When the Occupy London protesters set up camp outside St Paul’s Cathedral, there was some surprise that a church best known for state occasions should suddenly become a site of radical protest.
Cathy Ross, director of collections and learning at the Museum of London, told the press: “St Paul’s has always been iconic, but it has always been very much an ‘establishment’ church. For it to become a centre of protest is something very new and interesting.”
The area around St Paul’s was transformed by wartime bombing and post-war redevelopment; so it is not surprising that its earlier history has largely been forgotten. But in fact this area has a long history of public assembly and rowdy, sometimes violent, unrest.
Much of the unrest centred on the sermons at Paul’s Cross, the open-air pulpit in St Paul’s churchyard, which in its heyday attracted an audience of several thousand people each week. In the turbulent years after the Reformation, the sermons were often a flashpoint for popular opposition to religious change.
In 1553, a preacher defending the reintroduction of Catholicism was howled down by protesters “shouting like mad people”, and narrowly avoided injury when a dagger was thrown from the crowd. The following week, in a show of strength, the authorities stationed 200 soldiers around the pulpit to keep order during the sermon.
At the start of Queen Elizabeth’s reign, the preachers were accused of whipping up anti-Catholic prejudice with a deliberately inflammatory style of preaching aimed at servants and apprentices, “the lightest and worst sort of the people”.
At the end of her reign, Paul’s Cross was again the scene of civil unrest, when the Queen’s disgraced favourite, the Earl of Essex, tried to use the Sunday sermon to gather support for his attempted military coup.
In popular perception, Paul’s Cross was also a public forum for requests and complaints. Some preachers saw themselves as spokesmen for popular grievances, and petitions were sometimes left in the pulpit before the sermon for the preacher to pass on to the city authorities.
St Paul’s was not only a centre for preaching, but also for publishing, bookselling, and information-gathering. The churchyard was famous for its bookshops, and the nave of the old cathedral, known as Paul’s Walk, was a clearing-house for news. The 17th-century writer John Earle gives an evoc-ative description of the hundreds of voices echoing inside the cathedral: “the noise is like that of bees, a strange humming, or buzz mixed of walking tongues and feet: it is a kind of still roar or loud whisper.”
It is to this tradition that the St Paul’s Institute refers in its mission statement, where it aspires “to recapture the Cathedral’s ancient role as a centre for public debate, contributing to the current discussion surrounding the direction of our financial and economic institutions”. (To adapt an old adage: be careful what you pray for.)
The uncertainty over who has authority also has strong historical resonances. Historically, the churchyard was a place where secular and ecclesiastical jurisdictions overlapped.
Relations between the two were not always easy. The Paul’s Cross sermons were, among other things, a ritual display of unity, in which the Lord Mayor and aldermen processed to the cathedral in their robes of office, to be welcomed by the Bishop and clergy. Sometimes, however, the sermons touched on sensitive subjects, such as taxation and usury, that were not at all welcome to the City élite.
This may explain why the Paul’s Cross sermons came to an end in the early 17th century. After 1634, the sermons were moved indoors, ostensibly because of the rebuilding of the cathedral under Charles I (when Inigo Jones’s portico was added to the medieval building), but probably also to reduce the risk of popular disturbance. Inside the cathedral, the sermons could be conducted in a more orderly fashion, and both the preacher and the congregation could be more strictly controlled.
It may be some consolation for the Chapter of St Paul’s in its current predicament to reflect that this is not the first time that the clergy of St Paul’s have been confronted with popular protest on their doorstep. Their response is one that their 17th-century predecessors would immediately have understood: move the debate into a safe space, preferably inside the cathedral, where things are less likely to get out of hand.
But another lesson from history is that, once the Paul’s Cross sermons were moved out of the churchyard, they quickly declined in importance. As Mary Morrissey argues in her book Politics and the Paul’s Cross Sermons (OUP, 2011), the sermons after 1634 “lost the element of unpredictability that had made them so newsworthy in the earlier period”. The smaller the risk of any unexpected departure from the script, “the smaller the auditory that bothered to listen”.
It is easy to sympathise with the Chapter in its wish to act as an honest broker, providing a space for debate where the protesters can meet and engage with representatives of the City’s financial institutions. Yet, if it is perceived as limiting the terms of the debate, it may find that no one is paying attention — although, after the media coverage of the past few days, it may feel that a lack of public attention is no bad thing.
Dr Arnold Hunt is a curator of manuscripts at the British Library, and the author of The Art of Hearing: English preachers and their audiences, 1590-1640 (CUP, 2010; reviewed, Books, 21 October).