St Paul’s Cathedral is one of the iconic sites of London. Standing on Ludgate Hill in the City Of London it is the mother church of the Anglican Diocese of London and home to the Bishop of London.
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History Of The Site
There’s been a church on the site of St Paul’s since at least AD604. Indeed there have been at least five cathedrals on the site, including the present one.
The fourth cathedral, known as ‘Old St.Pauls’, was the longest standing having been started by the Normans in 1087.
Old St. Paul’s was gutted by the Great Fire Of London in 1666. The fire, which started in nearby Pudding Lane, swept through the city destroying many buildings including St Paul’s and 86 other churches.
There was talk of reconstruction but it was decided to rebuild lost buildings in a more contemporary style.
Sir Christopher Wren
The task was given to Sir Christopher Wren, a renowned scientist and astronomer who had become interested in architecture, in 1669.
Wren was appointed as the King’s Surveyor of Works by Charles II and hence became involved in the rebuilding of 51 churches and other buildings around London.
Many of these buildings survive today – the Greenwich Naval College is one fine example – but it is St Paul’s that is his main legacy.
The Cathedral is one of the finest examples of the English Baroque style, a more subdued version of the flamboyant Baroque design popular in Europe.
Domes are a feature of many Baroque buildings of the time – St Peter’s in Rome for example – and this is St.Paul’s most distinctive element.
The St Paul’s dome comprises three shells: an outer stone layer for decoration, a concealed brick layer for structural support and an inner dome.
This inner dome forms the famous ‘Whispering Gallery” inside the cathedral.
Completion & Reaction
The Cathedral was completed in 1711, but had been consecrated for use in 1697.
Reactions were mixed. Many found the grandeur as exhilarating as most current visitors. However many found the baroque style not, well, British.
The Earl of Shaftesbury, a prominent Whig politician, condemned what he saw as a vulgar design in his “Letter Concerning the Arts, or Science of Design” published in 1712.
Much of the problem was the design’s link to the ‘Popery’ of southern Europe, Rome in particular. In the height of Protestant vs Catholic conflict, St.Paul’s was seen to be just a little too showy. Catholic even.
Colen Campbell, a Scottish architect, went so far as to publish a more traditional Palladian design for St Pauls to show exactly how a proper British church should look (the implication being, of course, that St.Paul’s was far from this ideal).
The argument has been raging for 300 years – 20th century architect Maxwell Hutchison was still criticising the ‘fakery’ of St.Paul’s not long ago for example – but most have, I think, been won over.
London would not seem quite London without St.Paul’s.
Life Of The Nation
From its inception, St.Paul’s was at the heart of the events of a nation quickly becoming a global world power.
The funerals of Admiral Nelson, and the Duke of Wellington were held there. In Victorian times Jubilee celebrations during Queen Victoria’s reign were often held at St Paul’s.
More recently, the Cathedral played host to the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer. Whatever the suitability of the match, or what happened in later years, the Cathedral played host to one of the magical events of the late twentieth century.
The funerals of British Prime Ministers Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher were also held in St Paul’s.
During The War
St Paul’s greatest achievement may actually have been what it didn’t do: succumb to German bombing during World War II.
As much of London burned during the Blitz, the untouched Dome of St Paul’s standing defiantly against the flames became a symbol of Londoners’ resolve during those dark days.
Many of Wren’s other constructions weren’t so lucky, but St. Paul’s remained largely undamaged.
The Cathedral is still one of the most popular tourist attractions and a key focal point for Londoners.
It’s still, of course, a place of worship and holds regular services on Sundays and religious festivals. And it can be visited by tourists (current restrictions permitting).