First founded around 1000 AD, there is a possibility that a church on this site was one of the Lundenwic strand settlement churches, like St Martin's in the Fields, the first St Mary le Strand, St Clement Danes and St Brides. These may well pre-date any of the churches within the City walled area. It was first mentioned in 1185. Henry III gained possession of it and its endowments from Westminster Abbey by 1237 and then granted these and the advowson to the 'House of Converts' ie of the converted Jews, which led to its neglect of its parochial responsibilities. This institution was eventually transformed into the court of the Master of the Rolls.
The present building was built on its predecessor's churchyard to allow the widening of Fleet Street, and was designed by John Shaw the Elder (1776–1832) who died before the church was completed so it was left in the hands of his son John Shaw the Younger (1803–1870) in 1833. It is based on the design of St Helen's Pavement in York. The Shaws were prominet architects of Fleet Street who designed two other buildings (now offices) close to the church.
The church's facade holds an extraordinary chiming clock, with mannequins which strike the bells with their clubs. They perhaps represent Gog and Magog, the whole clock is mounted in a separate pavilion and dates from 1671 and adorned the previous church, perhaps commissioned to celebrate its escape from destruction in the Great Fire of London of 1666. On the rebuilding by the Shaws it was exiled, in 1828, to a mansion in Regent's Park, which became the St Dunstan's College for the blind. It was returned by the generosity of Lord Rothermere, the press baron, in 1935 to ostensibly mark the Jubilee of King George V.
There is also a statue of Queen Elizabeth I, placed above the entrance to the old parochial school in 1766, which was taken from the front of the old Ludgate which had been demolished at that time. This statue dates from 1586 and hence contemporary with her, it is thought to be the oldest outdoor statue in London. Within the porch below are three statues of ancient Britons also from the gate which were probably meant to represent King Lud and his two sons.
Apart from losing its stained glass, the church survived the Blitz largely intact.
Adjacent to the Virgin Queen is a bust of Lord Northcliffe, the newspaper proprietor; he and Rothermere were the Harmsworth brothers. In 1896 they initiated the first popular daily newspaper, the Daily Mail and founded the Daily Mirror in 1903. Northcliffe acquired The Times in 1914. They were the founders of modern mass circulation journalism.
Samuel Pepys mentions the church in his diary but he only knew the old medieval building which was taken down in the early 19th century because it caused congestion to part of Fleet Street.
The church has associations with many famous people, for example:
The church has been associated with the Worshipful Company of Cordwainers (old English for shoemakers) since the fifteenth century. Once a year the company holds a service here to commemorate the benefactors John Fisher and Richard Minge, after which children used to be given a penny for each time they ran around the church.
St Dunstan is the only church in England to share its building with the Romanian Orthodox community.