Thursday, 12 September 2013

Old St Paul's Cathedral

Old St Pauls was the medieval predecessor of Sir Christopher Wrens current classical masterpiece. The cathedral of St Paul has been at the heart of life in London for over 900 years, although there has been a church dedicated to St Paul the apostle since the start of the seventh century on Ludgate Hill. The history of St Paul's can be split into three key stages which are: Early history, decline and Post fire of London. Old St Pauls is the only medieval cathedral (which survived the medieval age) to be entirely destroyed in England.

The cathedral was begun in 1087 after a fire of the same year destroyed the Anglo-Saxon Cathedral, along with much of Anglo-Saxon London. Construction of a much larger cathedral began, although another fire in 1136 hindered its progress. Most of the Cathedral which survived into the seventeenth century dated from the period between the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. At the first stage of competition the cathedral was Norman in character, the nave (which was the major Norman wok to survive later additions) was 12 bays long and could be compared in appearance to the style of Durham with rounded arches held with large columns. In the subsequent centuries the cathedral was greatly enlarged and added to, a major period of rebuilding was in the late fourteenth century. The most notable of the fourteenth century additions was the thin needle spire which was constructed on top of the tower. The spire measured 489 feet high and was 85 feet higher than Salisbury, making it the tallest in the world. Also built in the fourteenth century were the cloisters and the chapter house. The main cloisters were unusual as they consisted of two stories, making them quite unique in England. The chapter house of 1332 is believed by some to be the earliest use of Perpendicular Gothic in England and well before the construction of the famous cloisters at Gloucester. The Norman east end was demolished some time between the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries as it was considered too small and a new choir was added much enlarged built in the latest modern Gothic style. The new choir was double the size of the one it replaced which made the cathedral some 585 feet long, larger than the current cathedral and made it one of the longest in the world at the time.

In 1561 the decline of the cathedral began when a fire destroyed the great spire. The spire which was believed to be struck by a lighting strike caught on fire and fell, coming crashing down onto the roof below. After the event the roof was restored but the spire was not. This event marked the turning point in the cathedrals fortunes as it set in to a long period of decline and neglect. Henry VIII dissolution of the monasteries lead to further decline in the fortunes of the cathedral as the monastic buildings such as the cloister and chapels along with the shrines which pilgrims visited were all destroyed. The cathedral was also stripped of its decoration and its famous glass was destroyed. These events only a couple of years apart had a devastating impact on the building. After the reformation when large ceremonies became less frequent the cathedral became less important after and was no longer maintained with such care. The cathedral became generally less visited by worshipers and pilgrims although the outdoor pulpit of St Paul's cross still attracted large audiences in the cathedral close. The grand nave was known as 'St Paul's walk' in which gentleman assembled to exchange news as well as buy products as it was home to many markets. After the reformation the cathedral was used for more secular uses with many shops crowded into the cathedral close. The close was said to have the largest concentration of bookshops anywhere in London. 

The old cathedral had many features of particular note. One was the great rose window on the east facade of the Cathedral which was filled with some impressive stained glass. The central tower too should be noted as it dominated the London skyline for some 400 years. 

There was a slight upturn in fortunes for the cathedral in the early seventeenth century as a restoration project was planned by the famous architect Indigo Jones, perhaps the most important restoration project of the old cathedral. It had been in a bad state of repair after years of neglect since the Tudor times. James I tried in 1608 to force a restoration of the cathedral onto those responsible, however, it was only in 1628 that the bishop Laud finally collected the necessary funds for the restoration and finally work began. Jones was commissioned in 1634 to produce a detailed survey of the building of which many of his drawings survive. From 1634 he was placed in charge of the restoration work to St Paul's. The Gothic choir and chancel were carefully restored but the Norman parts including the nave were re-cased in a classical rusticated manner, reflecting the fashion of the day. At the west end he erected a grand classical facade with a 56 ft high Corinthian portico of 10 columns, framing the portico on either side were two towers (shown above©)The south tower was a re-cased tower of the medieval parish church of St-Gregory-by-St Paul's. Indigo Jones was forced to keep the church after much protest when it began to be demolished. This addition was relatively undamaged by the great fire but was nonetheless demolished along with the rest of the cathedral. At the outbreak of the English civil war in 1642 restoration work was halted with much of Indigo Jones restoration plan still yet to be implemented. 

