London’s skyline would be incomplete without the familiar dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral. The present cathedral, built by Sir Christopher Wren between 1675 and 1710, is at least the fifth cathedral to have been built on the site at Ludgate Hill, the first of which was built, according to Bede, in 604. Wren’s cathedral is considered a masterpiece of the English Baroque style, however, were it not for the Great Fire of London in 1666, a very different cathedral would be seen today and a different architect would be remembered for saving a deteriorating building from total collapse.
Construction of Old St. Paul’s began in 1087 after its Saxon predecessor was destroyed by fire. By 1314, the original Romanesque building constructed by the Normans had developed into one of Europe’s largest and most celebrated Gothic cathedrals. However, Old St. Paul’s saw a rapid decline during the 16th century, in no small part due to the Dissolution of the Monasteries which led to the destruction of many interior features and the confiscation of cathedral buildings located in the close. Further disaster struck in 1561 when the central spire caught fire due to lightning and collapsed in on itself bringing down the roof of the nave with it. Both Catholics and Protestants saw the destruction of the spire as proof of God’s displeasure at the other party’s actions. During a period of heightening religious tensions, Elizabeth I contributed money towards the repair of the nave. However, the work was substandard and within fifty years Old St Paul’s fell into disrepair once again.
Concerned by this rapid deterioration, James I appointed Inigo Jones to oversee the reconstruction of Old St. Paul’s. Unlike the traditional master craftsmen of yesteryear, Jones was the first person to fully break with the traditional approach to building design and is recognised as England’s first significant architect. In addition to the reconstruction of many of the Gothic features of Old St. Paul’s, Jones stamped his own identity on the building with the inclusion of several classical elements. He drew inspiration from his trips to Italy and led the revival of classical designs from Rome and the Italian Renaissance in Britain. This influence can clearly be seen in the image below, ‘The West Prospect of the Cathedral Church of St. Paul’, which has been taken from Daniel King’s The Cathedrall and Conventuall Churches of England and Wales (1656), (LPL, H5194.K5).
It has been suggested that Jones’ heavy-handed restoration of Old St. Paul’s had a very obvious court connection. After his initial appointment by James I, Jones continued to work on Old St. Paul’s under the patronage of Charles I. Charles’ wife, the queen consort Henrietta Maria, was a particular admirer of Jones. The Queen’s House in Greenwich, initially commissioned by Anne of Denmark, the queen of James I, was eventually completed by Jones for Henrietta Maria. She even bestowed the title of ‘Surveyor of Her Majesty’s Works’ on Jones, a wholly unofficial post, probably created by the queen herself.
Another of Jones’ patrons was the then Bishop of London and future Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud, who saw the restoration of Old St. Paul’s as an essential element in his programme of wider church reform. A key supporter of Charles I, Laud promoted a theology of High Church Anglicanism within the Church of England known as Laudianism which put an emphasis on liturgical ceremony, clerical hierarchy and the rejection of ideas such as predestination favoured by Calvinists.
Both Charles I and Laud would finance Jones’ restoration of Old St. Pauls, however, the king decided that he alone would pay for the construction of the classically designed West Front. Accounts, such as the one included below, give us a fairly accurate idea of how funds were distributed. In this particular example, (LPL, FP 43: October 1639-September 1640), we see Jones’ own signature as he approves payment to a certain William Decritts for his frieze paintings.
The West Front was a grandiose but ultimately inappropriate statement which was strewn with statues of James I and Charles I. Despite being greatly admired by Wren, it was understandably less well received by Puritans and Presbyterians. Jones’ work on Old St. Paul’s would ultimately cease due to the advent of Civil War, during which time, the cathedral suffered greatly at the hands of Parliamentarian troops. Religious icons were defaced, and the nave became a stable for Roundhead cavalry horses. Old St. Paul’s continued to deteriorate under the governance of the Commonwealth. Building materials were plundered in order to construct the Lord Protector’s city palace and the cathedral was largely neglected due its monarchical and High Anglican symbolism.
By the time of the Restoration in 1660, Old St Paul’s was once again in a state of serious dilapidation. Charles II, newly restored to the throne, appointed Wren as ‘Surveyor to the King’s Works’. Wren initially suggested that Old St. Paul’s should be demolished and an entirely new cathedral be built, however, with public opinion against him, he instead began planning designs which would complement Jones’ previous restorations. Even at this stage, several years prior to the Great Fire, Wren was already drafting plans for a domed tower.
Before Wren could apply any of his designs, the Great Fire of London would first devastate the city, reducing Old St. Paul’s to a smouldering husk. At first, it was suggested that the shell of the building might be salvageable, however, Wren, possibly sensing his chance to totally redesign the cathedral in his own English Baroque style, stated that it would be impossible to reconstruct Old St. Paul’s as it was. With the support of William Sancroft, the Dean of St. Paul’s and future Archbishop of Canterbury, Wren set about demolishing the remnants of Old St. Paul’s in 1668. The clean-up process was surprising arduous, as molten lead from the roof had encased sections of the wall making them difficult to dismantle. Gunpowder was even utilised in an attempt to blast sections of lead encased wall apart, however, after several workmen were killed, Wren opted for a giant battering ram instead. By 1675, all traces of Old St. Paul’s were finally gone and Wren could begin work on the St. Paul’s that we see today.