering London Wall, Throgmorton Street and Broad Street. Within their boundaries were a church, accommodation, garden and other buildings for dining and studying. The complex was entered by at least three gates, the main entrance being on Throgmorton Street. The friary was home to about 60 friars by the 13th century and was popular with London’s elite.
On the western edge of the friary, courtier Thomas Cromwell, Earl Of Essex (1485-1540) began leasing a home from the friary in the 1520s. It was a three-storey building with 14 rooms and a garden. By 1532, Cromwell’s power and influence at Henry VIII‘s court had grown so he expanded his Austin Friars home to reflect his rising status. He ended up with a huge property covering 2 acres with another 1.5 acres of garden. A few years later, Austin Friars came to an end in November 1538 during the dissolution of the monasteries. Sir William Paulet, 1st Marquess of Winchester (1483/5-1572), took over the Friars’ house and cloisters and erected a townhouse on the site, which was later demolished in 1844. Two years later, Cromwell’s days at Austin Friars were also over after he was imprisoned and executed for treason and heresy. His house was acquired by the Crown and sold three years later to the Drapers’ Company for their hall, but was burned down in the Great Fire of London of 1666 and rebuilt. Read the rest of this entry
Kings, hills and prisons | The story behind Ludgate in the City of London
The history of Ludgate in the City of London… and does a part of the old gate still exist?
Centuries ago, when London was significantly smaller, the City was enclosed by a wall with several gates providing entrance to the Square Mile. After the population boomed in the Georgian and Victorian era, the capital spilled over the boundaries of the City, spreading east, west, north and south.
One of these City gates was Ludgate – or the Lud Gate – situated on Ludgate Hill. The latter was one of three ancient hills in London, the others being Tower Hill and Cornhill. There have been a few theories about the origins of the name Ludgate. The idea that the gate was named after King Lud (who is claimed to have founded London before the Romans arrived) has been widely discounted. Many historians believe the word derives from the Saxon term ‘hlid-geat’, which means swinging gateway into a city. Another popular theory is Ludgate evolved from Flud-gate – a potential barrier to the flood waters of the nearby Rivers Fleet and Thames.
The first Lud Gate was built around 200AD as an entrance into the fortified Roman settlement of Londinium. It was the most western of all the gates into the city. After the Romans abandoned Londinium in the 5th century, the city was largely uninhabited for several centuries. However, it started being used a settlement again around the 8th century as the old Roman walls provided perfect protection from the frequent Viking invasions.
By the 12th century, the area of Lud Gate has become known as Lutgatestrate. Around 1215, the old Lud Gate was repaired or rebuilt when the wealthy rebel barons captured London and strengthened the walls and gates of the city as they battled King John (1166-1216). In 1260, the gate was apparently repaired again under King Henry III’s (1207-1272) reign, with statues of King Lud and other monarchs added to the façade.
The lonely tower of St Augustine Watling Street: The history of St Paul’s next door neighbour
The story of the former church, which dates back to the 12th century.
Standing just a few feet besides St Paul’s Cathedral is the remains of St Augustine, Watling Street. Today, all that’s left of the Anglican church is the 17th century tower and spire, which has been incorporated into a prep school.
St Augustine, Watling Street dates back to the 12th century when it was built in dedication to St Augustine of Canterbury (d.604). The Benedictine monk was sent to England as a missionary in 597 and converted King Æthelberht of Kent to Christianity. The earliest recording of the church dates back to 1148. Located on the corner of Watling Street and Old Change, the Medieval church was around 61ft long, with a 59ft long extension added in the 13th century. It was partially rebuilt in 1630-31 for £1,200. Writing about its renovation, historian John Snow (1524-1605) called St Augustine “a fair church”, adding “every part of its richly and worthily beautified”.
Prior to the Great Fire of London, St Augustine was one of 109 churches in the City of London. The terrifying blaze of September 1666 ravaged 89 of these, with only 52 being rebuilt. Like most buildings in the City, the Medieval St Augustine was destroyed along with the neighbouring Old St Paul’s Cathedral.
