Ever wondered what lies beneath some of London’s biggest religious buildings? Cathedrals and other religious structures are often built on ancient sites that have had temples or churches built on them time and time again since early Roman times. They are urban landmarks, similar to roads and boundaries, which tend to retain their position throughout the ages, with modern town planners rebuilding on the same spot.
They have been focal points for many major historical events, such as the invading Vikings burning down an early church at the site of St Paul’s, or in epoch-making events such as London’s Great Fire. The history of what lies beneath London’s cathedrals (and Westminster Abbey) is also the history of the city.
It was the churchmen who reclaimed some of the water-logged land around Westminster after the Romans left, while it’s known that St Paul’s and Southwark (home to Southwark Cathedral and St George’s Cathedral) were settled and built upon during the Roman sojourn in London.
The Roman House and Industry Under St Paul’s Cathedral
Sir Christopher Wren’s St Paul’s Cathedral was built following the 1666 Great Fire of London and was officially completed in 1710. It replaced the old St Paul’s, which had stood there since the 11th century, although it underwent various stages of work and expansion. The current St Paul’s Cathedral is the fourth cathedral, according to the cathedral’s own web site, to stand on that spot on top of Ludgate Hill.
The first cathedral dedicated to St Paul was built on Ludgate Hill in 604 AD for the bishop of the East Saxons, Mellitus. Made of wood, the structure burned down in 675. It was then rebuilt only to be destroyed again by the Viking invaders in the 10th century, and a third cathedral made of stone was then erected.
The first known bishop of London was Restitutus, who was named among the attendees of the Council of Arles in 314 AD. However, it’s not known where his cathedral would have been located but on top of Ludgate Hill may have been a possibility, with its position overlooking the City of London, to the west of the established Roman trading town of Londinium that existed in the fourth century.
According to the cathedral’s website, there have been religious monuments and churches at the site of St Paul’s since Roman times. When Sir Christopher Wren was preparing the foundations for the current St Paul’s, he recording finding several archaeological layers and objects. He wrote: We discovered quantities of urns, broken vessels and pottery ware. Graves of several ages and fashions in strata, or layers of Earth, one above another… manifestly shew’d a great antiquity from the British and Roman times.
During building and restoration works at St Paul’s Cathedral in recent years, evidence of Roman archaeological layers have been found. In 1999, building work in Paternoster Square uncovered some Roman remains, which turned out to be signs of a Roman home, dating from 70-160 AD. The house would at that time have been situated a few hundred metres inside the city walls and would have existed at a time when Londinium was rebuilding itself after Boudicca’s attack. The mid first century AD was a time of prosperity for the Roman town, when the population peaked at between 45,000 and 60,000.
The archaeologists also found iron slag in a pit beneath the square, suggesting that there was some industry going as well at that point. A map of Roman London from the University of Denver shows that just to the north of St Paul’s there were some kilns, while to the south there were Roman temples, and baths to the east.
During Roman times the river Fleet an important tributary to the Thames, which now runs underground from Hampstead Heath reaching the Thames at Blackfriars Bridge would have been a major river and clearly visible from the top of Ludgate Hill.
Southwark: From Roman Army Camp to Cathedral Site
There are two cathedrals in Southwark one is the famous Southwark Cathedral, and the other is dedicated to St George. Both are in an historic part of London that was first made habitable by the Romans, where Shakespeare’s original globe theatre would have once stood, as well as the Tabard Inn, made famous by Chaucer, and two notorious medieval prisons the Clink and the Marshalsea. The site was also named in the Domesday Book, which mentions a church there in 1086.
Before Claudius‘s conquest of 43 AD, the area was a marshy salt flat, which the Romans bridged, reclaimed and developed. They constructed the southern river bank and made the area, which would have been flooded at each high tide, inhabitable.
The South Bank area became a Roman army camp and a flourishing community grew up around the camp to cater for all the soldiers’ needs, including a number of brothels.
From that point on, the trading town on the north bank of Londinium sprung up, but the south bank would also have been a bustling scene of Roman traders and citizens making a life for themselves near the Thames.
It’s believed that a Roman villa once stood on the site of Southwark Cathedral, while a fourth century pagan statue was discovered in a well underneath the cathedral during an excavation in 1977.
An archaeological excavation at the site of Southwark Cathedral between 1998 and 2001 found evidence dating back to the neolithic period. The findings are published in the book Millennium Excavations at Southwark Cathedral by Divers, Mayo and Cohen.
The Historic Island of Westminster?
The London Borough of Westminster is far outside the old city walls of Roman London, but it too has plenty of pre-medieval history. The piece of land where Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament now stand was once known as Thorney Island and, as the name suggests, during Saxon times (seventh to ninth centuries) the area was riddled with water channels.
It would have been marshy, rural and far more difficult to get around than the large open squares and wide roads that characterise the area today. The first known church was built there in the seventh century AD. The area grew in importance when Edward the Confessor moved his royal palace there in the eleventh century.
Westminster Cathedral (near Victoria station) is a beautiful building often overlooked by visitors to London, as well as Londoners themselves. It was built between 1895 and 1903, and its white and pink layered brickwork wouldn’t look out of place in a Tuscan piazza. Like Westminster Abbey just up the road, the cathedral is also built on land that once formed part of the boggy hinterland outside Roman Londinium. The area was once known as Bulinga Fen and was developed by the Benedictine monks who owned Westminster Abbey.
During the 19th century, the land was used to build a prison for minors (below 17 years old). Another prison Tothill Fields Bridewell existed near the site from the 17th century. Part of the land was also wasteland, where a ring used for bull-baiting once stood.
Westminster Abbey stands on what was known during the 10th century as Thorney Island. It was during 960 AD that a group of Benedictine monks first settled there, led by St Dunstan the Bishop of London. In the 11th century, Edward the Confessor moved his royal palace to the site of Westminster Abbey and he built a church dedicated to St Peter there in 1065. The present day building was begun by Henry III in 1245 and has been added to throughout the centuries.
A small Roman settlement may have existed in the area around today’s Marylebone Lane. The River Tyburn (now covered over) runs through this area, lending its name to the Tyburn Settlement, which as well as its possible Roman roots, was certainly populated in Saxon and Medieval times. The famous Tyburn Tree (the public gallows from the 14th to the 18th centuries) was just west of Tyburn, near today’s Marble Arch.
To summarise, we may not know what lies under London’s cathedrals, and archaeologists may never be allowed to find out. But given the tendency for churchmen throughout history to build monuments over monuments, we can bet that these handsome structures have fascinating secrets hidden beneath them.