St Andrew Holborn has been a site of worship for at least 1000 years but when the Crypt was excavated in 2001 Roman remains were found so the site could have been in use for much longer still. This included a variety of finds including a large amount of pottery sherds with a couple of beautiful fragments of Samian Ware. All of the finds could be dated between AD 150 and 300, though no clear purpose for the site could be gleaned from the finds.
A full report on the finds can be found here.
The first mention of St Andrew Holborn comes in 959 A.D., during the reign of King Edgar. A charter of Westminster Abbey alludes to an ‘old wooden church’ on the hill above the river Fleet (St Andrew is the Patron Saint of fishermen), suggesting that by this point the site was well established as a place of worship.
Little is known of the building’s early history. However, it is clear that by the end of the 13th century the original wood had been replaced with stone. In 1348, the Church gained four nearby houses bequeathed by John Thavie, a renowned armourer for Edward III. Today, the St Andrew Holborn Church Foundation is the successor to the Thavie Estate. The next important development came in the mid-15th century, when the Church underwent expansion. A notable addition here was the West Tower.
Over the years, St Andrew’s has had associations with several famous figures. An early example is Henry Wriosthesley, Earl of Southampton and godson of Henry VIII: he was baptised here in 1545. Then, in 1618, the leading Elizabethan herbalist and close friend of Shakespeare, John Gerard, was buried here. St Andrew’s buried Christopher Merret, too – an English scientist, he was one of the first to study the creation of sparkling wine, beating even his French counterparts to it. (This was not the only time the Church’s past overlapped with the history of English drinking. In the early 19th century, customers of a nearby gin palace, which by law had to close at 11 o’clock on Sundays, were known to enter the church and heckle the Vicar during his sermons!)
Indeed, noteworthy figures have not just been baptised or buried here; sometimes, they have been the incumbents themselves. During the Civil War, the Rector, John Hacket, persisted in using the Book of Common Prayer. One day Roundhead soldiers arrived at the Church and held a pistol to Hacket’s head. He simply replied ‘I am doing my duty. Now do yours.’ The soldiers departed with Hacket victorious and unscathed. This rebellious spirit must have been passed on to Dr Henry Sacheverell, incumbent 1714-24. He was a prominent High Church Anglican and bane of the Whig Party. His subversive sermons, in which he undermined the government, led to riots (known as the Sacheverell Riots and instrumental to the introduction of the 1714 Riot Act) and eventually earned him impeachment and a trial.
However, St Andrew’s most significant history concerns the building itself. Untouched by both the Reformation and the 1666 Great Fire, by the late 17th century the Church was nonetheless deemed in need of renovation. This task fell to Sir Christopher Wren, one of England’s most venerated architects, who built in total 52 churches after the Great Fire, most notably St. Paul’s Cathedral. St Andrew’s was the largest of all Wren’s parish churches. Wren rebuilt the Church on roughly the same ground as its medieval predecessor. Among the changes was the erection of a roof made from the ‘best soft Darbyshire leade’. Indeed, in the construction process, a Roman Pit containing pottery from 200-250 A.D. was uncovered. The rebuilding was finished in 1687, by which time the total cost had amounted to £9,967. Later, in 1703, the bell stage was added and the tower re-faced. Some historians have suggested that these additions were made by Nicholas Hawksmoor, another leading architect of the time.
The next significant chapter in St Andrew’s history came in the early 19th century. A committee created to undertake the ‘repair, alteration and beautifying’ of the Church, which reported in 1818, appointed Joseph Henry Good to take care of the building’s interior. His major changes included the creation of a new, second gallery at the Church’s west end .Good would later become the Clerk for Works for the Tower of London and Somerset House.
The site was to receive yet more attention as the century went on. The construction of the Holborn Viaduct from 1863 (and subsequent creation of St Andrew Street) meant that the Parish Court House and Rectory to the west of the Church had to be demolished. The ‘rogue architect’ Samuel Sanders Teulon was commissioned in 1868 to build their replacements, though his remit was soon extended to improvements of the Church as well. His alterations, such as the removal of the west gallery in order to expose the 15th century arch at the end of the nave, sparked controversy. Some bemoaned the fact that they would take the Church in a ‘Romeward direction’, while one writer in The Builder suggested that Teulon was doing a ‘most wanton injury to the fabric’. This conflict was indicative of a wider stylistic one between the Gothic Revival and classical architecture; between a Victorian desire for progress and faithfulness to the past.
Meanwhile, St. Andrew’s continued to have connections with significant individuals. Marc Brunel, father of Isambard Kingdom, was married here in 1799, while Benjamin Disraeli was christened at the Church in 1817. In particular, the St Andrew Holborn has links with medical history. In 1827, Dr William Marsden found a young girl dying from exposure in the Churchyard. No hospitals would treat her, and she subsequently died. It was this shocking event which inspired Dr Marsden to found the Royal Free Hospital. What’s more, the tomb of the 18th century philanthropist Thomas Coram, who created the London Foundling Hospital, has been at situated at St Andrew’s since the 1920s.
Like many of London’s churches, St Andrew Holborn was damaged during the Second World War. On 16th April 1941, it was struck by an incendiary bomb and reduced to ruins. The job of rebuilding it fell to the distinguished ecclesiastical architects Seely and Paget. John Seely, the second Lord Mottistone, and Paul Paget met at Cambridge University and went on to form the firm Seely & Paget in 1926. Their work, which was completed in 1961, was on the whole faithful to Wren’s designs, though some of Teulon’s 19th century alterations did remain. In 1961, the Church was reconsecrated and has since operated as non-parochial Guild Church.