During the civil war the cathedral further deterioration due to its occupation by unsympathetic parliament forces where it had been badly treated, sometimes deliberately. The overall state of the building and its medieval fabric was unsound and the central tower looked to in a state of impending collapse. The tower had been previously been shored up several times already to prevent its short term collapse, it was in need of serious structural work to save the deteriorating tower. The architect Sir Christopher Wren (architect of the new St Pauls) had been concerned about St Paul's for many years, returning from one of his trips abroad he became immediately involved in the discussions on the essential restoration of the cathedralThe dire state of the building was obvious to everyone at the time who visited it and it increasingly became an embarrassment to many in London as its mighty cathedral was in serious danger of collapse.

In 1663 a commission was set up to oversee the restoration of the cathedral. Its primary step was to obtain a report form the survey-general sir John Denham. He concluded that the demolition of the nave and tower was needed but the rest of the church could be maintained. However, the commission did not act on advice as it was keen to secure further opinions. The architect Roger Pratt suggested leaving the building well alone allowing it to deteriorate on its own accord and waiting for the tower to collapse instead of paying for it to be demolished. Finally Wren was asked to report, he agreed that the tower should come down and cited the reconstruction of crossing on new lines with a classical dome as the focal point. In 1666 Wren put forward a design in which he re-cased the exterior in classical form stating it should be 'after a good roman manner' and also  comprehensively modernised the cathedral with the introduction of classical windows and heavy cornices. In a meeting in August of the same year many influential figures of the cathedral met including the bishop, Pratt and Wren. Pratt objected to Wrens proposals predominantly on the ground of cost but was overruled. Wrens plan was initially agreed to and work was ready to begin as soon as funds could be raised. Six days later the great fire began to burn.

The fire did considerable damage to the cathedral, destroying most of the east side including the great rose window and the recently restored choir. It also finally brought the tower crashing down. The nave was mostly unaffected as was the new west end and both remained in a relatively stable condition. Thus the fire did not automatically mean a total re-building was required, just a more radical restoration. Wren was asked to report the condition of the cathedral, in his report he  reluctantly cited to compromise to agree to only demolish what was left of the choir and the tower. his suggestion was adopted.  If all had gone as planned today we would have had some of the Old nave of the cathedral. However in 1668 when building began to get underway masonry fell from the nave through the aisle vault bringing down more masonry. The building was in danger of further damage and the collapse led to an agreement of a total demolition. The remains of the cathedral were demolished using Gun powder as the stones had been smoldered together with lead. England's first and only classical cathedral was begun to the design of Christopher Wren. 

Very little of the old cathedral survived but perhaps the pieces of greatest significance are the monuments. In the crypt of the cathedral is a small number of monuments pre-dating the current building grouped together. The monuments which survived the fire can be identified by the damage they have sustained, many of the figures have legs and arms missing, most of the damage would have been sustained from the turbulent years of the seventeenth  century before the fire- mostly from the civil war. The best of the only a handful of monuments which survived the fire is the poets John Donne shown above©. From 1631, it shows the poet wrapped in a sheet and standing on a urn under a Romanesque arch. If you look under the urn a trace of the destruction of the fire can be seen in the form of faint scorch marks. Much of the new cathedral was built using rumble from the old cathedral to save in the cost of materials. Underneath the precisely cut pieces of Portland stone are thousands of pieces of old St Paul's. 

There are many images of old St Pauls, in various panoramas of London as well as architectural drawings of the church. There are also two models of the cathedral which I know of. One is in the crypt of the new cathedral while the other is in the museum of London's 'Medieval London' area pictured left  

Although it is perhaps unfortunate that nothing of the old medieval cathedral is still standing, In my opinion the current cathedral is an improvement from an over restored and mutilated cathedral. There would be very little historical fabric left after the restorations and damage it had sustained. St Pauls cathedral is unique in England as a classical cathedral and despite the loss of such a medieval masterpiece as old St Pauls I am much more in love with Christopher Wrens image for St Pauls. If one wants to see a medieval cathedral worthy masterpiece there is always Westminster abbey. 

© New St Pauls is the fifth church on the site at Ludgate hill.