Review – St Paul’s Cathedral: archaeology and history

5 mins read
John Schofield
Oxbow, £65
ISBN 978-1785702754
Review Tim Tatton-Brown

Five years ago, John Schofield produced a splendid book, St Paul’s Cathedral before Wren (English Heritage, 2011), which was well described and reviewed by Chris Catling in this magazine (CA 266). This excellent survey of the archaeology and history of one of the greatest of England’s Romanesque and Gothic cathedrals was also a comprehensive study with many specialist reports on all the below-ground remains (including the geology and earlier Roman and Anglo- Saxon phases) of this iconic structure. The building was famously gutted in the Great Fire of London 350 years ago, and then demolished and replaced from 1675 by Christopher Wren’s new Baroque masterpiece.

This new book is an equally comprehensive survey of the archaeology and history of Wren’s magnificent cathedral, and also has many specialist reports, by others, on pottery, clay tobacco pipes, bricks, timber, human bone, and coffin furniture. The book covers the construction history and all that has happened to the fabric between its completion in 1711 and the present day. John Schofield must now be congratulated for producing the most complete ‘archaeological’ survey of any great cathedral in Britain. One day there should be similar volumes on all the others too. Cathedral archaeology started officially in 1990, when each cathedral was required, by law, to appoint a ‘cathedral archaeologist’, and we are fortunate that it was John Schofield who was given the job at St Paul’s. He is still the consultant there.

It is very appropriate that Martin Stancliffe wrote the foreword to this book, since it serves also as a valuable record of all the conservation and restoration work at St Paul’s over the last 25 years under Martin’s watch as its excellent ‘Surveyor to the Fabric’. Robert Bowles provides a final chapter entitled ‘The engineer’s view of St Paul’s’, and this too is an insightful contribution.

The useful introductory chapter on the many historical and graphic sources for the building is illustrated with photos of fascinating details from the Acquittance Books. One shows the earliest known payment to Nicholas Hawksmoor (in May 1691), while two others show Wren’s 12-year-old daughter signing for small sums for his due salary. There is then a review of all known archaeological recording work at the cathedral, with plans to show all the known sites, excavations, and other observations.

The construction of Wren’s design between 1666 and 1720 is told in admirable detail, with reference to recent scholarship by Gordon Higgott and James Campbell. The reconstruction of the architect’s site offices in c.1675, in and around the medieval chapter house, is of particular interest. There are also many new archaeological observations, and an important study of the nave roof in 2013, carried out with Damian Goodburn and Azizul Karim. Other sections cover the drainage system for the site, installed in 1687- 1710, and the churchyard buildings, including the new chapter house (1712-1714) and deanery (1670-1673), and the materials used: reused stone, new (largely Portland) stone, brick pantiles, and timber.

We then move on to St Paul’s in the 18th and 19th centuries, with sections on the interior furnishings, stability of the building, and the archaeology of burials from 1680 to 2000. There is also a useful discussion of the little-known Surveyorship of Francis Penrose (1852-1897), when a lot of important work was undertaken. Most obvious now are the changes to the western atrium, and there are many interesting images here.

The final main chapter is largely on the protection, repair, and conservation work between 1897 and 2013, especially after two bombs hit the cathedral in the Second World War. It seems a miracle that more damage was not done when one sees the plan showing where high-explosive bombs fell all around the cathedral. The most recent cleaning and repair work after Martin Stancliffe’s Quinquennial Report of 1993 is also fully discussed.

There is an informative piece by John Schofield on Lawrence Spencer, the Clerk of Works, who worked on the entire project for 36 years. By contrast, the author has only worked at St Paul’s for 26 years, but he is to be hugely congratulated on producing two splendid books covering all the archaeology of the cathedral from AD 604 to the present day. A great achievement.

This review was published in CA 322

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