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  • Writer's pictureJack Dykstra, PhD

A Brief History of London’s St Paul’s Cathedral

What is St Paul’s Cathedral?

St Paul’s Cathedral is an elegant late 17th-century Anglican cathedral in London designed by Sir Christopher Wren in English Baroque style.

St Paul’s Cathedral

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St Paul’s Cathedral History

A church was first founded on Ludgate Hill, the highest point in ancient London, in the early 7th century by Mellitus, the city’s first bishop. But it was William the Conqueror’s chaplain, Bishop Maurice, whose church of 1087 would go on to open the ground for London’s great medieval cathedral. Old St Paul’s was a celebrated Gothic creation: the longest church in Europe when it was consecrated in 1240, with one of the tallest spires and finest stained glass.

The immense structure was a major part of London life, mentioned in Geoffrey Chaucer’s 14th-century The Canterbury Tales and a site of tension throughout the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century. In 1527, William Tyndale’s New Testament Bible in English was publicly burned here. In 1549, conversely, Protestant preachers decried the existence of graven images leading an iconoclastic mob to destroy the cathedral’s interior decorations.

By the following century, the edifice had been neglected and the long nave, nicknamed Paul’s Walk, became a popular meeting place of courtiers, merchants and gentlemen who assembled at certain hours to discuss business and politics. Plans for a renovation by the classical architect Inigo Jones never materialised as St Paul’s was occupied in 1642 by Parliamentarian soldiers – and 800 of their horses – during the British Civil War. When the war was over, and England’s flirtation with republicanism ended, Sir Christopher Wren was appointed as the King’s Surveyor to complete what Jones had started.

St Paul’s Cathedral West

He advised that it should be torn down and rebuilt from the bottom up. Although the public opposed this, Wren got his wish when a fire broke out, just after midnight on 2nd September 1666. The conflagration soon engulfed the entire medieval city. But St Paul’s was seen as a safe haven from the flammable wooden municipality due to its thick Portland stone, so merchants, booksellers, printers, and private individuals desperately trundled their belongings into the church and packed the crypt. However, Wren’s wooden scaffolding soon caught ablaze and the church itself was ravaged by the inferno. Wren was suddenly presented with a clean slate, and from the ashes of medieval St Paul’s rose a phoenix.

St Paul’s, as we see it today, was built according to Wren’s design between 1675 and 1711. The architect conceived several designs for the new building, including the so-called ‘Great Model’ (now in the cathedral’s Trophy Room), before a plan found concord and work began on England’s first Protestant cathedral. Wren, who was also involved in rebuilding many other parts of the city in addition to over 50 churches, believed in the power of architecture: not only could buildings help shore up the state; they could also nurture a love of country in its subjects. It was a project designed to inspire a whole population. The plan is a concession to Gothic tradition while the decoration is distinctly classical – look out for the Corinthian pilasters, colonnades, and painted ceiling. Wren’s crowning achievement was the dome intended to outdo Michelangelo’s St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. It’s 111 metres high and one of the largest in the world.

St Paul’s, a 17th-century English Baroque masterpiece, had dominated the city’s skyline for hundreds of years. But during the Blitz it became indomitable: a wartime symbol of hope and resilience. London’s cathedral was saved, and after £40 million and a 15-year renovation that finished in 2011, the Portland stone and classical statues shine magnificently once again.

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