St Mary Magdalene, East Ham | One of the Oldest Churches in London
In East Ham you can visit St Mary Magdalene. It dates from the 12th century and is one of the oldest surviving Parish churches across Greater London.
The 1086 Domesday Book records a settlement of Hame, a dry bit of land between the marshes of the River Lea.
Today the church is set within a graveyard and borders East Ham Nature Reserve, giving it a nice buffer from the busy A13 nearby.
St Mary Magdalene, East Ham
At first sight, the small church and its squat, stone little tower might not seem that remarkable. However, a stylistic clue to its ancient history is the pair of narrow, arched windows above the door.
Pointed arches were part of the Gothic style of architecture and started to be used during the 12th and 13th centuries.
Pointed Gothic Arches in Westminster Abbey, c.13th century
A rounded arch is Romanesque in style, a reference to the Roman semi-spherical arches used in Antiquity. We sometimes also use ‘Norman’ as seen in the White Tower of the Tower of London.
Round Norman Arches in the Tower of London’s White Tower, c.11th century
With most London churches, although they might be very old, little survives of the original ancient fabric.
But that’s not the case with St Mary Magdalene.
The Grade I listed church is described by Historic England as a 12th century church.
In Dan Cruikshanks’ new book; Cruikshank’s London, he notes that the apse and interior arched chancel date from between 1130-1150!
He continues that the West Tower is probably early 1200s, but heavily altered in the 15th and 16th centuries. But overall he calls it ‘one of the oldest, least-altered and most fascinating medieval churches in London’.
Unfortunately when I visited on a recent cold, wet Saturday the church wasn’t open. Thankfully, I found some pictures from inside that I was able to share with you.
Inside St Mary Magdalene
Pevsner describes the church as ‘remarkable’ in the fact it retains its original form. To walk inside the apse, chancel and nave is to step back into the 12th century
The timber structure of the roof is Medieval, the apse (pictured below) dating from the 12th century and rest of the roof from the 13th and 14th centuries. It was rediscovered in the 19th century during renovations – after being saved from demolition (imagine!) – and terms of carpentry a ‘great rarity’ (Pevsner).
There’s a more detailed breakdown of various ages of the architecture in the Survey of London here.
Details from the Outside
If – like me – you time your visit badly, there’s still amazing historic quirks to spot outside.
On the south side of the apse you can see a peculiar door. It’s probably a ‘Priest’s Door’ – an entrance way directly from the sacred space of the East End of the church – where the alter is usually situated – so the Priest doesn’t have to mingle through the more common area of the nave.
Although we think of the whole of the church as a sacred space today, in Medieval times it’s easiest to think of these spaces as community centres, where many secular activities and business transactions would take place.
Another door on the opposite side of the exterior also looks strange. It’s a later addition and has been partly bricked up.
One theory is this was home to an ‘anchorhold’ the curious – and somewhat terrifying – Medieval practice of locking oneself away for religious devotion.
Anchorites would literally shut themselves away from the word, into bricked up cells attached to a Church. They never left these cells, but were given food and water and could witness the Mass.
There’s an excellent blog post from Colin Granger with more photos inside. He also shares this chilling story from the Reverend of St Mary Magdalene;
“In 1921 when builders were putting in outside drains for the first time they came across a skeleton in a lead lined coffin. If it had been a member of the congregation it is assumed it would have been buried in the churchyard, so it seems safe to assume it was a former inhabitant of the Anchorite’s Cell, set in the North wall.”
Most eerily, they usually didn’t leave these cells even in death. Anchorites would be buried under the ground of the cell and then the next one could move in!
One of the most notable people buried here is the pioneering antiquarian William Stukeley who worked to advance our understanding and preserve parts of Stonehenge and Avebury.
Image from Wikimedia – Public Domain – Portrait by Richard Collins c.1728
Stukeley was a doctor and ordained clergyman as well as a Neo-druid. He lived in Bloomsbury and specifically chose to be buried here in 1765.
Why, is a bit of a mystery! He is buried in an unmarked grave.
However, if you visit on a gloomy, quiet day it’s easy to understand why he must’ve felt a powerful reverence for St Mary Magdalene’s age, history and atmosphere.