With its famous great dome, Sir Christopher Wren’s Baroque masterpiece, St Paul’s Cathedral, has reinvented itself time after time and now stands as a true icon of the London skyline
If Big Ben is Britain’s most instantly identifiable building, St Paul’s Cathedral can’t be very far behind. Sir Christopher Wren’s Baroque masterpiece is one of the buildings most closely identified with London – as the Reverend Dr Giles Fraser, Canon Chancellor of the cathedral says, “You can’t have a picture of London without the dome. It says London like nothing else.”
This spectacular building is the fifth, or possibly the sixth cathedral to stand on this site, but its mighty dome has been a reassuring presence for Londoners for more than 300 years. During the Second World War Winston Churchill commanded that, whatever else happened, St Paul’s must be saved from the bombs.
Yet this cathedral would not be here had it not been for another of the most terrifying episodes in London’s history. It is currently celebrating the 300th anniversary of its completion in 1710 but the building’s history really began on the night of 2 September, 1666, when a fire in a baker’s shop on Pudding Lane, a few hundred yards to the south-east, got out of control and started to spread through the wooden houses that lined and leaned across the narrow city streets.
A few nights later, what had become the Great Fire of London reached the old cathedral, where it fed hungrily on the timber and lead of the roof. “The stones of St Paul’s flew like grenados, the melting lead running down the streets in a stream and the very pavements glowing with fiery redness”, wrote the diarist John Evelyn.
This was not the first time that St Paul’s had burned to the ground. The first cathedral was founded in 604, by Mellitus, a member of St Augustine’s mission to convert the Anglo- Saxons to Christianity. He was driven out of his cathedral by the pagan East Saxons in 616. By the end of the 7th century Christianity had taken hold and the cathedral was rebuilt in stone, only for both it and its successor to be consumed by two more, long forgotten Great Fires of London, in 962 and 1087.
The great medieval cathedral that succeeded them took almost a century to complete and was one of the wonders of Christendom, almost 200 metres long, with a huge central spire, 149 metres (489 feet) high, taller than the present dome and the tallest structure to stand in London until the 1960s. But by the time of its destruction in 1666, Old St Paul’s was in a poor state of repair.
The spire had gone, destroyed by lightning in 1561 and it had been used as a market place and as a barracks for Parliamentarian soldiers and their horses during the Civil War. Even so, the total loss of its cathedral must have been a terrible symbolic blow to London. Fortunately for London, a genius was at hand, eager to rebuild it.
Sir Christopher Wren was 33 years old in September 1666 and already Professor of Astronomy at Oxford University. He submitted a plan for a whole new London, based on broad avenues and piazzas, within ten days of the fire. The city’s traders and householders, returning to rebuild their homes and businesses, would never have allowed that but Wren was to leave his mark on London in the rebuilding of 51 churches damaged or destroyed in the fire – and at St Paul’s. Legend has it that when he measured out where the centre of the dome would be within the ruins of the old cathedral, he asked a workman to find a large stone to mark the spot. The workman found an old gravestone, upon which one word from the Latin inscription could still be read: Resurgam.
The cathedral did rise again. It took 35 years, from 1675 to 1710. The symmetry and mathematical precision of the building and the pale white Portland stone from which it was constructed were in complete contrast to the beautiful but often improvised and irregular features of the medieval cathedrals.
Wren supervised construction closely, from a basket in which he was winched up into the dome and through a telescope at his home in Southwark on the other side of the Thames. He lived to see the cathedral completed and became the first person to be interred here after his death in 1723, at the age of 91. His tomb is plain and modest but his son composed a moving epitaph, inscribed in Latin in the centre of the cathedral floor beneath the dome: ‘Beneath lies buried the founder of this church and city, Christopher Wren, who lived more than 90 years, not for himself but for the public good. Reader, if you seek his monument, look around you’.
His greatest achievement is surely the magnificent dome. It is 111 metres (365 feet) high, one foot in height for each day of the year, one of many elements in Wren’s design symbolising the relationship between the earth and the heavens. Inside it is decorated by Sir James Thornhill’s superb paintings of the life of St Paul.
If you can, climb the 257 steps to the Whispering Gallery, which encircles the inside of the dome, a frightening 30 metres above the cathedral floor. From here, the dome and Thornhill’s paintings are suddenly even larger and more impressive than when seen from the cathedral floor. You can also try out the strange acoustics of the whispering gallery, where sound tends to rush around the curving wall, so you can whisper to a friend who will hear you dozens of yards away.
Another of the building’s startling innovations is not usually open to the public: the ‘geometric’ Dean’s staircase. Built by William Kempster it is an unsettling spiral staircase that appears to be supported by nothing as it winds up the inside the cathedral’s south-west tower.
Canon Fraser, previously the vicar of Putney in south London and well known to listeners of BBC Radio 4 as a contributor to Thought for the Day, loves the cathedral but can’t truly enjoy some of its most famous architectural features. “My only problem is that I’m very afraid of heights,” he says. “And the Dean is too! Neither of us can go onto the Whispering Gallery. I have climbed the geometric staircase, which is one of my favourite places in the building, but by the last quarter [of the staircase], I’m perspiring heavily, clutching the wall and thinking about doing it on my knees!”
Henry Moore’s Mother and Child is among the most admired of the modern works of art in the cathedral, along with the superb marble and carved and gilded oak High Altar, completed in 1958. Behind the High Altar is the American Chapel, which commemorates the 28,000 members of US forces stationed in Britain who were killed during the war and includes an illuminated book of remembrance.
The cathedral’s crypt houses tombs and memorials, including the last resting places of two of only three people whose state funerals have been held here: Lord Horatio Nelson and Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington; and a memorial to the third, Sir Winston Churchill, who is buried at St Martin’s Church in Bladon, Oxfordshire.
The other place to go, if you can, is the very top of the building, climbing the stairs above the Whispering Gallery to the Stone Gallery (53 metres and 376 steps above the ground), outside the bottom of the dome, then on up the spiral staircases between the lead roof of the outer dome and the brickwork cone that Wren built to support it above the inner dome, to reach the Golden Gallery above the dome (85 metres and 528 steps above the ground).
From here you will have sensational views and even more respect both for the people who built it and for the fire wardens who doused fires that could have destroyed it every night during the Blitz. Churchill and Londoners got their wish and the cathedral, like Britain itself, survived. Everyone who visits it today will hope it can last forever.