of Saint Paul in London
From Sunday September 2nd until Wednesday September 5, 1666, a raging fire swept through the City of London. Londoners from King Charles and his brother, the Duke of York, down to street vendors and rag-peddlars joined arm-in-arm fighting the appalling conflagration but without much success. Archeological evidence shows that the fire reached 3,092o Fahrenheit (1700 degrees Celsius), virtually able to incinerate stone. When The Great Fire of London was finally extinguished the “City”—the square mile within the old city walls—was gone. Over 13,000 homes, 87 parish churches, and the great medieval Cathedral Church of Saint Paul were destroyed. The fire gave the Diocese of London encouragement to redraw many parish lines as not all the destroyed churches were to be rebuilt, but the Cathedral, of course, had to be rebuilt.
There had been talk even before the fire of rebuilding Saint Paul’s. The vast medieval Cathedral, the second largest church in medieval Europe after the Abbey of Cluny, was 586 feet in length, 100 feet wide, with a span of 290 feet at the transepts. In its day it had been glorious with the highest spire and the best stained glass in England. Ironically its construction had begun in the 11th century to replace an older cathedral destroyed by fire in 1087. A 1561 fire had toppled the spire but left the cathedral itself undamaged, but that fire combined with the Puritan indifference to cathedrals had led to a century of decay. With the Restoration of the Monarchy (and bishops) in 1660 the decision had to be made: restore or build anew. The Great Fire put an end to the discussion, there was no longer a choice but to rebuild.
The Architect chosen for the work was Christopher Wren (1632-1723), a brilliant polymath who was expert in geometry, anatomy, astronomy, and physics as well as an architect who would build or rebuild over 50 of the London Churches after the fire. Wren’s initial design reflected the Protestant ideal of simplicity and an emphasis on hearing the Word with a cathedral designed primarily for preaching rather than for pageantry. The design was initially accepted but with the 1660 Restoration of the monarchy and episcopacy certain shifts both in theology and taste had already begun to occur and the clergy mounted a campaign for a more elaborate—and traditionally formatted—building. The clergy insisted on the Latin cruciform plan with nave, transepts, and a deep choir. A second design was submitted, approved by the King, but still did not meet clerical standards. A third and final design received the Royal Warrant but King Charles permitted Wren discretionary use to make alterations—“more ornamental than essential”—as the building proceeded. The finished Cathedral bore little resemblance to the final plan as Wren used that discretionary power widely.
One interesting story is that in laying out the design for the new cathedral, Wren sent a workman to fetch a stone, any stone, to mark the exact spot that would lie beneath the center point of the projected great dome that would rise over the crossing at the midpoint of the Cathedral. The worker brought him a fragment of a gravestone that had been in the pavement of the old cathedral and it was marked with the Latin word, Resurgam: “I shall rise.” Wren was deeply impressed by this and took it as a sign of his Divine Mission to rebuild the cathedral.
In the end he produced a magnificent building, and one that bespeaks the emerging via media of the 17th century Caroline Anglican tradition. The cornerstone was laid on June 21st 1675 with Masonic rites. While some critics complained that it “had an air of popery about it,” it really isn’t very Catholic at all, but neither is it very Protestant. It is in the baroque style of the day but has an air of Protestant reserve rather than Catholic enthusiasm. There was a wooden communion table, not a stone altar, at the eastern end of the choir. Wren had wanted a proper altar beneath an elaborate baldachino—very much like what stands there today—but the Church of England was not about to go that “Roman” yet. On the other hand, there was a traditional choir screen separating the chancel and altar from the nave. The screen was removed in the 19th century to give the view of the chancel from the entire length of the nave. The screen, or pulpitum as it is properly called, bore the great organ, a “Father Smith” organ (named after the great German organ builder of the day, Bernard Smith) in a case designed by Wren’s team and carved by Grinling Gibbons who was perhaps the finest artist to work in wood the world has ever known. Gibbons also carved the magnificent choir stalls in the chancel. The wrought iron work was done by Jean Tijou, the premier iron worker of his day.
There is a humorous anecdote about the organ. Wren didn’t want one in the church because he thought that the chancel screen to bear it and the organ itself would cut his cathedral in half and break that magnificent view from back to front. But the clergy insisted on an organ. The puritan days were over and there was to be no reserve when it came to good music in church. Wren would always refer to the instrument as “that confounded box of whistles.” In the nineteenth century the screen was taken down, the organ moved to the wall on the north side of the choir, and Wren’t desired view was finally opened.
The construction of Saint Paul’s testifies to an Anglicanism searching to find its unique identity. There was no desire to return to the Calvinism of Edward’s and Elizabeth’s days. This was a cathedral built for processions and ceremony; while not for Catholic pomp, certainly for an English decorum. It was at its heart, Protestant—a wooden communion table stood in place of an altar; but there was a Catholic attention to fine point, a persnicketyness even, in the detail of the carvings and ironwork and other décor. While it was suited for preaching, it was designed for liturgy. It reflected the theological shifts of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer and while the Oxford movement and its ritualism were still centuries off, so too the sacramental slovenliness of Puritan Anglicanism was left in an unremembered past. But then London itself was being reborn as a European center in rivalry to Paris and its cathedral—and the religion it represented—could hardly be that Geneva Gown and Psalm singing cult of the days of James I. Londoners were becoming less rigid ideologues and more cosmopolitan consumers.