In The Shadow of St. Paul's Cathedral: The Churchyard that Shaped London, by Margaret Willes
Yale University Press, 2022
When it comes to England’s collective experience of the Second World War, one of the most memorable images associated with the conflict shows the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral rising above bomb-shattered Central London. Herbert Mason’s iconic photograph, taken on the 29th or 30th of December 1940 after the Luftwaffe had laid waste to most of the surrounding area, has often been referenced as a symbol of this country’s indomitable spirit. However, as Margaret Willes’s book In the Shadow of St Paul’s shows, for much of its history the successive incarnations of St Paul’s --along with the immediate precincts of this nationally significant ecclesiastical hub-- have been contested spaces not always synonymous with an inviolable sense of patriotic continuity.
Willes begins her account as the mists of time are swirling around Roman London, where, by 314, the presence of Christianity can be detected, even though no remains of Roman churches have ever been found in the City. Once the Romans had packed their bags, it was up to the Anglo-Saxons to, as the Venerable Bede put it, build “a church dedicated to the Apostle Paul in the city of London” up on Ludgate Hill. Here the first of multiple instantiations of St Paul’s was constructed, only to be later destroyed by fire. Its replacement fell victim to Viking wrath, and yet more fire put paid to a further structure in 1087. By then the Conqueror’s son, William Rufus, was in a position to pour money into building a grand Romanesque cruciform structure, intended to be one of the largest cathedrals in Europe. Come the thirteenth century, St Paul’s had acquired a soaring steeple estimated to rise (by some accounts) to 260 feet --but as it was later destroyed in a lightning strike, we’ll never know if that estimate of scale was accurate.
However, and notwithstanding the steadfast determination shown in constantly rebuilding the church on the site, it is the surrounding area dominated by this formidable edifice that most interests Willes. This space, otherwise known as St Paul’s Churchyard, soon became a settlement of sorts within the wider city. A bustling community, both religious and secular, populated a teeming space in which Chantry college priests prayed for the souls of the departed, stonemasons toiled in their workshops, and scriveners worked on legal contracts, whilst in neighbouring streets London’s principal food markets set up their stalls on a daily basis. This space also boasted --with the installation in the mediaeval period of a structure known as St Paul’s Cross, situated in the north-east part of the churchyard-- a focal area where public announcements, often of national importance, could be made, rousing sermons were preached, and religious transgressors were punished.
By the beginning of the sixteenth century a trade that would become synonymous with St Paul’s Churchyard had started to establish itself, namely bookselling. In the wake of William Caxton's introduction of printing to England in 1476, his aptly named apprentice Wynkyn de Worde moved his former master’s printing and book selling business eastward from Westminster to Fleet Street. By 1508 de Worde had set up shop in the Churchyard, followed by many similar craftsmen, so that by the 1540s the site and its environs was the highly concentrated and prosperous centre of the English book trade.
During the Reformation period the Churchyard maintained its importance within the capital. For example, it was the site where Henry VIII’s break with Rome was transformed into public spectacle when the Rood (or cross) of Grace, a symbol of discredited Catholic 'idolatry,' was brought from Boxley Abbey in Kent to St. Paul’s Cross and ceremoniously smashed to pieces. Indeed, the Churchyard often played host to religious grandstanding, as successive Tudor regimes used it to drum up allegiance to, by turns, Catholicism or Protestantism as the one true faith. In an age when attending sermons was an integral part of life for most of the populace, the Churchyard proved to be the ecclesiastical equivalent of Old Trafford when it came to attracting regular capacity crowds. Not that these crowds always passively soaked up what they heard from the learned theologians who addressed them, as Dr Gilbert Bourne, a chaplain in the household of Mary Tudor, found out to his cost when he was pulled from the pulpit by a mob behaving “lyke mad pepull,” so disaffected were they by the good Doctor’s lecturing. By the commencement of the Elizabethan age the sermons, although still replete with doctrinal fireworks, had also developed into vehicles for commenting on political events. The Queen's one and only visit to the Churchyard was in November 1588, in celebration of the Spanish defeat. Her erstwhile favourite Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, would later plan to head for St Paul’s Cross to rally the crowds in support of his proposed rebellion against her. However, when the plot failed through lack of popular support, the site was instead used by preachers working for Essex’s arch-rival Robert Cecil to condemn the earl’s treasonous intentions.
As an intriguing aside from the hurly-burly of socio-political discord enacted within the precincts of the Churchyard, Willes provides a potted history of the Children of Paul’s, a troupe of boy actors and choristers who played an important part in the history of the Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre. These youngsters, ranging in age from six to their mid-teens, received their education at St Paul’s School in the easternmost part of the Churchyard, where, all seated in one large room under the auspices of the high master, they studied religious texts or Latin grammar. Outside the schoolroom the Children of Paul’s became a company of highly skilled musical and dramatic entertainers under the tutelage of several accomplished choirmasters, regularly performing at various royal locations for the monarch and her retinue, and even had their own theatre open to the public within the boundaries of the Churchyard. Indeed, such was the fame of these juvenile performers that Shakespeare himself appears to snipe at them in Hamlet, when he has Rosencrantz make a dyspeptic reference to child actors as “little eyasses [untrained hawks] that cry out on the top of the question, and are most tyrannically clapped for’t.”
