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Headline: Creative Brits


Christopher Wren's St Paul's,
one of the best-loved buildings in the United Kingdom.

St Paul’s

In 1668, Christopher Wren thought he had the commission to build the new cathedral of St Paul's after the old cathedral burned down in the Great Fire of London in 1666. A cathedral had stood on the site since AD 604..

Wren planned to build a new St Paul's at lightning, rather than the usual cathedral speed. Given the need to rebuild London, he had good reason to hurry. However, he had not counted on the large obstacle which stood in his way.

Trying to get it right

Born in 1632, Wren had become Professor of Astronomy at Oxford and an expert in mathematics, mechanics, surveying, microscopy and architecture. He was a natural bridge builder between mathematicians, inventors and scientists and helped to found the Royal Society. Wren is one of those splendid and shattering people who makes us wonder why we are so slow.

Wren worked on three designs for St Paul's with brilliance, verve, and speed but a committee of judges and clergymen rejected each one of them. Wren would rebuild more than fifty churches all over London, but he could not seem to get St Paul's right.

Finally in 1675 his last design was approved, and construction began. The design was striking, but not as sensational as it would become. Furthermore, another obstacle loomed in London's weak clay soil and the subsiding of the cathedral's foundations. Wren would have to make adjustments to his great dome.

Wren had designed St Paul's cathedral in the shape of a cross, with the dome rising above the intersection of the arms - the crossroads. As building continued over the next thirty years, Wren made many alterations to the dome, which, at 364 feet high and 65,000 tons in weight, would become one of the largest cathedral domes in the world.

To pull off this feat, Wren placed three domes inside each other. Edward Rutherfurd writes in London -

"Between the domed ceiling seen from the interior and the metalled exterior roof which rises fifty feet higher, there was, not exactly a dome, but a massive brick cone, almost like a kiln." That cone supports the lantern on top and holds everything else in place as well. Around the base of the dome is a great double chain and all the way up the inner cone are bands of stone and iron chains "which hold everything tight, like the metal hoops round a barrel." Eight great pillars support the dome.

Wren, by then in his seventies, used to be pulled up in a basket every week so he could inspect progress.

The men who had approved the design and who still survived must have been astonished. Charles II had told Wren he could make "ornamental changes", but the finished St Paul's looked very different from what had been outlined.

The Whispering Gallery runs round the interior of the dome. It acquired its name when it was realized that a whisper against its walls was audible on the opposite side of the dome.

looking up into St Paul's dome

Looking up into St Paul's dome.

"A sea of carvings"

The first service in St Paul's was held on 2 December 1697 in the Quire, the part of the building where construction began. This is where the wood carvings of Grinling Gibbons can be seen – "a sea of carving. . .Spreading leaves and sinuous vines, flowers, trumpets, cherubic heads, festoons of fruit. . ." (London) "There is no instance of a man before Gibbons who gave wood the loose and airy lightness of flowers" (Horace Walpole) - or the softness of a sleeping child. Gibbons and his assistants carved several tons of oak with the greatest delicacy and inventiveness.


St Paul's survived Nazi German bombing in World War II.
And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love. St. Paul, 1 Corinthians 13:13

Photo Credit: U.S. National Archives, 306-NT-3173V

Parliament called St Paul's finished on December 25th, 1711, but Parliamentary statements being what they have been and are, construction went on for some years after that.

Still, the cathedral was done before Wren died at the age of 91. In 2011, a 40 million pound renovation and cleaning has the cathedral looking newborn. Wren would be pleased.

Soldiers from America remembered

At the east end of the Cathedral, behind the High Altar, part of St Paul's was destroyed during the Blitz. It was funded and rebuilt in the 1950s to commemorate the members of the United States forces based in Britain who gave their lives defending liberty during World War II. It is called the American Memorial Chapel.

Choir boys in Advent procession

There has been a choir of boys and men at St Paul’s for over nine centuries. Evensong is sung every day. On Sundays there are three choral services - Matins, Eucharist and Evensong.

Image: St Paul's Cathedral

Christopher Wren died on the 25th of February 1723. He was buried in the crypt of his cathedral. His son wrote a true epitaph -

"Lector, Si Monumentum Requiris Circumspice" - Reader, if you seek his monument, look around.


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Copyright 2006, 2007, 2008 David Abbott & Catherine Glass