St Paul’s Cathedral before Wren

As the current St Paul’s building celebrates its 300th anniversary, the cathedral’s archaeologist John Schofield brings together the lives of its predecessors for the first time in one publication.

St Paul’s Cathedral Before Wren, published today (Monday 21 November 2011) by English Heritage, highlights the historical and religious importance of the cathedral and churchyard site over the course of its first 1000 years, allowing its buried buildings to rise from the roots of St Paul’s once again.

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The book contains documents, surveys and early maps showing the development of the religious complex and illuminating the lives of its occupants. The account starts with the cathedral’s foundation in 604 AD. (It was popularly rumoured that a Roman temple of Diana was built on the site, but there is no evidence for this.) The main focus is on excavations and observations between 1969 and 2006, but discoveries dating from the time of Wren himself are included. One such example is the discovery of Roman pottery kilns by local apothecary and pioneering archaeologist John Conyers, as foundations for the new north transept were dug in 1677.

The Anglo Saxon cathedral’s position and design remain uncertain, but gravestones of the 10th and 11th centuries are catalogued in the book, including for the first time a complete ‘hogback’ style grave-covering stone, one of the earliest surviving artefacts from the cathedral.

The cathedral was rebuilt in gigantic medieval form from 1087, and extended from 1269 to 1314. By 1300 it was the largest medieval building by area in Britain and one of the largest in Europe, with a spire of unprecedented height.

From the 1530s the cathedral’s fabric was despoiled and neglected as were so many great churches in the Reformation, and in 1561 its spire caught fire and was then demolished. However, during the Elizabethan and Jacobean decades, the choir of the cathedral became the site for prestigious tombs of courtiers and high-ranking officials. This collection of post-Reformation monuments, second only to those which survive in Westminster Abbey, is assessed in the book for the first time. They are among the very few representations of Elizabethan Londoners (though not necessarily from life) which remain today.

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Schofield’s work also allows a major development in our understanding of Inigo Jones’s restoration of the church in 1633-41. A tunnel excavated through the crypt in 1996 revealed the remains of Inigo Jones’s 1642 portico, dismantled in 1687-8 and still charred from the Great Fire of 1666. Together with pieces already in the St Paul’s historic collection which are now recognised as part of Jones’s work, this has allowed the first theoretical reconstruction of the portico’s dimensions from actual fragments.

Together with voluminous documentary records of the Wren building, some details of the construction process have only come to light through archaeological excavations. Traces of the construction works of 1675-1711, including a mortar-fixing area and scaffolding placements, show how the extensive underlying archaeology was taken into account during the building process. The book also reveals how the current building, already rooted and founded on the ghosts of its predecessors, contains much of its previous history within its structure. Excavations in the 1990s show that the crypt of the Wren building is made in part from the stones of the medieval cathedral, reused, jumbled, and often recut.

Author John Schofield said: “St Paul’s Churchyard comprises probably the best and most significant remaining block of strata for the understanding of the evolution of the City of London through 2000 years.”

In his foreword to St Paul’s Cathedral Before Wren, The Right Reverend Graeme Knowles, Dean of St Paul’s from 2007-11, said: “It is surprising that the detailed physical evidence for the cathedral and the buildings in the churchyard has never been brought together in one publication… This publication is not simply a management document for us to use in the future. It also stands as a lasting record of those who have worshipped on this site for more than a thousand years, and who raised successive buildings here to the glory of God.”

Dr Simon Thurley, Chief Executive of English Heritage, said: “English Heritage is proud to support important original scholarship in our publication programme. John Schofield’s book at last gets us close to one of Britain’s most important, and most neglected, lost buildings.”

The excavation and post-excavation analysis which form the majority of the publication were funded by the Dean and Chapter of St Paul’s Cathedral. Financial support for the post-excavation work was also given by the Museum of London and English Heritage.

English Heritage

Header Image Credit – Public Domain

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Mark Milligan
Mark Milligan
Mark Milligan is multi-award-winning journalist and the Managing Editor at HeritageDaily. His background is in archaeology and computer science, having written over 7,500 articles across several online publications. Mark is a member of the Association of British Science Writers (ABSW), the World Federation of Science Journalists, and in 2023 was the recipient of the British Citizen Award for Education, the BCA Medal of Honour, and the UK Prime Minister's Points of Light Award.

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