In 313 AD, Roman Emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan, accepting Christianity, and ten years later, it became the Roman Empire’s official religion. A short time later, Londinium, or London as we know it today, had its first Cathedral, over which Bishop Restititus presided.
But the Romans pulled up stakes and departed Britain’s shores in 410, taking their bishops with them. It wasn’t until 595 that Pope Gregory the Great chose the monk Augustine to lead a mission from Rome to convert the pagan Anglo-Saxons to the Christian faith. Augustine founded Canterbury Cathedral, therein becoming the first Archbishop of Canterbury. Additional missionaries came to support Augustine’s mission, including Mellitus, who was made the Bishop of London in 604 and founded St. Paul’s Cathedral.
There are no physical remains of the original Cathedral that would help us describe it accurately. But we know it stood until 1087 when it was consumed by fire or left so damaged that it was unfit for use.
Maurice, then Bishop of London, was a man of large ambitions. He was determined to build the world’s longest and tallest Christian church. Once William the Conqueror’s chaplain, he cajoled King William into donating stone to the building project, some of which came from Caen, Normandy. After Maurice died in 1108, successive Bishops of London – and monarchs – left their marks (and their financial aid) toward the Cathedral’s continued construction.
Progress was slow, and several devastating setbacks occurred over the 200-year building period. In 1135, a fire broke out on London Bridge, which spread all the way to St Paul’s and caused severe damage. Following the Cathedral’s official consecration ceremony in 1240, the still-unfinished building was battered by severe storms in 1255, which caused damage to the Cathedral more, especially to the roof.
Once funds were secured to make the necessary repairs, Old St Paul’s expanded again, extending its length eastwards to rebuild the Quire and Chancel, demolishing an existing parish church, St Faith, to make room. St Faith’s parishioners continued to worship in the Crypt, where even today, there is a chapel dedicated to St Faith.
The Chapter House of the Cathedral (that gazebo-like structure left of the central entrance in the photo above) was the final piece, and in 1314, Old St Paul’s was completed. The work of multiple architects, bishops and monarchs, its architectural styles ranged from Norman Romanesque to Early English Gothic.
The Cathedral must have been an awesome sight rising from the top of Ludgate Hill, dominating the London skyline. Astonishingly, the spire was 38 metres taller than that of the highest point of New St Paul’s, and its vast footprint stretched out longer and wider than the current Cathedral. But 300 years is a long time and very hard on medieval construction. Even before the Great Fire of London in 1666, Old St Paul’s was in sad shape; its soaring steeple, damaged by lightning, had already been removed. Inigo Jones had built a new west front and nave interior. Christopher Wren, Surveyor of Works (at the tender age of 30), had been musing about a dome for the dilapidated crossing.
Then came the devastating fire that swept through central London over four days in early September of 1666, gutting the medieval City of London. The medieval St. Paul’s Cathedral, surrounded by wooden scaffolding as repairs were carried out, didn’t stand a chance,
Two years later, a royal proclamation from newly restored King Charles II ordered a new cathedral to be funded by a novel tax on coal and wine. A vigorous debate arose among the authorities: restore the previous design or have something completely new?
Sir Christopher Wren had an impressive background for such a daunting task. Born the sickly son of a Church of England clergyman during the reign of King Charles I, he had outstripped most of his contemporaries in the fields of mathematics, astronomy, science, and, especially, architecture; he had seen the English Civil Wars, the Restoration of Charles II, the Great Fire of London and engaged in the construction (and reconstruction) of London’s great buildings. Build an entirely new St. Paul’s Cathedral? Hold my beer.
Wren was resolute in his desire for a classical building similar to St. Peter’s in Rome. However, his 1673 proposal for a cruciform building with a portico was soon mired in argument—traditionalists plumped for a conventional nave with transepts. Eventually, the King ordered Wren to proceed and to make such adjustments as “from time to time he should see proper” — a masterful non-decision that allowed Wren a fairly loose rein.
The “English Baroque” masterpiece that emerged saw an elongated nave and chancel but shortened transepts, the first Cathedral in England attributed to a named architect. And at 79 years of age, Wren was one of the few cathedral architects who had lived to see his work completed.
To the dismay of Bath’s golden stone salesmen, Wren’s vision called for white Portland stone, which has been a challenge to keep clean over the years, especially from centuries of coal dust. A major cleaning operation during the 1970s in anticipation of the late Queen Elizabeth’s Silver Jubilee returned the Cathedral to a shining beacon over the City of London.
