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Lessons from history at St Paul’s

02 November 2011

The cathedral has long experience of public protest and rowdy unrest, says Arnold Hunt

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).

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