As rebuilding began, the parish of St Augustine was united with St Faith’s, whose congregation had worshipped in the crypt of the cathedral prior to the fire. Sir Christopher Wren (1632-1723) designed a new St Augustine, along with 50 other City churches and the current St Paul‘s Cathedral. The main church was opened in September 1683 and was 51ft long, 45ft wide and 30ft high. An arcade of Corinthian columns separated the nave from the aisles with a barrel vaulted ceiling and three skylights on each side. The interior walls had up to 8ft of panelling, while galleries were erected on the north and west sections of the church. The Portland stone tower was rebuilt in 1680-84, with oculus windows and a belfry, topped with a Baroque parapet, obelisks and pinnacles. It was completed with a lead spire designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor (1661-1736) in 1695-96.
While the church probably sounds lovely to our 21st imaginations, it didn’t impress one 19th century critic. In the 1838 book, ‘The Churches of London: A History of the Ecclesiastical Edifices of the Metropolis’, architect and journalist George Godwin (1813-1888) writes: “The interior of the present church is plain and very small; and consists of a nave and ailes (sic) formed by Ionic columns that carry a waggon-headed ceiling. These columns are raised on exceedingly lofty plinths, which render the height and consequent diameter of the columns so small as to degrade them to mere props and produce altogether a bad effect.” Read the rest of this entry
Visit the Medieval ruins of Whitefriars in the basement of a London office block
The history of the City of London’s Carmelite monastery.
Most Londoners are aware of Blackfriars, as it lends its name to a bridge and busy train and tube station. The name stems from the Dominican Friars – who wore black mantles – who had a priory in the area. Although the Blackfriars priory was closed during the dissolution of the monasteries in 1538, the name remained. However, the names of some of the City of London’s other monasteries and priories weren’t so durable throughout history.
In Medieval London, a number of monastic organisations owned a lot of property in and around the city. After King Henry VIII (1491-1547) ordered the dissolution of the monasteries, a large number in London were closed. Among those shutting their doors were Grey Friars in Newgate Street and Whitefriars at Fleet Street. Grey Friars managed to survive in name after the King gave its 14th century church to the City Corporation and it was renamed Christ Church Greyfriars. After it was destroyed in the Great Fire of London, Sir Christopher Wren (1632-1723) designed its replacement, which hosted worshippers until it was bombed during the Blitz and now its ruins survive as a public garden.
White Friars was a Carmelite religious house which sat between Fleet Street and the River Thames, spreading west to Temple and its eastern boundary at Whitefriars Street. The order was originally founded on Mount Carmel in what is now Israel in 1150. After fleeing the Saracens in 1239, the White Friars travelled to England and established a church on Fleet Street in 1253. Their name White Friars comes from, you guessed it, the colour of their mantles. In 1350, it was replaced by a larger church, rebuilt by Hugh Courtenay, Earl of Devon (1303-1377). The White Friars were popular with nobility and Londoners, with many leaving money to the monastery in their wills. The friars’ extensive grounds included cloisters, a cemetery and garden, along with the church.
After nearly three centuries in the capital, the White Friars monastery was closed by Henry VIII in 1538. The king gave the White Friars chapter house to his physician, Doctor William Butts (1486-1545) as a residence. The king’s son and successor King Edward VI (1537-1553) ordered the church’s demolition and allowed noblemen’s houses to built on the site. One of the few surviving buildings, the refectory of the convent, became the Whitefriars Theatre. Established in 1608, the Jacobean theatre only lasted for around a decade and was thought to have been abandoned by the art scene by the 1620s. The diarist Samuel Pepys (1633-1703) often frequented the establishment and noted his visits in his famous diary. At the time, the surrounding area was pretty notorious, with refugees, prostitutes and debtors known to hide there from the authorities. This bad reputation lasted well into the 19th century, with Charles Dickens writing about the area in the 1830s.
Now, all that remains of the friary is a 14th century cellar or crypt, believed to be part of the priory mansion. It was discovered in 1895, later being restored in the 1920s when the News of the World were developing their Fleet Street offices. After the NotW moved east to Wapping in the 1980s, a new building was constructed on site. During building in 1991, the ruins were lifted up on a crane and replaced in a slightly different location. Today, the basement of 65 Fleet Street features a large window so the ruins can be viewed from Magpie Alley.
