In the Shadow of St Paul’s Cathedral: The Churchyard that Shaped London
By Margaret Willes
Yale University Press, pp. 320, £25
The Romanists, indeed, may build larger churches,” wrote Christopher Wren, “it is enough if they hear the murmur of the Mass, and see the elevation of the Host, but ours are fitted for auditories.”
In truth, though, neither the medieval St Paul’s Cathedral, nor the present building which Wren designed after the Great Fire of 1666, were ever remarkable for Christian practice.
There have been great preachers – both Catholic and Protestant – attached to the cathedral, notably the poet John Donne, who was born a Catholic but served as Anglican Dean of St Paul’s for 10 years until his death in 1631. His sermons, however, along with those of other distinguished preachers before the Civil War, were generally delivered in the open air at St Paul’s Cross, which stood on the north-east side of the cathedral. Thousands might attend; few can have heard very much. And what they did grasp was as likely to be government propaganda as Christian ethics.
It was for its size rather than its zeal that old St Paul’s impressed. One of the largest cathedrals in Europe, it measured 586ft in length (Wren’s successor stands at 518ft), and longer still after Inigo Jones added a porch at the west end in the 1630s. The nave was 100ft wide, the transepts 290ft across, and the spire, destroyed by fire in 1561, soared to 489ft, considerably higher than the present dome which reaches 365ft.
Yet, while Mass was being celebrated in the choir, the main body of the the cathedral served as a forum for business dealings, social chit-chat, and hopeful assignation. There were even football matches in the nave, to the detriment of the statues and stained glass.
Matters did not improve with the Reformation. In Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part 2, Sir John Falstaff declares that he had “bought” Bardolph, he of the inflamed red nose, “in Paules”. More grimly, when in 1606, the Jesuit Henry Garnet was hung, drawn and quartered outside the west door of the cathedral, the authorities charged spectators a shilling each to view the ghastly spectacle.
In 1629 John Donne lashed out at the proceedings within the cathedral. “You meet below, and there make your bargains for biting, for devouring usury, and then you come up hither for prayers, and so make God your Broker.”
During the Commonwealth, St Paul’s was used as stabling for Cromwell’s cavalry. Rumour had it that a new-born foal was baptised in the font: certainly the brutish soldiery tore out much of the cathedral’s precious woodwork to make fires. As for the military’s sanitation, it offended even 17th-century sensibility.
Tongues continued to wag even in Wren’s building. In 1708, when Queen Anne attended a service to celebrate Marlborough’s victory at Oudenarde, the Whigs were unjustly suspected of removing bolts and screws in the cathedral roof, right above the place where the monarch and her Tory ministers would be sitting.
Over the past 250 years, St Paul’s has attained respectability as a sepulchre for heroes, and a theatre for national celebration. The choir is now superb. Christian revival, however, remains doubtful.
As the title suggests, Margaret Willes’s book is as much concerned with the surroundings of St Paul’s as with the cathedral itself. Being the largest open space in the City, the churchyard was the preferred site for all manner of activities, political, commercial, educational, sporting and theatrical.
Willes is particularly concerned with the book trade which flourished around the cathedral. At first, in the late 15th and early 16th century, this business was dominated by foreigners, and largely confined to religious works. After the Stationers’ Company obtained a charter in 1567, however, the publication and sale of books became predominantly a native enterprise, still centred in the St Paul’s area. As late as December 1940, when German bombers set the precincts of the cathedral ablaze, 17 publishing houses were destroyed in Paternoster Row.
The book also covers the textile and drapery trades which throve in the area. It is interesting to find that in these, as in other businesses, wives and daughters often played important roles, centuries before they were accorded full legal status, or even recognition.
Willes’s writing, though never flashy, is invariably accurate, clear and fascinating. She discovers infinite historical riches in this one small patch of London, and delivers them to the reader without complication or prejudice. Indeed, as Dr Johnson said: “He who is tired of London is tired of life.”
Robert Gray is the author of A History of London.
This article first appeared in the March 2022 issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe today.
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