St Paul's Cathedral History

The Story of Five Cathedral Buildings | St Paul’s Cathedral History

St Paul’s Cathedral is an Anglican Cathedral located at the highest point of London City. It is one of the most recognizable landmarks of London, owing to its dome framed by Christopher Wren’s trademark spires. 

Read on to learn more about the story behind this iconic landmark of London. 

What is St Paul’s Cathedral?

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Why Was St Paul’s Cathedral Built?

Instigated by Pope Gregory, Saint Mellitus and Saint Augustine arrived from Rome and established a cathedral dedicated to Paul the Apostle in 604. This was the first establishment that was referred to as St Paul’s Cathedral. However, these were relatively short-lived structures that didn’t last long. It wasn’t until 1087 that a stable Cathedral building was constructed that stood for almost 600 years. 

However, the current building of St Paul’s Cathedral is not the one from 1087. The Great Fire in 1666 burned down a significant part of the cathedral, after which Sir Christopher Wren built a new cathedral with modern architecture in its place. 

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History of St Paul’s Cathedral

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604 - 1087: Foundation, Loss and Reconstruction

Although the Roman Administration was withdrawn in 410, the belief in Christianity did not end. Almost 200 years later, a church was constructed here in 604. Due to frequent fires and Viking attacks, the initial buildings didn’t stand for long. By 962, a second building was constructed in its place, which was later destroyed by the Vikings. 

Bishop Maurice, the Chaplain to William the Conqueror, began the construction of a newer, stronger building that became the third building of St Paul’s Cathedral. This building survived for almost 600 years, the longest standing home to Christianity on the site to this day.

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1087 - 1559: Medieval Splendor

The Normans began the construction of a fourth St. Paul’s Cathedral in 1087, which is commonly referred to as Old St Paul’s. Another fire broke out in 1135 and disrupted the construction before the cathedral was finally consecrated in 1240. The cathedral was one of the biggest structures in the British Isles, and its spire was taller than the current cathedral’s dome. 

The cathedral was also a hub for a lot of public activities, including trade, ball games and sporting events. The Cathedral School was also established once again in 1512. All of these activities took place in the largest building in medieval England, which was taller, longer and wider than even the current building in its place.

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1560 - 1666: Reformation to Conflagration

The building began to decay towards the second half of the 16th century. The spire was destroyed by lightning in 1561. With the city recovering from a trade depression, they decided not to rebuild the cathedral. A west front was added in the 1630s by Inigo Jones and further repair work was halted when the Civil War broke out in 1642. The building was mistreated and defaced by the Parliamentarian forces during the war. During the commonwealth, the buildings in the churchyard were razed.

Plans to repair the cathedral were proposed by Sir Christopher Wren in August 1666. Just one week later, during the Great Fire of London, Old St. Paul’s was destroyed and it was decided that a new building was to be constructed in its place.

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1666 - 1711: New Cathedral for London

The project of constructing a new building after the Great Fire was officially assigned to renowned architect Sir Christopher Wren in 1669. He drew inspiration from the dome at St Peter’s Basilica and wanted to add a dome in the place of the tower along with other non-traditional design elements. The design of the cathedral took several years, mostly because many of his ideas were turned down by the cathedral commissioners. Eventually, the building was reconstructed, which resulted in a cathedral that is still the second largest in Britain, and one of the finest domes in the world.

The cathedral was officially completed on Christmas Day in 1711, although construction continued for several years after that.

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1712 - 1795: Perilous Painting and Memorializing the Greats

The transition from Roman Catholicism was tumultuous, to say the least, mostly because the new cathedral was built during the Civil War when there was an increased sensitivity towards Protestantism. Following a competition, Sir James Thornhill was given the task of choosing a decorative scheme for the interior of the dome. He was also commissioned to produce 8 scenes from St Paul’s life. The paintings were completed over the period of 2 years, where he had to work precariously while, more than 50 meters above the ground.  

Towards the end of the 18th century, sculptures dedicated to artists, writers, clergy, military figures and scientists were placed on the floor and walls. Two distinguished military commanders of the Napoleonic wars

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1800 - 1905 St Paul’s in the Age of Industry

St Paul’s underwent some physical changes in the 19th century. The cathedral was generally called dark and cold, with Queen Victoria lamenting that St Paul’s was ‘most dreary, dingy, and un-devotional’. One of the biggest changes was the rearrangement of the quire by FC Penrose. It allowed for a lot more people to participate in services, and it allowed worship to be held underneath the dome, nave, and quire. 

Victorian philanthropy also helped reinvigorate St Paul’s. William Weldon Champneys helped develop schools, Sunday school, and provided food to the disabled. The Amen Court Guild focused on the welfare of the warehousemen and clerks who worked in the vicinity of the Cathedral.

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1906 - 1960 Strengthening the Dome and Defending the Building

Concerns over the structural stability of the cathedral were voiced since the beginning of the 20th century. The Corporation of London served a dangerous structure notice in 1924. From 1925 to 1930, the cathedral was closed for repairs. In this time, under the supervision of Walter Godfrey Allen, the dome and piers were strengthened.

St Paul’s Cathedral was at the center of two bombing attacks in 1912 and 1914, which caused a lot of damage to the building. The cathedral was further damaged during the Blitz, with the first bomb destroying the high altar, and the second leaving a hole above the crypt. The strengthening interventions done until 1930 were primarily responsible for the cathedral to remain standing despite the two attacks. 

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1960 - 2012: Royal Events and Social Reformers

After the war damage and structural issues were repaired, St Paul’s Cathedral welcomed world leaders, politicians, thinkers and the public with the goal of creating a better society. The wedding of Charles, the Prince of Wales to Lady Daina Spencer took place at St Paul’s. Queen Elizabeth II’s Golden and Diamond Jubilee Thanksgiving services also took place at St Paul’s cathedral. A ceremonial funeral was also held at the cathedral in 2013 for Former Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. 

Martin Luther King stopped at the cathedral to speak from the west steps before collecting his Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. The Dalai Lama was welcomed at St Paul's to receive the Templeton Prize in 2012.

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St Paul’s Cathedral Today

Today, St Paul’s Cathedral is one of the best-known cathedrals in the world and is one of the most recognizable sights of London. It is also the seat of the Bishop of London and the mother church to other churches in the Diocese of London. St Paul’s Cathedral is a working church that offers hourly prayer and daily services. Guests attending these services can enter the cathedral for free.

Frequently Asked Questions on St Paul’s Cathedral’s History

When was the first St Paul’s Cathedral constructed?

The first St Paul’s Cathedral was constructed in 604 by Saint Mellitus and Saint Augustine.

Why did the Old St Paul’s Cathedral burn down?

The Old St Paul’s burned down during the devastating Great Fire of London in 1666.

Who built the new St Paul’s Cathedral?

The new St Paul’s Cathedral was built by renowned English architect, Sir Christopher Wren.

What is St Paul’s Cathedral significant for?

St Paul Cathedral is one of the landmarks of the city of London, and it is the second-largest church building in the area in the UK.

Is St Paul’s Cathedral open for tourists?

Yes, St Paul’s Cathedral is open to tourists. Get your tickets here

Can I get free tickets to St Paul’s Cathedral?

Entry to St Paul’s Cathedral is free for people visiting the services.

Can I buy tickets to St Paul’s Cathedral?

Yes, tickets to St Paul’s cathedral can be purchased online. Get your tickets here