Citywalk: Churches of London

There seems to be an abundance of churches in London. The square mile area of the City of London alone counts over 40 churches. As I had planned for a citywalk after visiting the Tower of London, I armed myself with Google Maps and an umbrella to enjoy this friday afternoon.

As the name states, All Hallows at the Tower is a must-see stop right next to the Tower. This small church is one of the oldest in London, it was built in the Ango-Saxon era in 675 on a former Roman site. It has seen many alterations, mainly in the Romanesque style. It suffered quite some destruction in WWII, as many of the churches in this area. A large part of the building has been rebuilt, like the roof.

Old walls and original Anglo-Saxon arch, and new in the interior of All Hallows ©MedievalMonologues
Anglo-Saxon foundation upon a Roman paveway at the crypt ©MedievalMonologues
Upper half of a Celtic cross, found after WWII, dated to 900AD ©MedievalMonologues

Located a little further westward in the City is St. Dunstan-in-the-East and is one of the most beautiful sites, perhaps more so because it is hidden between modern buildings and is a small haven in the bustling City. Built in ca. 1100 as gothic cathedral, it suffered severe damage in the Great Fire of London in 1666. After being almost completely destroyed by bombs in WWII, it is more of a ruin than a church. Only the tower remained intact. Nowadays it has been transformed to a public garden. If I was working in the City, I would be taking lunch here everyday. It is beautiful!

Weathered walls and arches of St. Dunstan-in-the-east ©MedievalMonologues

I had some time to spare before I needed to board the Eurostar back to Holland on Sunday. Since the weather was sunny, I went for a stroll. At an ideal spot for travelers, St. Pancras Old Church is located at a 10 minute walk behind the station. Situated on a small hill in park this little church was basking in the sun. Although it is inconclusive when it was exactly built, it has it’s origins in the dedication to the Roman martyr St. Pancras and was most likely founded before the Norman conquest. As it has been added on, rebuilt and expanded many times, the interior is a bit of an odd collection of styles, but the exterior is most charming.

St. Pancras Old Church ©MedievalMonologues

Off course, today I show you only a few examples. I hope to visit London many times and see more of the churches and cathedrals it has to offer. What surprised me is that many are still active churches in the London communities. People are really proud of the buildings and make good effort to preserve them. They have been there for a 1000 years, and hopefully will still be there in the future.

>> If you are on a budget, citywalks are an ideal way to explore London. There is so much to see! The area of the City of London offers a lot to explore by foot: many churches, St. Paul’s, gardens, Leadenhall Market, Guildhall and Guildhall Museum, the Monument, and the Thames. <<

Gothic gem at London’s southbank: Southwark Cathedral

During my stay in London I visited several churches, but Southwark Cathedral deserves a dedicated blog. This beautiful building is hemmed in between several very modern buildings and streets, but is not to be overlooked by medieval history fans.

Officially known today as the Cathedral and Collegiate Church of St. Saviour and St. Mary Overie, it stands at the oldest crossing point at the Thames. References go back as far as the Domesday Book of 1086, although it is believed there was a community on this site long before that in the 7th century.

In 1106 it was refounded by the Bishop of Winchester as an Augustinian priory. It was dedicated to St. Mary, and later became known as St. Mary Overie (‘over the river’). During the reign of Henry VIII the building was rented to a congregation, after the Dissolution of the Monasteries (1539). In the 17th century a group of merchants bought the church from King James I for a mere £800. It served as a parrish not only to merchants, but also courtiers, actors, craftsmen and the (in)famous ladies of the Southwark brothels. In 1905 it became Southwark Cathedral and now consists of 300 parishes in the London area.

If it ever was the goal to design a Gothic cathedral to capture the divine light, it was certainly achieved here. Today I was lucky enough to see the winter sunrays cast a beautiful light through the arches. After I was welcomed by a lovely lady of the church and purchased a £1 photograph permit, I was captivated by the lightfall. Simply divine, isn’t it?

Beautiful lightfall shines through the Southwark Cathedral arcs ©MedievalMonologues

In the north choir aisle you will find a wooden effigy for a knight, carved in minute detail. Usually carved from stone, it is similar to effigies of the period of ca. 1280 considering his mail coat and coif. His identity is unknown, but it could be a member of the Warenne family who had strong ties to the church. This lonely knight’s effigy is in excellent condition.

Wooden effigy for a knight ca. 1280 ©MedievalMonologues

The most famous resident to have lived in Southwark has his own memorial: William Shakespeare. Even dear Will is happy that it’s almost spring again. He is holding fresh twigs in his hand and is contemplating a sonnet on summer, untill he can compare thee to a summer’s day and rough winds shake the darling buds of May.

William Shakespeare memorial in Southwark Cathedral ©MedievalMonologues

This was a £1 well spent, it was a very good day for taking photographs, even with my phone. I would like to invest sometime in a real camera, but that’s going to cost me a lot more than £1!

