The History of St Paul's Cathedral (600 - 1666 AD), London, UK Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

The History of St Paul's Cathedral (600 - 1666 AD), London, UK

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The Cathedral of St Paul's, in London, has been in existence in some form for over 1,400 years. The present cathedral is at least the fourth to occupy the site on Ludgate Hill. This entry does not deal with the present cathedral, but the ones which stood on this site for the thousand years before the current building was erected. Details of the cathedral still standing at the time of writing can be found in the entry St Paul's Cathedral (from 1666 AD).

St Paul's is in the City of London and is near to the Thames. It is on a roughly triangular site, with Ludgate Hill at the west (top) of the triangle, Cannon Street to the south and the junction of Cheapside and Newgate Street to the north. The closest bridge across the Thames is the Millennium Bridge, directly south of the cathedral.

Before Christianity there was possibly a temple to Diana, the Roman Goddess of the hunt, on this spot, although this is a traditional belief, which has no evidence behind it.

The First St Paul's

Around 604AD, eight years after the first Christian mission landed in Kent, under St Augustine, Ethelbert, King of Kent, raised a stately fane1 on the site and endowed it with the manor of Tillingham in Essex (among other gifts). This manor is still in the possession of the Dean and Chapter, making it one of the oldest tenures in the country. Official signs in the town of Tillingham still include the dome of St Paul's to reflect this. At the time, it was home to Mellitus, the first East Saxon bishop.

Records from the period of 600 - 1300 are not complete. However, it appears that the cathedral was destroyed and rebuilt a number of times. Certainly it was burnt down in 675, rebuilt by St Erkenwald; destroyed by Vikings in 961, and burnt down again in 1087, shortly after the Norman Conquest. Building work began immediately on a new cathedral, but was not completed until 1327, over two centuries later. It is this cathedral that the phrase 'Old St Paul's' refers to.

Old St Paul's

The Norman Old St Paul's was a much larger cathedral than the previous St Paul's. Made of stone with a wooden roof, it was 586 feet long, while the spire is recorded as being either 489 feet or 520 feet high, not far behind today's BT Tower. At the time, Old St Paul's was the tallest church in the whole of Europe. It also became the third longest cathedral in Europe when a new Gothic Choir was added in around 1313. Struck by lightning in 1440, the building had to wait 15 years to be rebuilt, only to be destroyed during a thunderstorm in 1561 - Elizabeth I contributed to repairs this time. The bell-towers were so big they were used as prisons, and had a rose window so glorious that it appeared on many an embroiderer's work. The cathedral was at the heart of a complex of other buildings, including a parish church, bishop's palace, school and a bell tower. Built in Gothic Style, it featured the flying buttresses and pointed arches of a typical European cathedral, and had no dome.

St Paul's Cross was a simple cross at the entrance to the churchyard in the north-east corner meant to remind passing citizens to pray for peace for departed souls and had been there since at least 1241. It was also used for preaching sermons, as a place for penance to be paid and for public announcements and royal proclamations. The structure was a wooden pulpit with a conical lead roof with a cross on the top. It stood until 1643 when it was destroyed by Puritans who considered it to be idolatrous. An inscription now marks the spot and reads 'Here stood St Paul's Cross'. A 'new' St Paul's Cross monument was built close to the spot in 1910.

Old St Paul's became rather less grand in its later days. The nave became a public promenade as a short cut and a market area, with all sorts of dubious characters making it a place of assignation. Innocent sightseers might be mingling with prostitutes touting for business. They would have been well advised to stay away from the 'courtesy men' (conmen), and the 'cheater' or 'fingerer' who might lure them away to a crooked card game. Pickpockets also roamed the area. A theatre was built against the outer walls. Under Charles I, extensive restoration took place, with Inigo Jones being asked to build a neo-classical portico along its west facade, but the Commonwealth Parliament appropriated the funds and Cromwell stabled his troops' horses in the nave. Jones could only delay the inevitable and the cathedral was eventually destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666, along with the derelict remains of the Cloisters of the Order of Secular Canons, who once staffed the cathedral. The foundations of the cloisters can still be seen in the grass on the south side of St Paul's.

The Bawdy Courts

The 'bawdy courts' were ecclesiastical courts, which recognised women as separate individuals. The civil and common courts at the time did not. In the 1570s half of the cases brought to the bawdy courts were brought by women, mainly questions of marriage and sexual assaults, and half of the witnesses were also women.

The court sat in the long chapel and 'going to the bawdy court' meant invoking that court's jurisdiction. Most cases were settled quickly, in the early stages, with the clerk of the court recording everything carefully. Euphemistically, 'occupying' was the word recorded for the large amount of colloquialisms for sex that the women brought with them. For instance, one plaintiff alleged that the local parson 'had thy pleasure and use of me, and in occupying me thou didst use me more ruffian-like than honestly'.


There are both a boys' and a girls' school associated with St Paul's, although the latter was never located the City of London and was formed relatively recently. The Boys' school was formed by the Dean of St Paul's in 1509. With 153 boys (who had to already be able to read and write before they were allowed in) it was one of the largest schools of the time. The number came from the number of fish that were caught in the miraculous biblical story. The school took a fish as its symbol. Destroyed with the cathedral in the Great Fire, it was rebuilt in 1670 and then again in 1822 before being moved out to Hammersmith in 1884 and then out to Barnes in 1968, where the school still stands today. Famous 'old fish' include Samuel Pepys, John Milton and Edmond Halley.

Fascinating Facts

  • At one time the graveyard at St Paul's was open to burials from parishes that had no more room in their churchyards. This was stopped when it was realised that some churches were renting out their churchyards and making use of St Paul's instead. The ground at St Paul's was so crowded that the Lord Mayor told the Privy Council 'scarcely any graves could be made without corpses being laid open'. After this, parishes had to send their 'overflow' to a new burial ground that was outside the city wall near Bedlam.

  • St Paul's Churchyard is the name of a street that circled the cathedral (some of this area has now pedestrianised and other street names have changed). In the time of the Norman cathedral this was a very busy market area, filled with booksellers. It was the beginning of the publishing industry in the region.

1An Old English term for temple or church.

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