New St Paul's: Wren's commission
to re-build the Cathedral
St Paul's Cathedral - Virtual Tour
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During the Great Fire in 1666, Old St Paul's had been thought to be comparatively safe - so much so that piles of belongings and merchandise, including the stock of the booksellers and stationers of nearby Paternoster Row, were piled in the Nave and Churchyard for safekeeping.
When on the morning of Tuesday 4th September (the third day of the Fire) the roof of the Cathedral caught fire, the lead on the roof together with the burning roof timbers fell crashing down upon the goods stored there, which simply added fuel to the flames.
Less than a week before, it had been decided that an elaborate plan of repair, including the replacement of the old spire with a dome, should be undertaken. This new disaster rendered that impossible. From now on, the question was, what precise shape a new cathedral should take.
A week after the fire Christopher Wren presented to King Charles II his plan for rebuilding the City of London, with a new cathedral and a new Royal Exchange at the focal points.
Soon after, he was appointed one of the commissioners for the rebuilding of the City, and was to be responsible overall for the rebuilding of 52 city churches, and much else besides.
But dreams he and others may have had for a highly-planned city with radiating streets never stood a chance of realisation, and the City rose again on substantially the medieval ground and street plan. This conservatism was to be felt in the case of St Paul's as well.
Wren's first design for the new Cathedral is usually called the First Design. It was fully worked out by 1669, and was a complete break with any medieval pattern for a cathedral. A model of this design was made, but this design did not win applause. It was felt to be on too small a scale for the city, and it was too remote in plan from anything which people recognised as a cathedral.
In 1673, a second model was under construction, which survives complete, and is preserved directly above the Chapel of St Dunstan in what used to be called the Trophy Room.
It seems that this design was Wren's favourite - and indeed many modern writers agree that it is a finer building than the Cathedral which he finally built.
But once more, its layout was felt to be too original, and too little adapted to the liturgical needs of an Anglican cathedral.
Wren then, so we learn from his grandson's 'Parentalia', set out to reconcile these needs for a long Nave and a commodious Quire:
"He then turned his thoughts to a Cathedral-form (as they called it), but so rectified as to reconcile, as near as possible, the Gothic to a better Manner of architecture." His design, as built, provided for a Nave and aisles in the familiar arrangement, and bore in some respects a close resemblance to the old Cathedral. It was a strange and unsatisfactory compromise, but it won approval.
A Royal Warrant was issued by Charles II in 1675 for making a start on the new Cathedral, which was to be financed by a tax on coal brought into London.
Fortunately for Wren (and for posterity), the Warrant granted Wren 'Liberty in the Prosecution of the Work to make Variations, rather ornamental than essential, as from time to time he shall see proper'. Wren began at once to make adjustments to the plan, and continued to do so throughout.
One of the more visible changes is that he raised the height of the outer walls above the height of the aisles as far as the full height of Nave and Quire.
In the concealed spaces thus created he put flying buttresses to carry the thrust of the Nave and Quire vaults.
By December of 1697 the Quire was fully furnished, and brought into use for the first time, to celebrate the Peace of Ryswick.
The Bishop of London, Henry Compton, preached a sermon on the text: 'I was glad when they said unto me, let us go up into the house of the Lord.'
During the very last stages of the project, Wren was hoisted in a basket to supervise progress in the lantern above the Dome, and it was thus in 1710 that he witnessed his son laying the last stone of the building.