St Pancras Old Church; is it the Oldest Church in London?

Visitors to London and even locals are often quick to assume that Westminister Abbey is the city’s oldest place of Christian worship. While there’s truth in the assumptions(the Abbey dates to 1245), there’s an even older church, known as St. Pancras Old Church, in Camden, about half an hour from Shoreditch. The church reportedly dates back to AD 314. Check out its fascinating history below.

St. Pancras Old Church at the Beginning

Long before St. Pancras Old Church came to be, there was a rural Roman shrine in its place. The shrine was converted to Christian use in 313, marking the existence of the first-ever St. Pancras church.

Evidence of this is pretty scanty, but remnants of Norman masonry and Roman bricks and tiles on parts of its interior and references to St. Pancras, a 14-year old martyr from 304, suggest it pre-dates the 11th-century Normal conquest.

The saint was beheaded alongside other Christians by order of the emperor after he declined pardon. The unusually high arch also nods to architectural designs just before or a little after the Norman conquest.

The Church Over the Years

St. Pancras Old Church has been through it all, from falling attendance, world war bombings to gentrification. It fell into disuse in the 13th century after most of the population in the area moved to Kentish Town. It remained dilapidated throughout the Elizabethan period, was lodging for army troopers in the 16th century and a centre for burial ceremonies in the 18th century.

It became a chapel of ease in 1822 after the construction of a new church on Euston Road. As the City of London expanded in the 19th century, it was rebuilt by AD Gough, an architect worth his salt back then, to accommodate the growing population. Gough did away with most of its medieval structure, leaving only the exposed north wall (it had some 12th-century Roman stonework) and rebuilding it in a 12th-century architectural design.

The Churchyard

Like the church, the churchyard at St. Pancras Old Church boasts an equally rich history. Since the old church was typically for burials in the 16th to 18th centuries, the churchyard was popular among grave robbers who would dig up fresh corpses and sell them to doctors.

To create space for the railway, the then Bishop of London, with help from his assistant, Thomas Hardy, took down thousands of graveyards, reburied the bodies in a mass grave, and planted an ash tree at the centre. The tree came to be known as Hardy Tree and is present to date. It continues to grow on the mass grave as an organic, living memorial.

St. Pancras Old Church

St. Pancras Old Church is now open to the public for exploration. Visiting the church is an opportunity to experience its intriguing almost 1600-years history and get a glimpse of early beliefs in the region. There’s a cafe within 500m of the church, toilets nearby, and parking within 250m.