Londinium: a new place to see the capital’s Roman wall

vine street london roman wall

Typical, you wait ages for a post about Roman London, then three come along at once. After the Mithraeum and the Billingsgate bath house, here’s a bit about the wall that the Romans built around their city.

Right by Tower Hill station there is an extant section of the Roman wall, a few dozen metres of the colossal building project that encompassed the whole of the city of Londinium on the north bank of the Thames.

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Londinium: the Billingsgate Roman Bath House

billingsgate roman bth house - caldarium hypocaust

Dig a hole in the City of London and a few metres down you will hit Londinium, the original city, because before the Romans there seems to have been no major settlement.

For nearly 400 years from around 45CE this was a major Roman centre, and although it declined from the late 2nd century onwards (and was destroyed at least twice, the first time in 60CE by Boudicca, and then by a huge fire around 125) it boasted temples, a forum (the biggest north of the Alps), a governor’s palace, nearly 4km of wall, an amphitheatre that could 6,000 spectators and, because the Romans loved bathing, a number of bath houses.

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Gluttony and grave robbing – Pye Corner in Smithfield

the golden boy of pye corner

Stroll up Giltspur Street towards Smithfield Market and look up to your left at the building on the corner of Cock Lane. In an arched niche in the wall of a late 20th century office building is a golden statue of a chubby little boy.

This is the ‘Golden Boy of Pye Corner’, a 17th century wooden sculpture (gilded in the 1800s, but previously painted naturalistically) which, according to the Historic England listing also formerly had wings, making the young chap something of a cherub.

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The Mithraeum: The City of London’s Roman Temple


Under the Bloomberg European headquarters building in the City is the ‘London Mithraeum’, a glimpse into an obscure part of Roman London.

Obscure not just because many of the rituals of the cult/religion of Mithras are unknown to us – these rituals were communicated from initiates to novices by speech and example rather than being written – but also because Mithraic temples were underground, dark spaces emulating caves, where the mysteries of the cult were revealed.

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The Crypt Chapel, St Olave’s Hart Street

Another City church, another ancient crypt...

St Olave’s Hart Street is one of the few churches to survive the Great Fire of 1666 (it was east of the main conflagration), but its good fortune didn’t outlast the Blitz – most of the windows were blown out by a nearby bomb in 1940, and in 1941 two separate raids pretty much destroyed the place, necessitating a rebuild in the 1950s. Fortunately some of the existing 15th century fabric survived, and stone window frames could be salvaged and reinstituted into the reborn building.

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The American Memorial Chapel, St Paul’s

If you’ve seen Herbert Mason’s photo ‘St Paul’s Survives’ – the dome of the cathedral still standing proud as the smoke of the Blitz rises on all sides – you’d be forgiven for thinking that St Paul’s came through WW2 unscathed.

Although it was relatively undamaged on the night that photo was taken (29/30 December 1940) as the City of London burnt all around it, it did suffer various attacks. In particular, on the night of 9th October 1940, a bomb hit the east end of the Cathedral, exploding in the roof and destroying the high altar and damaging the reredos (the ornamental screen) and stained glass windows behind.

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The crypt museum in All Hallows by the Tower

Fight your way through the crowds surrounding the Tower of London and you might just make it through to one of London’s oldest churches.

All Hallows by the Tower seems to be able to trace its foundation back to 675CE, when Erkenwald, the bishop of London, created it as a chapel of the Abbey of Barking, whose abbess was his sister Ethelburga. (This is why the church is sometimes known as ‘All Hallows Barking’.)

It has, as one might imagine, a rich history. Pepys climbed its tower to see the destruction wrought by the Great Fire; the sixth president of the USA, John Quincey Adams, was married here; the church saw the baptism of William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania. All Hallows is the guild chapel of the international Christian organisation ‘Toc H’, founded by a previous vicar of the church Philip ‘Tubby’ Clayton.

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The Church of St Mary Aldermanbury – London and Missouri

At the corner of Love Lane and Aldermanbury, round the back of the old City of London Police HQ, is a ‘pocket park’ that was (on a hot sunny day in May) full of City and building workers eating their lunches and catching some rays.

This is the site of the churchyard of St Mary Aldermanbury, a parish church first mentioned in 1181, destroyed in the 1666 Great Fire, rebuilt by Wren and gutted in the Blitz. The original church was where Henry Condell and John Heminges were buried. These were two actors who were members of the King’s Men, the acting company to which William Shakespeare belonged and for which most of his plays were written. It is Heminges and Condell that we can thank for the ‘First Folio’, the collection of Shakespeare’s plays published in 1623 some seven years after his death. Without the First Folio edition, it is more than likely that many of the plays would have been lost to history. At the corner of the old churchyard is a memorial to the two actors, topped with a bust of Shakespeare, that was erected in 1896.

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“Exquisite Pain” in St Bart’s

The church of St Bartholomew the Great in Smithfield is one of the jewels of London. A breathtakingly beautiful architectural gem that has occupied its site for 900 years.

It is one of the capital’s oldest parish churches, founded as it was in 1123 by Rahere, a courtier (some say the jester) to Henry I, the son of the Conqueror. Rahere had been on a pilgrimage to Rome when he fell ill, promising God that if he were spared he would build a hospital for the poor on his return to London. After his recovery he had a vision of St Bartholomew who told him the place where the church should be founded, just outside the City walls in Smithfield.

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