- Ruins of Whitefriars, Magpie Alley (off Bouverie Street), City of London, EC4Y 8DP. Nearest station: City Thameslink, Temple or Blackfriars.
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London Stone – the myths and history of this City landmark explored
What is the London Stone and why is it famous?
Many of us have heard the urban myth about the ravens at the Tower of London, claiming the Crown and Britain ‘will fall’ if they leave. However, there’s another old legend tying the capital’s success to a piece of stone.
The London Stone has been a part of the city’s history for centuries, yet so many Londoners haven’t even heard of it. Today, the London Stone stands on bustling Cannon Street, protected from the elements in a display in the wall of a modern office building. The block of oolitic limestone measures 53m x 43cm x 30cm, although was originally much bigger. The London Stone was first recorded in 1100, although its origins are believed to date back much earlier. Some historians believe the stone has been in situ since the Romans occupied London, perhaps being related to the local governor’s palace, which stood on the current site of Cannon Street railway station. It’s also been claimed that King Arthur pulled his sword Excalibur from it.
In Medieval London, it stood on the south side of Candelwrichstrete (Candlewright Street), which was widened to create Cannon Street in the 17th century. It was a popular landmark and listed on many maps of the area. A French visitor to London in 1578 described the Stone as having much larger dimensions of 90cm x 60cm x 30cm. London historian John Stow wrote in 1598 of “a great stone called London stone” adding it was “pitched upright… fixed in the ground verie deep, fastned with bars of iron”. The Stone is even mentioned in William Shakespeare‘s Henry IV, Part II in the 1590s. The scene refers to Jack Cade, leader of the Kentish rebellion in 1450, striking the London Stone with his sword and declaring himself Lord Mayor of London.
Although the reason for the Stone’s reduction in size is not known, it’s highly likely it was damaged during the Great Fire of London in 1666. By 1742, the Stone was considered an obstruction to traffic so was moved to the north side of Cannon Street, beside the door to the Church of St Swithun, London Stone. Fifty-six years later, it was moved again when it was built into the south wall of the Church. It was during the 18th century that it was claimed the success of London depended on the stone’s survival. Georgian writers claimed there was an ‘old saying’ referring to the London Stone’s other name as ‘the Stone of Brutus’. It read: “So long as the Stone of Brutus is safe, so long will London flourish.” In the 1820s, it was relocated a third time when it was set on its own plinth in the middle of the church wall. It was later covered by a protective iron grille at the request of the London and Middlesex Archaeological Society in 1869.
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The ruins of St Alphage | A Medieval church is uncovered on London Wall
Standing on London Wall surrounded by the brutalist concrete of the Barbican estate and 21st century office blocks is a rare piece of Medieval London. Largely hidden in recent decades, the redesign of the highwalk and a new pavement-level garden means Londoners can now see the ruins of St Alphage church.
The original St Alphage (or St Alphege) Church was built slightly north of the current site around the 11th century and adjoined the London Wall. The second church was originally the Priory Church of the St Mary-within-Cripplegate nunnery, which was believed to have been founded before 1000, but had fallen into decay by 1329. While the original church was demolished during the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 1530s under Henry VIII, the Priory Church survived and took on the name St Alphage. It was repaired in 1624, with its steeple rebuilt in 1649. St Alphage was slightly damaged during the Great Fire of London in 1666 and be 1747, the steeple was in such bad condition, the bells couldn’t be rung so four were sold. In 1774, the church was declared unfit for use and was rebuilt at a cost of £1,350, with the tower retained. The new church opened in July 1777.
By the turn of the 20th century, the tower and porch were in poor condition, with the north entrance rebuilt with a neo-Gothic façade by 1913. It was damaged during World War I and repaired in 1919. However, the same year, the church’s fate was sealed for good. The bells went to St Peter’s Church in Acton, west London, with the nave being demolished in 1923. During World War II, the tower was maintained as a base for prayer, although was gutted by a fire in 1940.
