The Church of St. Leonard in Shoreditch is one of the oldest religious sites in Britain. Scholars agree that documents pertaining to the founding of the church date from the middle of the 12th century. It is also likely that there was a Saxon church there that pre-dates the Norman Conquest in 1066. Today the church that stands there was largely built in the 18th century, but contains elements and repairs from later eras as well.
The First Church - Before the Renaissance
While the documents say that the church was founded during the period of Romanesque architecture in England, one can only imagine what it must have looked like. It could have been similar to other typical Norman churches, such as the Round Church in Cambridge. The first historical impressions available are from a 1735 representation where windows on the eastern end can be seen that clearly date to the 15th century. On this depiction the western end is a square tower in three stages, mounted at the top with a bell-cot. This tower had multiple bells and was about 70 feet high.
The church was initially built from chalk and rubble, but later fitted out with stone and brick, a tiled roof and an interior ceiling made of wood. A description from 1708 shows that it had four aisles, which was considered very large for the time. This extension of the church to accommodate the fourth aisle was done some time in the 15th century when the chantry chapel was built by Sir John Elrington.
Repairs and Historical Accidents
Further improvements were made to the architecture of the church in the 16th century, when a gallery was built above the door of the church on the inside made from oak and the pulpit was rebuilt in cedar. In the 17th century as the congregation became larger more galleries were built on the north and the south side. At the end of the 17th century the church underwent repairs and the chancel was raised and the altar-art was painted fresh, with verses from various parts of the Bible.
Medieval and early modern architecture stood the test of time in the Shoreditch Church. However, several accidents called for further repairs. In the 1700s high winds destroyed parts of the steeple, which then needed to be rebuilt. A few years later one of the corners of the towers gave way and parishioners had to flee the church during Sunday service, with many injured during this accident. Because of the engineering problems, it was decided that the church would be torn down and rebuilt.
Therefore the current church is based on the architecture of the mid-18th century and only images and descriptions remain from the former church. The architect responsible for the Renaissance church was George Dance, who was well-known throughout England at the time and who was an elder at the church.
The Renaissance in Shoreditch - St. Leonard's Rebuilt
The western gateway of the church is in a typical Renaissance design and contains an image of one of the Psalms set in a musical backdrop. The lintel is carved with images of death: a skeleton, two skulls and an hour-glass.
By the early modern period Shoreditch church was considered part of the city of London and became the congregation that many actors, artists and other celebrities attended at the time. The steeple was built to be 192 feet high and is considered one of the most picturesque throughout London. It had become somewhat of a status symbol to say that one was a worshipper at Shoreditch. The mahogany organ - a Bridge - was originally built in 1757, but renovated at the beginning of the 20th century.
Today the style of the church's architecture is considered mostly Palladian, although it combines many other elements of architecture from different eras. The church is open for viewing and tours and can be visited at 119 Shoreditch High St, E1 6JN in Shoreditch, London.