>> Take the tube to London Bridge station and walk through Borough Market – a fabulous and busy foodmarket. After your visit take a stroll along the Southbank area to see great Thames views and landmarks. <<

Southwark Cathedral as seen from the garden against the blue winter sky © MedievalMonologues

The Tower of London – we meet again

After 7,5 years I decided it was about time to visit the Tower of London again. This weekend I set out early morning, armed with my online bought ticket. Expecting a crowd, I was hoping to enter early and get a better view than last time. However, the amount of visitors was a direct result of the dreary and cold weather. I was actually first in queue, together with two ladies. When the gates opened, I walked into an empty Tower of London.

No elbows, no overexcited kids, no stressed out mums, no Babylonic confusion of tongues, no chaotic crowds, …. Wow! It is no nice to be able to take your time and take a good look around. As usual I just like to walk around a bit, just to soak up the surroundings and get a general impression, before I follow the map and routings.

Empty streets at the Tower of London ©MedievalMonologues

Initially founded by William the Conquerer 10 years after the Norman conquest, with the building of the imposing and dominating White Tower, his successors added towers, walls, fortifications and a moat. Many changes have been made in centuries of history, as is reflected in the many different styles of the towers and buildings. I especially liked the Medieval Palace. This part was added in the 13th century by king Henry III (r. 1216-1272) and his son Edward I (r. 1272-1307). It actually consists of several buildings: St. Thomas’s Tower, the Wakefield Tower and the Lanthorn Tower.

Details of the reconstructed Council Chamber with throne in the Medieval Palace ©MedievalMonologues
Wall and entrance to Lanthorn Tower ©MedievalMonologues

The White Tower now shows the Royal Armory collection. In historical order along the Line of Kings you can admire the armour for men and horse. No armour was made for Queens. I guess ladies don’t dress in a tin can and ride to war. Maybe that’s why some of the queens reigned for such a long time. It seems that harness was far from comfortable to wear, even if it could move at the joints, but preferred to being skewered in the field. It’s the warhorses that I respect most, they must have been so strong to carry all that extra weight. How different history – and today – would be like if there were no horses to fight all those wars.

Detail of the White Tower wall © MedievalMonologues

After reading ‘The Ravenmaster’ by Yeoman Warder Christopher Skaife, caretaker of the ravens, I really wanted to see the ravens at the Tower. There was a little patch of snow left near the raven’s pen, and apparently some ravens are quite fond of snow. Nothing like a good roll in the snow to clean your feathers. I watched it for some time, and I never saw a bird enjoying himself so much. I absolutely adore these cheeky, intelligent birds. I filmed it with my phone. Not the best of films, I admit, but nevertheless I want to share it with you:


The Crown Jewels are the least appealing part for me, but perhaps a second visit would change that. It seemed a waste to not profit from the total absence of queues. Last time it was so crowded that you could only squeeze through the escalator and barely could get a view. Now, it was completely empty. Together with a handfull of visitors I walked around twice and tried to be impressed. Although beautiful (I’m like a magpie: if it’s shiny, I’ll like it) – I can’t really appreciate it. It is too much value, just sitting there, representing power, at the cost of what ? I half expected, or hoped, for Moriarty to turn up and pose in the Crown jewels. That would have been a sight!

After a well spent friday morning, I set out for a walking tour along the City of London’s churches. Next to the Tower of London, you’ll find All Hallows at the Tower, one of the oldest churches in the City of London.

>> Plan your visit to the Tower of London. Go early, book your ticket online to save £4  and spend 2-3 hours (4 if your in queue for the Crown Jewels during seasonal peaks) <<
Old and new towers blending in almost flawlessly © MedievalMonologues

The Tower of London – we meet at last

[This blog post was written in 2011 – I always liked it, so saved it to post today]

Although I have been to London several times, I had yet to see the Tower of London. Not wanting to be the tourist, who consumes culture like fastfood at McDonalds: fast, barely cooked, not satisfying at all, I sought out my own must-see spots in London instead of following the main course. This time however, I decided to do London in true tourist-style.

So I took the tube to Tower Hill and as I walked to the Tower entrance, I got a good view of the entire building…….. why, o why had I not visited sooner? It is a massive and magnificent site to behold, it made my heart beat a little faster with excitement. I took a few minutes to take it all in, whereafter I rushed to the ticketbox. Luckily, I studied the website before I left for London, and had the good sense to buy my tickets online. Instead of standing in line for quite some time, it took me 3 minutes to get in.

After a loud welcome by one of the Yeoman Warders, who was entertaining the crowd with stories of olde, I finally was inside the castle walls. And with me a large horde of men, women and children from all the nations of the world. Now how was I going to experience history with this cacophony all around me? In my mind I found the answer: just pretend it is a medieval city on market day, also overcrowded, loud and unevitable.