As the City of London Corporation started to redevelop the ravaged City during the 1950s, the church’s porch and upper levels of the tower were moved. What remained (and what you see today) were Grade II listed in January 1950. The current structure features a central tower made of flint and rubble and arches on the north, west and east sides. When the London Wall road and the Barbican Centre were constructed in the 1950s, pedestrian access to the ruined church was cut off, while an ugly concrete highwalk didn’t give much of a view of the remains.
In recent years, the highwalk has been redeveloped and some of the 1960s office blocks demolished to make way for more modern 21st century buildings. The new highwalk, unveiled in 2018, is more delicate and gives a great overview of the ruins. Meanwhile, pedestrians can access the remains of St Alphage at street level via a small garden, featuring greenery and concrete block seating.
- St Alphage Garden, City of London, EC2Y. Nearest station: Barbican.
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Jewel Tower | A Medieval survivor of the Palace Of Westminster
The history of the 14th century tower opposite the Houses of Parliament.
When it comes to London’s royal palaces, most of them tend to be rather young, with the oldest parts of Buckingham Palace dating back to 1703 and Clarence House, a few years shy of its 200th anniversary. However, long before the monarch resided at Buck House, the King or Queen had a home in the huge Palace Of Westminster. Today, the title belongs to the Houses of Parliament, the seat of our Government.
Most of the Medieval Palace of Westminster was destroyed by a huge fire in the 1800s, to be rebuilt as the iconic masterpiece, which remains today. However, two buildings managed to survive, the 11th century Westminster Hall, and the 14th century Jewel Tower. Now owned by English Heritage, the diminutive Jewel Tower is open to the public. Recently, I paid a visit to this small, but interesting piece of Medieval London. It’s a small space with the exhibition taking about an hour to see.
The Jewel Tower was built around 1365-6 at the southern end of the Palace of Westminster to house the treasures of King Edward III (1312-1377). The Tower stood at the end of the garden and was protected by a moat to the south and west of the building. It was built under the direction of master mason Henry Yevele (1320-1400) and master carpenter Hugh Herland (1330-1411) on land which had been appropriated from Westminster Abbey, to the chagrin of the monks. The keeper would have worked on the ground or first floor, logging the King’s treasures coming in and going out of the Tower. The most valuable goods were kept on the second floor.
For 150 years, the Tower was used to house the subsequent Kings’ treasures until a fire at the palace in 1512. The building then became home to less valuable items, such as clothing, bed linen, furniture and royal children’s toys, according to an inventory in 1547. In 1600, the building was repurposed for the Government, rather than royals, when it became a parliamentary office. A three-storey timber extension was added to the side of the Tower as a house for the Clerk of the Parliament. The ground floor of the Jewel Tower became the kitchen and scullery, while the first floor was used as a repository for various parliament documents. In 1621, the building was renovated to become more secure to protect the important documents. On the first floor, a brick vault was added with a metal door featuring the year inscribed on the exterior and the cipher of King James I (1566-1625). That very door still exists today and can be seen on your visit.
By the 18th century, the Tower was apparently a bit of a state so work was taken to renovate and improve it. Larger windows and a new chimney were added, while the building was made more fireproof to protect the documents inside. Throughout the century, the Tower was gradually hidden by the buildings popping up around it. By 1827, the House of Lords’ records had been moved out of the Tower because it was too small and it was known as part of Old Palace Yard, with the name Jewel Tower dropping out of use. Read the rest of this entry
Westminster Hall: Stand in some of Britain’s most famous footsteps at Parliament’s oldest building
The history of a Medieval remnant of the old Palace of Westminster.
Whatever your taste in architecture, few Brits would deny the Palace Of Westminster is one of our greatest architectural treasures. While the current buildings mostly date back to the mid 1800s during Sir Charles Barry‘s reconstruction, the oldest part of the building, Westminster Hall, has been there since Medieval times. There has been a palace on the site since the 11th century, although the royals have chosen other properties as their main residences from around the 16th century.
