St Paul’s before Wren

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What was St Paul’s cathedral like on the eve of the Great Fire? Chris Catling has been reading the new book by cathedral archaeologist John Schofield in which he draws together for the first time all the evidence from modern and antiquarian excavations, engravings and documentary sources to reconstruct the appearance and splendour, as well as the shameful despoilation and neglect, of old St Paul’s.

If, heaven forbid, one of Europe’s great Gothic cathedrals were to burn down today, we would no doubt assemble a team of specialists from all over the world to restore it to a facsimile of its original form. Not so in 17th-century England when Sir Christopher Wren, Surveyor General to the Crown, was given the task of rebuilding London and the great cathedral at its heart after the Great Fire that destroyed so much of the Medieval City between 2 September and 5 September 1666. Faced with the challenge of designing the world’s first purpose-built Protestant cathedral, Wren produced a building that broke radically with the past, even if his original plan for a cathedral based on the plan of an equal-armed cross was compromised when the clergy, clinging to their old liturgical ways, demanded a long processional nave.

The price paid for Christopher Wren’s masterpiece was the loss of Medieval Britain’s largest building (in terms of space enclosed) and one of the largest in Europe, a building with a 400-foot steeple that stood comparison with the great cathedrals of Paris, Florence and Cologne. The cathedral that took its place is neither as wide, nor as long, but its construction, and its deep crypt, have obliterated most of the remains of earlier cathedrals on the site, leaving archaeologists to piece together the appearance of the Medieval cathedral from the occasional block of stratigraphy surviving below ground or the odd piece of Medieval masonry excavated from the churchyard or reused, jumbled, and often recut in the crypt of Wren’s St Paul’s.

Lightning strikes

New finds do turn up from time to time, and one of the most recent comes from one of the most incongruous features of the old cathedral. A tunnel excavated through the crypt in 1996 revealed fragments of the Renaissance portico that Inigo Jones added to the west end when he undertook restoration work in 1633 to 1642.

For the cathedral that Inigo Jones was brought in to sort out and reinvigorate was in a sorry state, not least from an earlier conflagration that had engulfed the Medieval spire, leaving nothing but an ugly stump of a truncated central tower — all that was left of one of Europe’s finest and tallest steeples. The crowning glory of the cathedral, rising high above London’s rooftops, this had probably just been completed in 1220, when it first appears on the Great Seal of London. A mark of how striking the tower must have seemed to contemporaries is that it even appears in Medieval graffiti, scratched into the walls of Ashwell church in Hertfordshire.

When Wren’s friend, the scientist Robert Hooke, conducted experiments into atmospheric pressure and gravity from the top of the tower in 1664, he measured its height at 204 feet. The timber spire, encased in lead, rose as high again. In his Survey of London (1598), the historian and antiquary John Stow (c 1525 —1605) estimated the height to be 260 feet, while Wren himself judged it more likely from the surviving stump to have been about 200 feet. Even at this lower measurement, the combined tower and spire rose more than 400 feet, making it the tallest central tower in Europe at the time of its construction (tall buildings in the City not being such a new phenomenon after all). Being so prominent, it also attracted lightning strikes on a regular basis, requiring regular repairs to the globe and cross at the top. When lightning struck again on 4 June 1561, the fire that followed this time brought the spire and the bells crashing through the roof. Miraculously nobody was injured, but that night St Paul’s lost the feature that allowed it to dominate the city and be seen for miles around.

Inspiring funding

James I set up a commission to oversee the cathedral’s repair, visiting himself in 1620 to see ‘three great new windows, newly glazed, in rich colours, with the story of St Paul’, but it wasn’t until Charles I’s reign, in 1633, that work began in earnest, with the appointment of Inigo Jones as Surveyor. Full sets of accounts survive from his work, carried out between 1633 and 1642, which tell us much about the appearance of the building at the time and the work that he did to make good the ravages of time, and the grievous damage that the building had suffered first at the hands of Protestant reformers during Henry VIII’s reign.

Visiting the cathedral once Inigo Jones’ work was done in 1642, you would have entered through his striking new addition of a classical portico, a hint of what was to come under Wren. Here twelve great fluted columns topped by Corinthian capitals based on the published drawings of Palladio (and in turn based on the 2nd-century AD temple of Antoninus Pius and Faustina in Rome) brought the Italian Renaissance to London in a big way. The Romanesque west face of the cathedral was transformed into something shockingly modern for London by the addition of massive baroque stone volutes flanking the stair turrets, while the portico was topped off with a balustraded parapet with a carved inscription and statues of James I and Charles I.

Virtually the whole of this heroic composition has been lost, except for contemporary engravings, odd fragments of column shaft, and a poem by Simon Ford published in 1667 which describes ‘a noble porch … with two princes crowned’. The financial accounts tell of massive blocks of marble, used to make door cases for the three west doors, along with stone from Portland and Beer, being carted or bought on sledges up cobbled streets from the wharf at St Paul’s digging into the street surfaces, which subsequently had to be repaired, and of one massive cornice stone being so heavy that the crane gibbet lifting it broke and ended up in the river.

Beyond the Renaissance

Seeing this porch as a 17th-century visitor, you would expect a classical building to lie behind, and who knows what Inigo Jones might have done to the cathedral had not the Civil War intervened in 1642, leading to the cathedral’s closure, the abolition of the chapter and a premature end to Jones’s restoration work. What you actually saw on passing through Jones’s’ marble flanked doors, was the Medieval cathedral, an amalgam of largely 13th-century pointed arches and tracery in the Gothic nave and transepts but with residual round-headed Romanesque features from the Norman cathedral of 1087—1190. The probable appearance of the Medieval cathedral in its finest and fullest form was imaginatively portrayed in a series of reconstruction drawings by H W Brewer in the 1880s. In these, the eye is drawn to the so-called New Work of 1269—1311, the Decorated Gothic extension to the choir at the far eastern end, a triumph of Gothic engineering in which the east wall seems to consist almost entirely of glass. The great rose window, with its radiating petals, is an astonishing and innovative design, which more than stands comparison with its Parisian counterparts, in St-Denis (1235—40) and Notre-Dame (1262—7).

This is an extract, but the full text can be found in CA 266

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