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  • Writer's pictureJamie Tibke

St Paul's Cathedral - Sir Christopher Wren's Triumph

Where is St Paul's Cathedral?

Without a doubt, St Paul’s Cathedral is one of the most famous buildings in London and even in the country. Located in the City of London, it was at St Paul’s that Prince Charles and Princess Diana were married in 1981. It was from St Paul’s that Winston Churchill’s funeral was beamed across the world in 1965. During the Second World War, volunteer firefighters braved Germain air raids for the sole purpose of protecting this national symbol. And it was on these very steps that an old lady fed the birds in Mary Poppins. That’s saying nothing about the beautiful building itself, which is perhaps the main reason for its fame. However the story of St Paul’s origins predates the building we see today by well over 1000 years.

st paul's cathedral

When was St Paul's Cathedral built?

In 312AD Constantine became Rome’s first Christian Emperor and soon this new faith was sweeping through the Empire, including in the province of Britannia. In Londinium (that’s Roman London), some historians think that a church was indeed built in the vicinity of modern day St Paul’s Cathedral, although evidence remains limited.

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The history starts to get a little clearer in the early 7th century, when the Anglo-Saxons built a church dedicated to St Paul in 604, probably on the site where modern St Paul’s stands today. Back then this part of London was inside the kingdom of the East Saxons, which more or less covered the modern County of Essex. Once again evidence remains scarce and so we don’t know much more than that, with historians still bickering today about what became of this early church. However, in 1087, after four and half centuries, Viking occupations and a Norman conquest, it was time to build a grand cathedral that would be the envy of medieval Europe.

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The Normans initiated a large building programme across the whole country, including impressive castles such as Windsor and the Tower of London, and beautiful Romanesque churches like Winchester, Canterbury and Norwich. Not long after the death of William the Conqueror, stone was imported from Caen in Normandy and building work began on ‘Old St Paul’s’, a breathtaking cathedral whose vast spire towered over the fledgling city at 149 metres, making it one of the tallest buildings in the world for much of the Middle Ages. Given the sheer ambitious size of the cathedral, there were many setbacks during the building process, including multiple fires. However in 1240, 153 years after starting, the magnificent church was finally consecrated.

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What happened to Old St Paul’s?

The answer is quite simple, it was destroyed by The Great Fire that ripped through the city in September 1666. Before the fire started, discussions about what to do with St Paul’s were already underway. The magnificent spire had been destroyed after being struck by a bolt of lightning (which was claimed as divine judgement by Catholic preachers), and the church was in a state of decay and neglect. After the terrible fire there was no choice: the whole thing needed to be rebuilt.

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Who rebuilt St Paul's Cathedral?

Sir Christopher Wren was already a successful architect, having designed the Chapel at Pembroke College in Cambridge and the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford, he was also a well-respected mathematician and could count Sir Isaac Newton amongst his admirers, so in 1668 a unanimous decision was made by the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishops of London and Oxford that Wren would be the man to take on this monumental challenge.  Construction began in 1675, financed by a tax on coal. The Cathedral’s magnificent dome was largely inspired by Michelangelo’s dome at St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, but Wren made a few genius adjustments for his own dome here at St Paul’s. Giving the dome an inner cone made of brick to reduce its weight and anchoring it down with chains. In 1708 the dome was in place, and today it remains a proud feature of the city’s skyline.

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Where is Sir Christopher Wren buried?

Sir Christopher Wren built over 50 churches in London, many of which still stand, but St Paul’s would be his great masterpiece and earned him a place in history as one of Britain’s most highly acclaimed architects. He died on 25th February 1723 at the age of 91 and was buried inside the cathedral, alongside Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson, of Trafalgar fame, J.M.W Turner, one of the nation’s most beloved artists and star of the £20 note and Florence Nightingale who revolutionised nursing.

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Can you go inside St Paul's Cathedral?

Any trip to London is not complete without a visit, as there is so much more to learn about, and the interior is just as beautiful as the exterior, so don’t just take pictures from the outside. Get yourself a ticket here and go explore this iconic masterpiece. Or join our City of London Sightseeing Tour to hear all about it from one of our expert guides.


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