The Hall was first built in 1097 under King William II (1056-1100) and was the biggest hall in England, measuring 73 by 20 metres. However, the stunning hammer-beam roof you see today wasn’t added until 1393. Commissioned by King Richard II (1367-1400) in 1393, it was created by Chief Mason Henry Yevele and carpenter Hugh Herland. The roof is made of oak farmed in Surrey and weighs an impressive 600 tons. Aside from its practical use, the roof also featured decorative angels, with 13 statues of kings dating from Richard back to Edward The Confessor placed in niches along the walls. Six years later, it was under the very roof he commissioned that King Richard was deposed by Henry of Bolingbroke, who went on to become King Henry IV (1367-1413). The deposition went on to be immortalised in Act IV of Shakespeare‘s play Richard II. King Richard later died in prison.
Over the centuries, the Hall was primarily used for early Parliament, legal matters and court cases, with Court of King’s Bench, the Court of Common Pleas and the Court of Chancery based there. The 1875, these courts merged to become the High Court of Justice and met at the Hall until moving to the Royal Courts of Justice in 1882. Notable historical figures to have undergone trial in Westminster Hall included King Charles I, William Wallace, Guy Fawkes and Thomas More. The building has also hosted the lyings-in-state for members of the royal family, such as Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother in 2002, but also a few notable state figures such as Sir Winston Churchill in 1965.
However, the Hall wasn’t just the location for serious functions, many monarchs’ coronation banquets took place between the 12th and 19th century. Addresses during the monarch’s jubilees and during foreign leader’s visits, such as Nelson Mandela and Barack Obama, have also been heard within the Hall.
By the early 19th century, the ageing Hall wasn’t looking too great so architect Sir John Soane (1753-1837) oversaw the dilapidated north façade being completely rebuilt between 1819-1822. Over a decade later, there was more work needed to maintain the crumbling building under Sir Robert Smirke (1780-1867), who replaced the wall facings with a layer of Huddlestone stone and lowered the floor between 1834-1837. During the building works in October 1834, a fire broke out at the Palace of Westminster’s House of Lords Chamber due to an overheated stove. A majority of the 11th century palace complex was destroyed, but the Hall was fortunately saved thanks to a change of direction in the wind and fire-fighting efforts.
After much discussion, a Royal Commission settled on Sir Charles Barry’s (1795-1860) Neo-Gothic design in 1836. The designs incorporated Westminster Hall, with the Palace eventually completed in 1870 – 10 years after Barry died. Under his plans, the grand south window was removed and was replaced by an arch and stairs to St Stephen’s Hall, which remain today. Between 1914-23, the roof was in dire need of repair after the discovery of damage by death-watch beetle, with many trusses replaced and the structure strengthened by hidden steelwork.
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Knights, Shakespeare and lawyers | A visit to London’s Medieval Temple Church
It’s one of the oldest churches in London, but barely known to so many as it’s quietly hidden away amidst the legal buildings of Temple. A stone’s throw from Middle Temple Hall is the 12th century Temple Church. Although the church is usually open on weekdays for a small charge, it also welcomes visitors for free one weekend every September as part of Open House London. For those who don’t know, Open House London is chance for Londoners and tourists to see inside buildings normally off limits to the public, or usually costing to enter, for free.
The name Temple covers an area in the City of London between Fleet Street and the River Thames, east of Aldwych. The name Temple actually stems back to a Medieval group known as the Knights Templar. They comprised of wealthy and powerful soldier monks who protected pilgrims on their way to the Holy Land. Their financial skills were an early form of banking and they were renowned for their fighting during the Crusades. Back in England, they named their headquarters after Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem. Originally based in High Holborn, by the 1160s the Knights Templar found they needed a bigger site for their rapidly expanding organisation and purchased a new site near the Thames, which we now know today at Temple.
