St. Paul’s of London

Tradition and romance have been busily at work respecting the origin and locality of the earliest building dedicated to St. Paul as the chief metropolitan church. It has been supposed to have been founded by the Apostle Paul himself; while there is really some reason to presume that the site, possibly the actual building, had been at first dedicated to the heathen worship of Diana. Ox heads, sacred to that goddess, were discovered in digging on the south side of St. Paul’s in 1316; at other times the teeth of boars and other beasts, and a piece of a buck’s horn, with fragments of vessels, that might have been used in the pagan sacrifices, have been found. The idea itself is of antique date. Flete, the monk of Westminster, referring to the partial return to heathenism in the fifth century, when the Saxons and Angles, as yet unconverted to Christianity, overran the country, observes, “Then were restored the old abominations wherever the Britons were expelled their places. London worships Diana, and the suburbs of Thorney [the site of Westminster] offer incense to Apollo.” To leave speculations, and turn to facts. The see of London was in existence as early as the latter part of the second century; though it is not until the sixth that we find any actual reference to a church. But at that period a very interesting incident occurred in the church, which Bede dramatically relates:—When Sebert, the founder of Westminster Abbey, and the joint founder (according to Bede) with Ethelbert, king of Kent, of St. Paxil’s, died, he “left his three sons, who were yet pagans, heirs of his temporal kingdom. Immediately on their father’s decease they began openly to practise idolatry (though whilst he lived they had somewhat refrained), and also gave free licence to their subjects to worship idols. At a certain time these princes, seeing the Bishop [of London, Mellitus] administering the sacrament to the people in the church, after the celebration of Mass, and being puffed up with rude and barbarous folly, spake, as the common report is, thus unto him:—‘Why dost thou not give us, also, some of that white bread which thou didst give unto our father Saba [Sebert], and which thou dost not yet cease to give to the people in the church?’ He answered, ‘If ye will be washed in that wholesome font whereas your father was, ye may likewise eat of this blessed bread whereof he was a partaker; but if ye contemn the lavatory of life, ye can in nowise taste the bread of life.’ ‘We will not,’ they rejoined, ‘enter into this font of water, for we know we have no need to do so; but we will eat of that bread nevertheless.’ And when they had been often and earnestly warned by the bishop that it could not be, and that no man could partake of this most holy oblation without purification, and cleansing by baptism, they at length, in the height of their rage, said to him, ‘Well, if thou wilt not comply with us in the small matter that we ask, thou shalt no longer abide in our province and dominions;’ and straightway they expelled him, commanding that he and all his company should quit the realm.” Thus once more Christianity was banished from London. It was, however, but for a short time. The worship that the great Apostle of the Gentiles preached soon again appeared in the church dedicated to his name; and powerful men vied with each other in raising the edifice to the highest rank of ecclesiastical foundations. Kenred, king of the Mercians, one of these early benefactors, ordained that it should be as free in all things as he himself desired to be in the Day of Judgment. The feeling thus evidenced continued, or rather gained in strength. When the Conqueror came over, some of its possessions were seized by his reckless followers: on the very day of his coronation, however, their master, having previously caused everything to be restored, granted a charter securing its property for ever, and expressing the giver’s benedictions upon all who should augment the revenues, and his curses on all who should diminish them. The church of Ethelbert was burnt in the Conqueror’s reign, and a new one commenced by Bishop Maurice. That completed, in little more than a century, when it appeared “so stately and beautiful, that it was worthily numbered among the most famous buildings,”—a great portion of the labours were recommenced in order to give St. Paul’s the advantage of the strikingly beautiful Gothic style that had been introduced in the interim, and carried to a high pitch of perfection. In 1221 a new steeple was finished; and in 1240 a new choir. Not the least noticeable feature of these new works is the mode in which the money was raised—namely, by letters from the bishops addressed to the clergy and others under their jurisdiction, granting indulgences for a certain number of days to all those who, having penance to perform, or being penitent, should assist in the rebuilding of St. Paul’s. The subterranean church, St. Faith, was begun in 1256 (Fig. 517). And thus at last was completed the structure that remained down to the great fire of London, when Old St. Paul’s was included in the wide-spread ruin that overtook the metropolis.