What do you think? Worth the torturous process?
The central dome is the climax of the Cathedral design. It rivals York Cathedral in sheer size and Ely Cathedral for visual interest. During the Victorian era, the inside of the dome was painted with copies of James Thornhill’s original monochrome murals in the style of Raphael, which depict the life of St Paul. At the same time, the triangular spaces below the domes were filled with mosaics of prophets by Stevens and G. F. Watts.
To the east of the vault is the Presbytery, decorated in 1900 after Queen Victoria complained that the place was “dull, dingy and undevotional”. Artist William Richmond created the mosaics in keeping with Wren’s original intention. The scenes represent the Song of Creation in a style best described as Byzantine mosaic meets Art Nouveau.
Enormous angels hold the rims of each dome aloft.
It’s hard to convey the sheer scale and, at the same time, the detail. But you get the idea.
Below is the choir, complete with a massive organ, both carved by Grinling Gibbons.
Gibbons was paid one pound for each of the sixty-six cherub heads, a considerable sum for the time.
I have no idea what sum a full cherub fetched.
A view back through the choir toward the nave.
Moving eastward from the choir is the Baldacchino, created by Stephen Dykes Bower in 1958 to replace Wren’s altarpiece that was destroyed in the war. I have a shot of the edge of it—I’ll get a better picture next time I’m in London. They’ve only just started permitting pictures inside St Paul’s and Westminster Abbey, and I think I was so stunned not to be furtively sneaking around that I forgot to pay close attention. I’ll also make my way to the whispering gallery to get some shots looking down onto the nave floor. Stay tuned for updates.
Some odd pockets of St Paul’s are not always open to the public, including the southwest tower, which contains Wren’s tribute to Inigo Jones’ “geometrical” staircase in Greenwich, a spiral cantilever rising the full height of the nave. More recently, it featured in the Harry Potter movie “The Prisoner of Azkaban” and starred as the Divination Stairwell.
Down in the Crypt are several tombs and memorials. Here is also a memorial slab dedicated to Florence Nightingale, the founder of modern nursing. During the Crimean War (1853–56), she improved field hospital conditions and logistical procedures, garnering the sobriquet “The Lady with the Lamp” from her frequent night-time rounds to check on patients.
Admiral Lord Nelson’s remains lie in a simple coffin made from the timbers of a defeated French ship. The Sarcophagus perched above it, created by the Italian sculptor Benedetto Grazzin, was not meant for Nelson but for Cardinal Wolsey, one of King Henry VIII’s closest advisors. After Wolsey’s fall from grace (and subsequent execution), it briefly became a monument to Henry VIII, with a brass figure of him placed on top.
It remained in Wolsey’s Chapel at Windsor Castle until King George III began looking for alternative burial spots for British Royalty; Westminster Abbey, with more than two thousand people interred there, was becoming very crowded. You should see it today! Chockablock full of tombs, memorials, slabs…you can barely move.
And speaking of Admiral Lord Nelson brings to mind a trip with the family in 2018 when we toured his ship HMS Victory (wonderfully restored). Maddie and Juliana were eight and four, respectively, but absorbed that Lord Nelson had lost both an eye and an arm in battle. When building a snowman later that year, they found only one suitable stick for its embellishment. “Never mind”, Maddie said airily, “it can be like that Lord Nelson guy”.
Topside is a small plaque screwed into the ship’s deck, marking the spot where a sniper shot killed Nelson. The plaque reads, “Nelson fell here.” A man nearby commented, “I’m not surprised—I nearly tripped over it myself.”
Further along in the Crypt is the Duke of Wellington’s tomb— unassuming but grand, reflective of the man himself. Wellington is best known as the general who led British and Prussian forces in the defeat of Napoleon’s army at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. Twice British Prime Minister, he remained Commander-in-Chief of the British Army until he died in 1852 at the age of 82.
And tucked in an obscure corner is the tomb of Christopher Wren himself, which is inscribed with the inscription (roughly translated) “Reader, if you seek his monument, look around you.”
No matter how often I visit St. Paul’s, I always find something new to marvel at. It was the first English Cathedral I visited (way back in the 70s) and likely the inspiration for the Cathedral Project many years later.