The original church was circular – with this now acting as the nave – and was based on the 6th century Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. The church was consecrated in February 1185 by Patriarch Heraclius of Jerusalem (1128-1190/1191) and it is believed King Henry II (1133-1189) was in attendance. The circular church measured 55 feet in diameter. It is believed the walls were painted different colours, while further decoration was provided by the Purbeck Marble columns – now acknowledged to be the oldest, surviving free-standing examples of these today. As well as the church, the Knights Templar also built residences and military training facilities on the surrounding land. Read the rest of this entry
St Bartholomew’s Gatehouse | A rare survivor of 16th century London
The story of how a Tudor façade stayed hidden until World War I.
Thanks to the Great Fire of London and the Blitz, there aren’t many buildings left in the City of London dating back to before the mid 17th century. However, thanks to a stroke of luck – namely a Georgian Londoner who cared little for Tudor architecture – one historic piece of London dating back to the 13th and 16th century still survives today.
Situated on West Smithfield, a stone’s thrown from the historic St Bart’s Hospital, is the St Bartholomew’s Gatehouse. Sandwiched between a French restaurant and a red brick Georgian-style structure, the narrow gatehouse comprises of a 13th century arch, topped by a two-storey, 16th century Tudor building. The name St Bartholomew’s comes from the nearby church St Bartholomew-The-Great, which was formerly an Augustinian Priory, founded by Rahere (d.1134) in 1123 (Rahere is buried in the church). When King Henry VIII (1491-1547) ordered the dissolution of the monasteries, a lot of St Bartholomew’s was demolished in 1539, including the nave, although the Norman crossing and choir still remain today. The original Priory church measured a whopping 300 feet by 86 feet.
Also surviving is part of the west doorway into the southern aisle of the church, an archway dating back to the 13th century. Following the dissolution, Sir Richard Rich, 1st Baron Rich (1496/7-1567) bought the church and surrounding land in 1546/47, sub-dividing it for housing. In 1595, a Tudor, timber-framed building was added by William or Philip Scudamore. The simple, narrow structure features two-storeys with a small attic above. Under the first floor window is a coat of arms. In between the two windows on the second floor is a statue of St Bartholomew, one of the 12 Apostles, who the Priory and adjoining hospital were named after.
Miraculously, the gatehouse managed to survive the Great Fire of London in 1666 due to the protection of the priory walls. The fire actually ended just a three-minute walk away on Giltspur Street and is commemorated by the Golden Boy of Pye Corner. At some point in the 18th century, whoever owned the gatehouse didn’t care much for its ‘old-fashioned’, Tudor façade so it was given a Georgian makeover and was used as a shop for two centuries. (Check out a London Metropolitan Archive of the building in 1912, with the Georgian façade covering the Tudor building).
Finally, in 1916, it was the destructive act of war that ended up uncovering the building’s original design. A nearby German Zeppelin bomb raid caused damage to the Georgian shop front, revealing the Tudor origins underneath and exposing more of the 13th century stonework from the original nave. Following the end of World War I, it was fully restored by 1932 and is now Grade-II listed. If you walk through the arch and turn right to see the doorway leading into the building, you will see ‘1240’ and ‘1932’ inscribed in the stonework – commemorating the year of the arch’s construction and restoration. The interior of the building includes bolection panelling from around 1700, with original panelling dating back to 1595 in the attic. When the building was restored in the 1930s, it was dedicated the memory of architect Sir Aston Webb (1849-1930), his brother Edward Alfred Webb (former churchwarden of St Bart’s) and Frederick L Dove, ‘who worked together on the restoration of the fabric of the church for over forty years’. A plaque to mark their work and the Webbs’ coat of arms has been erected within the gate.
Today, the gatehouse is a private building, but served as the rectory for the church for many years. Between 1948 and 1979, the then-rector’s wife Phyllis Wallbank MBE (1918-2020) set up and ran the Gatehouse School, an independent Montessori school. Obviously due to the size, the building couldn’t educate too many students and it eventually moved to a larger site in Bethnal Green, east London, in the 1970s. Today, the surviving church of St Bartholomew-The-Great is the oldest Parish church in London.
- St Bartholomew’s Gatehouse, West Smithfield, Smithfield, EC1A. Nearest stations: Barbican or Farringdon. The Gatehouse is not open to the public, but can be admired from the outside. For more information about St Bartholomew-The-Great church, visit their official website.
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