And in many respects that Old St. Paul’s was an extraordinary and deeply interesting pile. Its dimensions were truly enormous. The space occupied by the building exceeded three acres and a half. The entire height of the tower and spire was 534 feet (Fig. 522). For nearly 700 feet did nave and choir and presbytery extend in one continuous and most beautiful architectural vista; unbroken save by the low screen dividing the nave from the choir. The breadth and height were commensurate; the former measuring 130 feet, the latter, in the nave, 102 feet. Over all this immense range of wall, floor, and roof, with supporting lines of pillars, sculpture and painting and gilding had lavished their stores; and their effects were still further enhanced by the gorgeously rich and solemn hues that streamed upon them from the stained windows. At every step was passed some beautiful altar with the tall taper burning before it, or some chantry, whence issued the musical voices of the priests, as they offered up prayers for the departed founders, or some magnificent shrine, where all the ordinary arts of adornment had been insufficient to satisfy the desire to reverence properly the memory of its Saint, and which therefore sparkled with the precious metals, and still more precious gems—silver and gold, rubies, emeralds, and pearls. Pictures were there too, on every column or spare corner of the walls, with their stories culled from the most deeply treasured and venerated pages of the Sacred Scriptures; the chief of these was the great picture of St. Paul, which stood beside the high altar in a beautiful “tabernacle” of wood. Then there were the monuments; a little world in themselves of all that was rare and quaint, splendid, or beautiful in monumental sculpture and architecture; and which yet when gazed upon, hardly arrested the careful attention of the beholder to their own attractions, but rather pre-occupied his mind at the first sight of them by remembrances of the men to whose memory they had been erected. Here lay two monarchs—Sebba, King of the East Saxons, converted by Erkenwold, Bishop of London, and son of King Offa; and Ethelred the Unready, whose reign might be appropriately designated by a more disgraceful epithet. Here lay also Edward Atheling, or the Outlaw, Ethelred’s grandson, one of the popular heroes of English romantic history, who lost the kingdom by his father’s (Edmund Ironside’s) agreement with Canute, to divide the kingdom whilst both lived, and the survivor to inherit the whole, and who was waiting about the Court of Edward the Confessor in the hope of regaining that kingdom, when he died, poisoned, it was suspected, by his rival Harold. Here also lay Saint Erkenwold, the canonized bishop of the see, and in such glorious state as has been accorded to the remains of few even of the mightiest potentates of earth. Among all the marvels of artistical wealth that filled almost to overflowing the interior of Old St. Paul’s, the shrine of St. Erkenwold stood pre-eminent. It consisted of a lofty pyramidical structure, in the most exquisitely decorated pointed style; with an altar-table in front, covered with jewels and articles of gold and silver. Among the former was the famous sapphire stone, given by Richard de Preston, citizen and grocer of London, for the cure of infirmities in the eyes of all those who, thus afflicted, might resort thither. To the mental as well as to the bodily vision this shrine was the grand feature of the Cathedral; for the commemoration of the Saint’s burial was regularly observed with the highest and most magnificent of church ceremonials. Then, in solemn procession, the Bishop, arrayed in robes of the most dazzling splendour, accompanied by the Dean and other distinguished officers, and followed by the greater part of the parochial clergy of the diocese, passed through the Cathedral to the shrine, where solemn masses were sung, and the indulgences granted to all who visited the Saint’s burial-place, and to those who there offered oblations, recited. Then might have been beheld a touching and beautiful scene; rich and poor pressing forward with their gifts—costly in the one case; a mere mite, like the poor widow’s, in the other.

But there were yet mightier spirits among the buried dead of Old St. Paul’s. Passing over Sir John Beauchamp, son of the renowned Guy, Earl of Warwick, Henry de Lacy, Earl of Lincoln, one of Edward the First’s ablest military officers, and the accomplished Sir Simon Burley, executed during the reign of Richard II., we find that John of Gaunt, “time-honoured Lancaster,” was interred in Old St. Paul’s beneath a magnificent monument, where athwart the slender octagonal pillars appeared with a very picturesque effect his tilting-spear, and where the mighty duke himself lay in effigy beneath a canopy of the most elaborate fretwork. Beside him reclined Blanche, the Duke’s first wife, whom Chaucer has made immortal by his grateful verse. In the Cathedral was witnessed on one occasion an important scene, with which John of Gaunt was most honourably connected. Wickliffe was cited here to answer before the great prelates of the realm the charge of heresy and innovation. He appeared, but with such a train as seldom falls to the early history of Church Reform to speak of; it will be sufficient to say, John of Gaunt was at their head. The meeting broke up in confusion. In later times Linacre, the eminent physician, and founder of the College of Physicians, Sir Christopher Hatton, Sir Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth’s secretary, and Sir Nicholas, father of Lord Bacon, her keeper of the seals, were all interred in St. Paul’s; as were Dean Colet, the founder of St. Paul’s School, and the poet Donne, whose effigy yet exists in the present Cathedral, disgracefully thrown into a dark corner in the vaults below.