Back in the world of real-life drama, St Paul’s Churchyard was, in 1606, the site chosen for the execution of some of the Gunpowder Plotters, and thereafter became the place where City dignitaries assembled to give thanks for the timely uncovering of this conspiracy. In a similar anti-sedition vein, John Donne --former versifying libertine turned saturnine man of the cloth-- regularly and vehemently preached the party line at St Paul’s Cross by imploring all good citizens to subjugate themselves to the will of the ruling orders. Meanwhile, whilst all this righteous posturing was taking place, St Paul’s and its Churchyard were beginning to show serious structural signs of age by the mid-seventeenth century, not least because during the Civil War and subsequent Commonwealth the open space was “not only used as a shopping precinct, but also to provide stabling for the horses of the Parliamentary forces.” Woodworm was rife, stained glass had been smashed, and statues had been defaced. Even at the Restoration no serious attempt was made to restore the building to its former glory until, in 1663, a committee was established to come up with some renovation proposals. One of its more prominent members was Christopher Wren, who in the late summer of 1666 presented plans designed to prevent the Cathedral from collapsing at any minute. As it turned out, however, all this cogitation about how to save the old ruin would prove academic come the early hours of the 2nd of September 1666.
Exactly what was lost to the flames once the Great Fire of London took hold of the cathedral and its environs is an imponderable question (although some of what would now be the most historically valuable items of Shakespeariana were almost certainly consumed in and around the Churchyard). By the mid-seventeenth century many bookstalls and shops were nestled close to the old cathedral, and initial hopes that its thick stone walls would prevent the fire from spreading their way were to prove unfounded. In scenes reminiscent of the conflagration which devoured Notre-Dame Cathedral in 2019, Willes describes how “as they spread along the roof of the choir the flames melted the lead that poured down into the interior of the cathedral, causing everything below to explode like a huge bonfire.” Indeed, so fierce was the fire that the philosopher John Locke, fifty-two miles away in Oxford, sensed “an unusual colour of the air, which without a cloud appearing made the sunbeams a strange red, dim light.” Thankfully by the 6th of September the worst of it was over, and not long after plans were in place to build a bigger and better cathedral and churchyard on the site of the fire-ravaged plot. Up popped Christopher Wren again, who managed to muscle his way to the head of the architects clamouring to design the first new cathedral in England since the Reformation. Although some doubters on the committee tasked with approving Wren’s plans thought his designs suspiciously Romanish in their classical swagger, they were eventually sanctioned by Charles II. However, there was a nine-year gap between the Great Fire and the go-ahead to start work, by which point the Churchyard itself had become a cross between derelict wasteland and casual thoroughfare for the City’s traffic. Eventually, on the 21st of June 1675, the first stone of the new cathedral was officially laid. However, it was not until October 1708 that Wren’s son had the honour of being hauled up to the top of the dome to help fix the copper ball and cross to the lantern. This signified the culmination of his father’s achievement, despite acrimony throughout the construction period with committee members unhappy with Wren's evolving plans.
Whilst architectural and ideological disputes were unfolding in and around the resurgent cathedral itself, those ever-resourceful booksellers had returned to their old haunts in the Churchyard, so that by the latter half of the seventeenth century it had become “a dispatch centre for books to all parts of the country and to markets overseas, including the English colonies in North America and the West Indies.” Contemporary accounts give a flavour of the lively human traffic in a space where “booksellers were as plentiful as pedlars at a fair,” scholarly bibliophiles rummaging their way through a vast array of esoteric tomes, cheek-by-jowl with less high-minded punters perusing picture-sellers’ shop windows with “many a smutty print staring the church in the face.” Other trades such as drapers, furniture makers, and scientific instrument manufacturers also occupied their own corners of the Churchyard in what was, in effect, a precursor of a modern-day shopping mall. By the late eighteenth century booksellers were not the only literary entrepreneurs who had entrenched themselves within the Churchyard: several publishers of journals, reviews, and diverse volumes on all manner of subjects could also be found operating in the Cathedral’s shadow. One such publisher was Joseph Johnson, who printed Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman as well as tracts in defence of the American Revolution, and at whose celebrated dinners the likes of Thomas Paine mingled with William Godwin and Henry Fuselli.
Well into the nineteenth century the Churchyard continued to be a stage upon which national dramas were performed, such as when, in 1820, cheering crowds welcomed Queen Caroline, the estranged wife of George IV, to the cathedral for a thanksgiving service after she had thwarted her contemptible husband's plans to divorce her and thus deny her regal status. Over half a century later an altogether more proletarian spirit of popular dissent saw, in 1887, a Socialist rally storm the cathedral grounds. Despite calls from the Archdeacon of London for the protesters to recognise that rich and poor should learn to live in harmony, one of the Socialist leaders declared “Christianity is essentially a middle-class creed - with a capitalist paradise here.” This popular unrest was followed in 1905 by a large-scale demonstration by the unemployed, who gathered in the Churchyard to protest their economic hardships.
Although events such as these have largely been brushed under the carpet in favour of maintaining the image of St Paul’s and its Churchyard as a sanctified bailiwick of English identity, Wilkes demonstrates that the reason why this palimpsest of a locale remains such an evocative site is that it bears witness to the highly various occurrences which make this country’s history so intriguing and disputed.--Mark Jones