10 lesser-known medieval and early modern places in Greater London
By Spike Gibbs
Spike is a first year PhD student in working on office-holding in late medieval and early modern England.
London can appear to be an overwhelmingly modern city with its towering 20th century office blocks and grand Victorian architecture. Whilst there are some very famous medieval landmarks such as the Tower of London, and early modern ones such as St Paul’s Cathedral, these can appear to be oases in the capital. However, if you know where to look London has many surprises for the pre-1750 historian and here are ten of my favourites:
- St Bartholomew the Great, West Smithfield, EC1A 7JQ
The grandaddy of London’s medieval churches and the oldest church still surviving in London. Walking through the Tudor half-timber framed entrance (perhaps passing by the marker for William Wallace’s execution site) you come into the main church, founded in 1123 as part of an Augustinian Priory. The font is a highlight, one of the few surviving from pre-Reformation London.
- Temple Church, Fleet Street, EC4Y 7BB
A round church; this is another medieval church though also with a fascinating post-medieval history. Originally built by the Knights Templar (and used in the film ‘The Da Vinci Code’, but don’t let that put you off) the church remains in the hands of two of London’s societies of lawyers. The church has strong Magna Carta connections having been King John’s headquarters 1214-5, and contains the funeral effigy of the twelfth-century knight and statesman William Marshall.
- St Bride’s Church, Fleet Street, EC4Y 8AU
St Bride’s is worth visiting both for the present building and what can be
seen beneath. The standing structure is a Wren church and is famous for its steeple which supposedly inspired the first tiered wedding cake. Beneath the church is even more fascinating, as excavations have revealed the remains of Roman, Saxon and medieval buildings in the crypt giving a cross-section of human activity at the site across time.
- Sutton House, Hackney, E9 6JQ
Possibly the most incongruous on the list, Sutton House is a rare Tudor red-brick house (they have a whole display just about bricks for the enthusiast) sitting in the middle of Hackney. Built by Ralph Sadler in 1535 (‘Rafe’ in ‘Wolf Hall’) the house is a fascinating journey through time with Tudor wood panelling giving way to Georgian wallpaper and finally artworks by squatters from the 1980s.
- Harmondsworth Medieval Barn, Hillingdon, UB7 0AQ
A bit of a trek from central London but only a bus-ride from Heathrow, this is a medieval barn on an impressive scale. Originally built by Winchester College in 1426 as part of a manor farm, the internal timber framing has recently been restored showing the splendor of medieval carpentry.
- Model of the original London Bridge, London Docklands Museum, Isle of Dogs, E14 4AL
Perhaps a slight cheat, this is the best way to see a distinctive structure from medieval and early modern London which was replaced in the 19th century. This reconstruction reveals the bridge’s religious, economic and social buildings and cleverly shows both medieval and early modern aspects. The Docklands Museum is worth visiting anyway and is attached to restaurant-bar ‘Rum & Sugar’ which has over 150 types of rum behind the bar.
- Ham House, Richmond, TW10 7RS
A more traditional stately home, Ham House is as much worth visiting for its gardens and orangery cafe as the house. However, this is a fantastic piece of 17th century architecture, its inside accurately reflecting surviving accounts of the house’s interiors. The original designer of the decor was Charles I’s boyhood friend and whipping boy, William Murray, and the house has a good selection of restored early modern art.
- Whitefriars Crypt, Fleet Street, EC4Y 1HT
Slightly more difficult to visit than the rest of the list, Whitefriars Crypt now resides under legal firm Freshfields’ offices on the Strand. Still visible through the glass, and occasionally opened up to visits, the masonry you can see is part of the Carmelite Friary that once lay in this part of London, their white habits giving the name to the area and the crypt. The crypt’s present location, however, was due to the whole structure being moved by crane in the 1980s.
- Winchester Palace, Southwark, SE1 9DG
Worth including because this site can be chanced upon through a walk
along the South Bank, the remains of the Bishop of Winchester’s Palace speak to Southwark’s interesting history as outside the diocese of London. The rose window survives particularly well.
- St Etheldreda’s Church, Holborn, EC1N 6RY
St Etheldreda’s is contained within Ely Place, a privately owned street still managed by the Bishop of Ely, and is apparently one of only two remaining buildings from the reign of Edward I. The most evocative part of the church however is its undercroft in which there is also a scale model of the medieval palace complex of the Bishops of Ely which once stood here.
- “William Marshal, 1st Earl of Pembroke” by Kjetilbjørnsrud from no. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:William_Marshal,_1st_Earl_of_Pembroke.jpg#/media/File:William_Marshal,_1st_Earl_of_Pembroke.jpg
- “Harmondsworth Great Barn east exterior” by Prioryman – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Harmondsworth_Great_Barn_east_exterior.jpg#/media/File:Harmondsworth_Great_Barn_east_exterior.jpg
- “Museum of London Docklands – model of Old London Bridge cicra 1440” by Elliot Brown, licensed under CC BY 2.0 via flickr – https://www.flickr.com/photos/ell-r-brown/6461879929
- No image
- Copyright Ian S, licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence – http://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/3876831
- Copyright John Salmon,licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence. http://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/1613332