Our class has had quite the busy and exciting week. As my classmates have said, we visited Westminster Abbey and Oxford on Monday and Tuesday. Over the course of the past few days, we scattered ourselves across London to visit various churches with longstanding histories.
All of the eight churches were located in the area of London slightly further east of Big Ben and Westminster Abbey. The area was the old city of London; the original city of London. Today, it is home to the financial district, although there are monuments attesting to London’s spectacularly long and old history throughout this area.
Overall, the entire city is full of monuments that attest to its incredibly long existence; London has lasted through every century since its creation despite fire or high water (or plague). These monuments are everywhere, and it’s amazing to walk down the street and be constantly reminded of its past.
Each student in class was assigned a particular church within the area and then we were to report on it. The students visited St. Giles’ Cripplegate, Saint Sepulchre-without-Newgate, St. Helen’s and St. Ethelburga the Virgin Church; St. Michael Pasternoster Royal, St. Olave’s and St. Bride’s, as well as St. Katherine Creechurch.
So, you may ask what common theme among all of these churches is. The answer: their foundations lie in the Middle Ages. Their histories reach back as far as the ninth century, and they began to flourish thereafter. For example, St. Giles’ was a Saxon church just outside of the Roman city in about 1000 AD. Saint Sepulchre-without-Newgate was a church from around the mid-ninth century. Each one dates back hundreds of years, and the value of visiting them is to gather a better understanding of medieval religion in London.
The majority of these churches are not actually medieval anymore. London underwent a series of disastrous events, from the plague, to the Great Fire, to bombings from war and internal conflict. However, a few still maintain quite a lot of their medieval past, such as St. Olave’s. Many do not. St. Helen’s was completely damaged from two bombs and the fire, and has been rebuilt numerous times. St. Katherine Creechurch, which I visited, is similar in that it has undergone total reconstruction. Today, the only thing that remains is a small pillar, no taller than my waist, now painted blue and almost unnoticeable next to a desk and a lamp.
Although the visits did not yield copious amounts of medieval artifacts, they did demonstrate something else. Every single part of London is reminiscent of its past. It can be a small pillar, or in the case of St. Olave’s, it can be the medieval walls or the outside courtyard, which was actually a huge gravesite for victims of the plague. Today, stairs lead from the yard into the church because the amount of bodies was so high that the level of ground eventually became elevated. Such examples show a building, a piece of stone, or a small trinket carries a huge amount of history. These medieval churches were eventually affected by outside factors, often not relating to religion or theology, and although today they are religious artifacts, they represent the entirety of London’s past simply because they have survived through so many years, and consequently, so many events. Each small surviving piece has its own story that we can learn from.
The churches that we visited are examples of this idea: that London is living its history even today. In order to even attempt to experience the middle ages in the United States, we physically have to go to the recreated Medieval Times, or (although it’s not the medieval era) the Renaissance Faire. In England, all you have to do is walk from your flat to the tube or from the tube to a restaurant. The men and women working in the financial district walk along roads and pass bricks that have existed since the Middle Ages, and some since the Roman city.
Sometimes it can be easy to forget how old and precious a city actually is. Luckily, in London, you are reminded of it everywhere.