old st paul's cathedral

Old St Paul’s Cathedral | St Paul’s in the Middle Ages

Built atop Ludgate Hill centuries ago, was the Old St. Paul’s Cathedral. It was the fourth church constructed on this site until the Great Fire of London in 1666 destroyed most of it. We’ve put together a detailed guide to understanding the history of the Old St. Paul’s Cathedral, its significance and what led to the construction of the current cathedral. Keep reading to learn more about this treasured monument! 

What is Old St Paul’s Cathedral?

old st paul's cathedral

Construction of Old St Paul’s Cathedral

old st paul's cathedral

New Work on Old St Paul’s Cathedral

old st paul's cathedral

After the fire in 1135 and a series of storms, construction of the cathedral continued in the 12th century. Taking on a new direction of gothic architecture led to lancet-pointed arches being built over the earlier Norman columns. 

A steeple was erected in 1221 and the roof of the cathedral was rebuilt in 1255 using wood. Following this, the east end of the cathedral was extended to include the parish church of St. Faith. This addition was referred to as the “new work”, and was completed in 1314.

Chapter House in Old St Paul’s Cathedral

Around 1332, an octagonal chapter house was built by William de Ramsey. This was considered to be one of the earliest examples of Perpendicular Gothic architecture. Excavations revealed the foundation of the chapter house which was recently visible in the south churchyard of the new St. Paul’s Cathedral. 

Old St Paul’s Cathedral Interiors

old st paul's cathedral

Paul’s Walk in Old St Paul’s Cathedral

old st paul's cathedral

Paul’s Walk refers to the gigantic nave inside Old St. Paul’s Cathedral. It has been documented in historical records that the nave was used as a marketplace and a meeting point during the tenure of Bishop Braybrooke between the years 1381 and 1404. 

By the 15th century, St. Paul’s became the center for news and gossip in the city. For many years people from all walks of life would come to Paul’s Walk to discuss news, current affairs, politics, jokes, and more. Given the fact that it was a hot spot in the city, many thieves, prostitutes, and beggars also began gathering at Paul’s Walk. 

Decline of Old St Paul’s Cathedral

The start of the 16th century marked the steady decline of the Old St. Paul’s Cathedral. By this time the building itself was deteriorating and the interiors were commissioned to be destroyed by Henry VIII and Edward VI.

Dissolution of the Monasteries

Henry VIII and Edward VI passed the Dissolution of Monasteries and Chantries Acts which led to the destruction of the interiors of the Old St. Paul’s Cathedral. This included the charnels, crypts, cloisters, shrines, chantries, and other buildings inside the churchyard. Eventually, many sites at the cathedral were seized by the crown and rented out to booksellers, printers, and other small businesses. In 1549, radical Protestant preachers gathered at the cathedral and initiated the destruction of the interiors by a mob.

Spire Collapse

On June 4, 1561, a massive lightning strike led the spire to catch fire and eventually collapse through the nave roof. Rumor has it that a plumber confessed on his deathbed that he left a pile of coals and other flammable material in the tower before its collapse. However, there were many eye-witnesses to the storm who contradicted this claim. Either way, there was something hot enough to cause the spire to melt and pour over the roof, destroying it completely. 

Restoration Works

After poor attempts to rebuild the roof of the nave, King James I commissioned the restoration of the cathedral. He was worried about the terrible state of deterioration of the church and appointed renowned architect Inigo James to restore the building in 1621. James began cleaning and rebuilding parts of the cathedral in keeping with its Gothic style and also added a classic portico to the west front of the church in the 1630s. His work came to a standstill during the English Civil War when the building was defaced and mistreated by the opposition. 

The Great Fire of 1666

When the monarchy was restored in England, King Charles II hired Sir Christopher Wren to rebuild the cathedral. While reconstruction was in the works, a horrible tragedy struck one evening in 1666 as the Great Fire of London destroyed many parts of the city including the cathedral. The scaffolding of the building was made of wood making it spread rapidly, destroying the roof, the stonework, and other materials inside the church. Most of the building was destroyed in the fire. 

Wren’s Demolition Proposal

old st paul's cathedral

Sir Christopher Wren was appointed to the position of Surveyor to the King’s works. Wren was asked to rebuild the cathedral in keeping with the classic style initiated by Inigo James in 1630. Instead, Wren suggested that the whole building be demolished and rebuilt from the ground up. It is believed that he wanted to rectify the careless manner in which the previous building was constructed. 

This proposal was met with disapproval by the people of the city and the clergy. He then suggested that he would restore the original building and replace the tower with a dome. 

Wren’s Reconstruction of St Paul’s Cathedral

old st paul's cathedral
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St Paul’s Cathedral Today

old st paul's cathedral

Frequently Asked Questions About Old St Paul's Cathedral

Q. What is old St Paul's Cathedral?

A. Since its birth, St Paul's Cathedral has been constructed and reconstructed several times. The fourth cathedral building that existed before the Great Fire of 1666 is referred to as the Old St Paul's Cathedral.

Q. What is the significance of Old St Paul's Cathedral?

A. Before the Great Fire and the collapse of the spire, Old St Paul's Cathedral was center public center of sorts where people from all walks of life would gather. Some unfortunate events led to the downfall of Old St Paul's Cathedral and the spire was replaced by a dome by Sir Christopher Wren. But a model of Old St Paul's Cathedral sits in the Museum of London even today. Although the spire doesn't exist today, Old St Paul's Cathedral is a part of a legacy that was built by St Paul's Cathedral over the past centuries.

Q. Can I see the Old St Paul's Cathedral?

A. The building that stands in the place of Old St Paul's Cathedral no longer has the same design. However, a model of it is available at the Museum of London. You can still visit the current St Paul's Cathedral building and marvel at its beautiful architecture while you imagine the magnificence of the spire that no longer exists.

Q. What happened to Old St Paul's Cathedral?

A. After the Dissolution of the Monasteries, Old St Paul's Cathedral began to decline. The building was in a bad state, soon after which the spire collapsed. The restoration works that began were halted because of the English Civil War, after which the Great Fire burned the cathedral down almost completely. After this, Christopher Wren was given the job of restoring the cathedral.

Q. Is there anything left from the Old St Paul's Cathedral in the current building?

A. Sir Christopher Wren understood that many Londoners had deep sentiments towards the Old St Paul's Cathedral building. He tried to restore as much of the old cathedral as he could. The spire however was in an irreparable state, because of which he decided to replace it with a dome instead.