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Potentially England's oldest site of Christian worship


Shakespearean Heritage
Guided Tours
There used to be a point in London where all the Roman roads joined up. From that one spot you could easily travel to any of the empire's major British settlements, like Bath, Lincoln, York and Colchester. Nowadays this spot is at the intersection of Shoreditch High Street and Hackney Road. It's visible from quite a way away, thanks to the 190-foot spire of Shoreditch Church. It's dedicated to St. Leonard, the patron saint of prisoners and the mentally ill, but most people use the former name.
The current building dates from 1740. This is quite new for a church, although it's still one of the oldest structures in Shoreditch. There was another church on the site before that, which was constructed somewhere around the 12th century. That's a more respectable age for a Christian building, but the religious history of the site probably stretches back even further than that. The Roman soldiers which once camped here would have been among Britain's very first converts to Christianity. That makes this arguably the the oldest continuously used place of Christian worship in England.

Inside Shoreditch Church
Photo Beyond the Lens
The surrounding districts of Hackney, Dalston and Shoreditch play a strong role in London's contemporary arts scene. St. Leonard's is heavily involved in this cultural world, and has been for much longer than most modern venues have even been open. In the 16th century it was close to some of England's earliest purpose-built theatres. This includes the very first, which was erected in Shoreditch in 1576. It was simply named "The Theatre".
Its founder was a man called James Burbage, whose remains are buried at St. Leonard's. His sons are resting here too. The elder, Cuthbert, founded The Globe, where Shakespeare held many of his premieres. The younger, Richard, became one of the most famous actors of his generation by starring in these plays. He was the first person to perform all the classic roles, including Macbeth, Hamlet, Othello and Romeo.
Shakespeare himself must have come to St. Leonard's many times. A large memorial, erected by the London Shakespeare League in 1913, commemorates this part of the building's heritage.
In recent years, the church itself has frequently acted as a TV set and performance venue. It was used in the filming of "Rev", a BBC comedy about a modern day vicar. The great acoustics of the space have led to plenty of concerts - over 1200 musicians have played here over the last four years. These range wildly in style, from the BBC Symphony Orchestra to Jack White of the White Stripes.
The church is open to the public on weekday lunchtimes. Most of its fittings and fixtures are 18th century originals, including the font, pulpit and communion table. The vicar runs occasional tours, which sometimes head down to the crypt. It's a claustrophobic place, with creepy tunnels and piles of rotting coffins. You'll learn about the Burbages, and all the other people who are buried here. One of the most well known is James Parkinson, the scientist after whom Parkinson's Disease is named. He lived nearby, in Hoxton Square.
Visitor Information
Shoreditch Church is open to visitors Monday to Friday, 12 noon to 2pm. Shoreditch High Street, London E1 6JN.

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