There were many features of Old St. Paul’s which, if they did not add to, or even harmonise in our notions with, the religious character of the edifice, certainly added wonderfully to its attractions in the eyes of our more enjoying and less scrupulous forefathers. Thus, did civil war threaten—the martial population of London flocked to the church to witness the presentation of the banner of St. Paul to Robert Fitzwalter, the hereditary Castellan of the city, who came on horseback, and armed, to the great west door, where he was met by the Mayor and Aldermen, also armed; and, when he had dismounted and saluted them, handed to him the banner, “gules,” with the image of St. Paul in gold, saying they gave it to him as their bannerer of fee, to bear and govern to the honour and profit of the city. After that, they gave the baron a horse of great value, and twenty pounds in money. Then was a marshal chosen to guide the host of armed citizens, who were presently to be called together en masse by the startling sound of the great bell. Was amusement sought,—there were the regular Saturnalias of the Boy Bishops, and the plays, for which Old St. Paul enjoyed such repute. The boys of the church seem to have been originally the chief performers, and obtained so much mastery over the art as to perform frequently before the kings of England. Their preparations were expensive, but were evidently more than paid for by the auditors; for in the reign of Richard II. they petitioned that certain ignorant and inexperienced persons might be prohibited from representing the History of the Old Testament, to the great prejudice of the clergy of the Cathedral. Were great public events passing—had one monarch been pushed from the throne by another, or by death—St. Paul’s was almost sure to furnish, in one shape or another, palpable evidences of the matter that was in all men’s thoughts. Thus, when Louis of France came to London in 1216, the English barons present swore fealty to him in St. Paul’s; thus, when success now elated the heart of a Henry VI., now of his adversary Edward IV., each came to St. Paul’s, to take as it were solemn and public possession of the kingdom; thus, when the body of a Richard II., or of a Philip Sydney, had to be displayed before the eyes of a startled or of a mourning nation, to St. Paul’s was it brought—the King to be less honoured in his remains than the humblest of knights, the Knight to be more honoured than any but the very best of kings. Were there business to attend to, when all these other sources of interest were unheeded or for the time in abeyance,—then to St. Paul’s Walk must the citizens of London have had frequent occasion to go. There were lawyers feed, horses and benefices sold, and set payments made. A strange scene, and a strange company in consequence, did the Cathedral present through the day! “At one time,” writes an eye-witness, “in one and the same rank, yea, foot by foot, and elbow by elbow, shall you see walking, the knight, the gull, the gallant, the upstart, the gentleman, the clown, the captain, the appel-squire, the lawyer, the usurer, the citizen, the bankrout, the scholar, the beggar, the doctor, the idiot, the ruffian, the cheater, the puritan, the cut-throat, the high men, the low men, the true man, and the thief; of all trades and professions some; of all countries some. Thus while Devotion kneels at her prayers, doth Profanation walk under her nose” (Dekker’s Dead Term). (Fig. 518.)

The undoing of Old St. Paul’s forms scarcely a less interesting history than the doing. The Bell Tower was the stake of Henry VIII., when he played at dice with Sir Miles Partridge; the Knight won, and the Bell Tower was lost to St. Paul’s: it soon disappeared. In the reigns of Edward VI. and Elizabeth, the greater part of the sculpture and rich brasses of the interior were destroyed by Puritan hands; whilst the former reign was also marked by the wholesale plunder of the very walls of the outworks of the structure, the chapel and cloisters of Pardon Church Haugh, where the ’ Dance of Death’ was painted, Shyrington’s Chapel, and the Charnel House and Chapel, with their many goodly monuments, in order (such was the base fact) to get the materials, the mere stone and timber, for the new palace in the Strand, Somerset House. Then followed the destruction of the Steeple by fire in 1561. Next the Civil War, with its injuries. That over, and the State, after the brief interregnum of the Commonwealth, restored to its old ways, came the Great Fire, and put an end to all that remained of the Cathedral, as well as to the many degradations the fine old edifice had experienced. Among these injuries, not the least were the beautifying and restoring processes of Inigo Jones, whose portico might elsewhere have added even to his well-deserved fame, but at St. Paul’s only evidenced the mistake the great architect had made, when he fancied he understood the Gothic (Fig. 519).