One of a few London churches to have escaped the Great Fire of 1666 (the flames are said to have come within 100 metres before the wind changed direction), St Olave Hart Street is named after the patron saint of Norway, St Olaf – a figure more known for his ability as a warrior than as a saint.
King Olaf II was King of Norway in the early 11th century and an ally of the Saxon King, Ethelred the Unready. The Norwegian king won the thanks of the English after he fought alongside Ethelred against the Danes in 1014 in what some refer to as the Battle of London Bridge.
According to some, the church was built on the site of where the battle was fought – many also believe the battle was also the inspiration for the nursery rhyme, London Bridge Is Falling Down, for it was during that battle that Olaf, who was helping Ethelred retake London, is credited with using his longships to pull down London Bridge in a effort to thwart the Danish occupiers.
The church, meanwhile, was rebuilt a couple of times in the Middle Ages, when it was said to have been known as St Olave-towards-the-Tower. The church which now stands on the site was built in 1450 with the distinctive red brick on the tower added in the early 18th century.
Having survived the Great Fire in 1666, the church was not so fortunate during the Blitz when it was struck by German bombs. It was subsequently restored with King Haakon VII of Norway attending the re-opening in the mid-1950s (there is a stone laid in front of the sanctuary which he brought from Trondheim Cathedral).
Other features inside include a recently returned 17th century bust of a prominent physician Dr Peter Turner – part of a monument which went missing after World War II, it resurfaced at an auction in 2010.
The church’s most famous parishioner was the 17th century diarist Samuel Pepys who lived and worked in the nearby Naval Office (for more on Pepys see our earlier entry here). The door through which he would have entered the church is marked with a 19th century memorial.
Pepys and his wife Elizabeth are both buried in the church (the memorial Pepys commissioned for her is still there) as is his brother John. Samuel Pepys’ life is commemorated at a service held close to the day he died – 26th May – each year.
Others associated with the church include Sir William Penn, an admiral and father of the William Penn who founded Pennsylvania in what is now the United States, and Charles Dickens, who gave it the name “Ghastly Grim” thanks to the skulls above its Seething Lane entrance.
St Olave’s is also the chapel of the The Clothworker’s Company, The Worshipful Company of Environmental Cleaners and Trinity House, a charitable organisation dedicated to the safety, welfare and training of mariners established by Royal Charter from King Henry VIII in 1514.
WHERE: Corner of Hart Street and Seething Lane in the City (nearest Tube stations are Tower Hill and Monument). WHEN: See website for details; COST: Free; WEBSITE: www.sanctuaryinthecity.net/St-Olaves.html