Religion on the Thames

Very few Thames-side parish churches have been the subject of detailed archaeological investigation; the dedication, and location of the church within the landscape, are therefore important indicators of the possible origins of the building. For example, of the churches along the tidal Thames, over half are dedicated either to St Mary the Virgin or to All Saints, (or All Hallows) which may be an indication of an early foundation date.

The location of the church within the landscape may provide clues as to the shape of river during the Anglo-Saxon period. The prominence of (even in today’s crowded urban landscape) and the proximity to the river of many of the churches suggests that in addition to their religious function, the buildings could have fulfilled practical functions as well. Perhaps it is possible that the towers of the churches were used as navigational aids by boats travelling up and down the river, while extensive views from the tops of the towers could also mean that the structures could have been utilized as watch towers.

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St Nicholas’, Chiswick and the causeway

The importance of the church in relationship to the river is clearly shown at Chiswick, where a causeway aligned with the east end of the church runs across the foreshore. Although this feature is not datable to the early medieval period, its presence and the street pattern of the rest of the village suggest a long history for the alignment. In addition to further study of the origin and form of the churches, a study of their associated churchyards may also prove rewarding. The boundaries and shapes of the churchyards may provide hints about the original shape of the landscape, for example the church of St Mary’s, Battersea is enclosed within a roughly circular enclosure atop a small rise, suggesting that it originally was founded on a small gravel island.

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St Mary’s Batttersea

Mention must also be made of the tributaries of the Thames. It is intriguing to note that on the River Fleet are located two of the oldest churches in the Greater London area, St Pancras and St Andrew’s Holborn. At St Pancras, an early medieval century altar has been discovered, while St Andrew’s is referred to in a charter of c AD951 as the ‘old timber church’. The church of St Dunstan and All Saints in Stepney, a possible minster church, is located close to the former course of the Black Ditch. Further study of churches located on the tributaries may prove illuminating with regard to the patterns of Saxon settlement. Examination of the itineraries of the early kings of England also provides information about the importance and status of some of the sites along the Thames, in particular Brentford and Chelsea where ecclesiastical councils were held and charters issued during the 8th and early 9th centuries.

For more information about the churches along the river, see the Gazetteer.