The Bloody Tower had the honour of being the starting point of my tour. Although it displays several torture devices, it is not certain the actual torturing took place here. The Tower held it’s share of prisoners, but for ‘questioning’ they were often transported to another, unknown site (the word Guantanamo Bay came to mind….). In this part of the exhibition it is stressed that torture is but a very small part of the Tower’s history. Unfortunately, it is also a topic that lets the imagination run wild and has put it’s mark on the Tower’s reputation.

After viewing some of the smaller towers at the wall walk on the castle walls, with a nice view of the Thames river, I arrived at the White Tower. Being in the middle of the complex, it really stands out. The exhibition ‘Fit for a King’ shows the armour of both kings and their horses. It is displayed smartly, in a timeline of kings, starting with William I the Conqueror. This really adds to the sense that England has a long line of kings and a long, and violent, history. It also immediately shows it weakness: it is a male-centered display, where the illustrious Queens are not mentioned at all. But I must say: it is a most impressive sight, all these harnesses show great craftmanship. It also shows that people indeed are shorter than today, our Conqueror would perhaps not be so impressive a man today. And just for the fun of it I compared the harness of Henry VIII as a young man, and a harness of his in his early fifties. The poor man must at least have doubled in size! The younger Henry VIII might have been an impressive knight, you’d certainly not want the older bull-like Henry VIII as your opponent.

In the afternoon I finally dared to queue for the Crown Jewels, since this was the first time since the line seemed to get smaller instead of growing by the minute. Once inside, you’re being led to some filmed introductions of the Crown Jewels. Mixed with footage of the coronation of Elizabeth II and George VI, together with images of former Kings and Queens, I could not help but almost feel patriottic myself. Here, again, you got the sense of the 1000 year’s span of history of this nation. After waiting for some time, I finally entered the vault. Much to my surprise, one has to step on a runway as one is transported along the Crown Jewels. I assume it has to prevent large crowds gathering at the Jewels, but I had the weird sensation of actually being in some kind of tourist-processing factory. You need to look fast and say your oooh’s and aaaah’s quickly, for the ride takes no more than a minute. Perhaps that is enough, after all, how much splendour can a person endure?

I had hoped to save the best part for last, the Medieval Palace. On the square I was looking around for a large building, since ‘palace’ implies large in my world. It proved to be a series of smaller building near the castle walls. There was not that much to be seen, than the reconstructed bedroom of Edward I. I’m sure it is a true enough reconstruction, colourfull and rich, but somehow it felt fake. In our modern minds the word ‘Medieval’ does not conjure up images of freshly painted and decorated rooms. We’d rather see old and wheatered furniture, moth-eaten fabrics, crumbling walls and charming ruins to give it that authentic feel to it. I felt a bit let down, but nonetheless, I appreciate the effort.

While sitting on a bench enjoying a well deserved mint chocolate cone, I could not help but overhear two boys seated next to me, age around 9, talking about their day at the Tower: ‘There is quite a lot of interesting stuff here’, says one boy. ‘Yeah, but it would have been so much more convincing if they kept stuff old, like it was. It keeps the memories better of how it was, if you know what I mean’, replied the other. ‘I know what you mean, but still, very interesting’, according to the first boy. ‘It was very nice of your Mum to take us’, he added. ‘Yes, she is nice’, the other affirmed. Now this put a genuine smile on my face !! It restored some hope that  the next generation has a love for history, and apreciate their parents efforts. A rare encounter indeed.

And perhaps these boys had a point there. One could say that the Tower of London is a polished make-money-on-tourists machine. A splendid picture is presented in small morsels that can be taken in quickly and fits easy in you busy tourist-schedule. It gives you every opportunity to take as many photographs as you can, without actually seeing or understanding what you’re photographing. There are shops, restaurants, ice cone stands, and a tea room who’s employees are constantly busy.

At a certain point I decided to let go of my more cynical view on my visit of the Tower. After all, I am but one of those tourists myself. Whether I consider myself educated or not, I am just one of the 2 million visitors each year. Buildings like this are very
expensive to uphold, and the annual income from tourism contributes to this, so there is a nice symbiosis between tourist and building. I just wonder -perhaps a tiny, tiny bit cynical – who benefits most from this relationship.

For me, the White Tower was the most impressive building of the entire complex. It’s interior and exterior made my day very interesting. It is almost a match for the sensory impressions of being inside this monument of time. It oozes history at every corner, and at times I could really imagine how history could or must have been like. I’m very glad I visited the Tower of London, and I’m sure we will meet again.

Upon leaving I added another new experience to my list: I had a fish ‘n chips. So I could return to my hotel room fully satisfied. My hunger, be it cultural or physical, had been stilled for some time.

[1304 words]