How St Paul’s Cathedral survived

St Paul’s Cathedral is one of London’s greatest and most loved buildings. Grade I Listed, it is the seat of the Bishop of London and its location on Ludgate Hill has been home to a cathedral to St Paul for over 1400 years.

The present cathedral was built by Sir Christopher Wren to replace the one destroyed in the Great Fire of London: it was the tallest building in London from 1710 until 1967 and took nearly 40 years to build.

Elevated view from south east © Historic England Archive DP073155

Since then, this icon of London’s skyline has hosted funerals, jubilees, royal weddings and even the launch of the Festival of Britain. It continues to be a working church and place of learning and inspiration.

But, during its centuries of existence, the cathedral has been at risk on many occasions: from man-made destruction and iconoclasm to acts of God.

Where Light Falls (24-27 October) is a spectacular, free light and sound installation that remembers the brave actions of volunteers during the Second World War.

Early attacks

Christianity arrived in Britain in the Second Century with the Romans. They left in 410AD, but it would take a further 200 years for the cathedral to be founded. Mellitus, the first Bishop of London, was sent on a mission from Rome by Pope Gregory the Great, and the first St Paul’s was consecrated in 604AD. However, the early versions of the cathedral were subject to fires and Viking attacks as England swung between Paganism and Christianity.  

Old St Paul’s Cathedral in London from Early Christian Architecture by Francis Bond (1913)

After a major fire in 1087 construction on a new cathedral was started and it was eventually consecrated in 1240. Known as Old St Paul’s, this incarnation lasted for over 400 years.

Change and upheaval

During the 16th Century St Paul’s was devastated by radical and sweeping changes to religious life. The Reformation saw many of the original interiors ripped out and destroyed, including chapels and shrines.

St Paul’s Churchyard, London in 1540 showing the Old cathedral. Engraving of 1883 taken from an early painting by Wyngarde made for Philip II of Spain. W H Prior delin. From “Old and New London” Vol I by Walter Thornbury 1883-5. From the Mayson Beeton Collection.

In 1561 the cathedral’s spire was struck by lightning, causing a large and destructive fire. Catholics and Protestants each called it judgement against the other’s misuse of the building. During the 17th Century, the Civil War saw the cathedral ransacked by Parliamentarians and even briefly used as a cavalry barracks for 800 horses.

The Great Fire

In 1660, the Restoration of the English monarch put Charles II on the throne, and for the first time repair of the cathedral was considered in earnest.

The dome, 1960-70 © Historic England Archive aa099078

Sir Christopher Wren had travelled extensively in Europe and had proposed the addition of a dome. This plan was confirmed in August 1666, just one week before fire broke out in the City of London.

The Great Fire of London, which began on Pudding Lane, reached St Paul’s after two days. The wooden scaffolding surrounding it contributed to the destruction as did the thousands of books in the crypt.

After the fire, Wren spent nine years planning the new cathedral, which took 35 years to build. The end result ‘provided a symbol for the Church of England, the renewed capital city, and the emerging empire’.

General view of West elevation © Historic England Archive DP148446

Traces of the original cathedral remain in the design and layout of the cloister garden in the south churchyard.

Canaletto: St. Paul’s Cathedral, 1754

Cracks Appear

On Christmas Eve, 1924 St Paul’s was served with a Dangerous Structures Notice, and closed for public safety. Cracks had formed in the stone, due to the combined weight of the dome and the piers – at one point calculated to be over 67,500 tonnes. Repair works had started much earlier, and the scale of problem was so large that it was continued during the First World War.

The great restoration of the 1920s © St Paul’s Cathedral

The period, one of the most testing of its history, is currently the topic of an exhibition at the cathedral.

World War Two

St Paul’s was hit multiple times during the Second World War and was at risk because of the large amount of timber in its roof and dome. On 12 September 1940 a 4,400lb bomb landed outside the cathedral but did not explode.

It was expertly defused by bomb disposal experts who were awarded the George Cross for their actions. This new medal had been instituted by King George VI as part of a drive by the government to recognise acts of bravery by civilians during the war. 

A member of the Royal Observer Corps on watch during the Battle of Britain, 1940

A group of volunteers had been convened during the First World War to protect the cathedral from damage in Zeppelin raids. Authorities reconvened the St Paul’s Watch in 1939, led by Mr Godfrey Allen – Surveyor to the Cathedral. Allen knew its layout better than anybody and recruits included a number of architects who responded to a special appeal to the Royal Institute of British Architects. 

A member of the St Paul’s Watch © St Paul’s Cathedral

They worked in shifts to make sure the cathedral was always guarded. On 29 December 1940 an especially heavy raid broke out, targeting the City. That night 28 bombs hit the cathedral, some of them lodging in the roof timbers. Volunteers crawled along smouldering beams to douse the flames.

St Paul’s Cathedral, 1941. Source Historic England Archive AL0008_042_02
A view from the roof of St Paul’s Cathedral towards the Old Baliey in the aftermath of 29-30 December, 1940

The bombing of that night devastated the heavily built up surrounding areas and the dome was veiled in smoke from the dozens of fires burning all around it, as seen in Herbert Mason’s infamous photo, St Paul’s Survives. During that night, 160 people died and over 500 were injured.

St Paul’s Survives, Herbert Mason. December 29-30 1940 .

On 8 May 1945 ten consecutive services were held in thanksgiving for peace, attended by thousands of people. Since then, work to maintain the cathedral continues, including protection from pollution and other external risks.

With the major structural issues resolved and war damage repaired, the Cathedral has welcomed world leaders, thinkers, theologians, politicians and the public in pursuit of hope for a better society.

Dr Martin Luther King stopped at St Paul’s to speak from the west steps en route to collect his Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, and his widow Coretta Scott King became the first woman to preach in a statutory service in St Paul’s. Other speakers have included Mahatma Gandhi and the Dalai Lama.

Memorial services to those that died on 9/11 in New York, 7/7 in London and at Grenfell Tower have also been held at St Paul’s.

Written by Charlotte Goodhart.

Further Reading

4 responses to How St Paul’s Cathedral survived

  1. gunst01 says:

    St. Paul’s Cathedral has an interesting orientation, as it points to the sunrise on 3th September, the day of Remembrance of Cromwell and Gregory the Great. He once set Mellitus of London in 601 as the first bishop.

  2. Edmund Lee says:

    For a very entertaining fictional account of the work of the Fire Guardians at St Pauls, have a look at Connie Willis novella “Firewatch”

    • Freda says:

      Her other books, Blackout and All Clear have detailed descriptions of the efforts to safe St Paul’s with marvellous details of the church.

  3. Charley Scott says:

    I worked on a house in bankside across the Thames from St Paul’s, purported to have been where Wren lived while the cathedral was being built. This saved the house from demolition during the construction of the Globe theatre and the Tate modern. Turns out it was built a year after St Paul’s was finished and the actual house Wren lived in was flattened during the blitz and the plaque was recovered and put on the house on Bankside.

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