Charles Dickens coined the nickname ‘St Ghastly Grim.’
St Olave’s is one of the smallest churches in the City of London, and one of only a few churches from the Middle Ages to have survived the Great Fire of London in 1666. The stainless window showing Queen Elizabeth I on the east side of the building, which is a nod to the thanksgiving service she held at the church in 1554 to commemorate her release from the Tower of London.
The church is first recorded in the 13th century as St Olave-towards-the-Tower, a stone building replacing the earlier (presumably wooden) construction. It is dedicated to the patron saint of Norway, King Olaf II of Norway, who fought alongside the Anglo-Saxon King Ethelred the Unready against the Danes in the Battle of London Bridge in 1014.
It all began with the Battle of London Bridge, or so the story goes. This semi-legendary clash was fought in 1014 between an Anglo-Norwegian army and the Danish fleet of Sweyn Forkbeard, father of King Canute. Norway’s Olaf II sided with the England’s Ethelred the Unready because they were fellow Christians, while the Danes were still inclined to paganism.
London Bridge is said to have been pulled down during the conflict, either by the Danes or by Londoners themselves as a defensive strategy. The event may be the source of the nursery rhyme ‘London Bridge is Falling Down’ as a similar poem commemorates the battle.
The churchyard itself is swollen above surrounding ground level by the vast number of bodies interred within and, even today, the gardeners constantly unearth human bones.
Samuel and Elizabeth Pepys are buried in a vault beneath the nave. Within living memory, when the Victorian font was removed, a hole was exposed that led to a chamber with a passage that led to a hidden chapel where a tunnel was dug to reach the Pepys vault.
When a new churchyard gateway was built in 1658 it was ornamented in a macabre fashion that later prompted Charles Dickens to coin the nickname ‘St Ghastly Grim.’ In 1666 the flames of the Great Fire of London came within about a hundred yards of St Olave’s before the wind changed direction. The church may have been saved by the diligence of its most famous worshipper, Samuel Pepys, who ensured that neighbouring wooden structures were pulled down before the fire spread here.
The church was severely damaged by bombing in the Second World War, but enough of the fabric survived to permit the building to be superbly restored in the 1950s. King Haakon VII of Norway was guest of honour at the rededication ceremony.
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