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Upon Paul’s steeple . . .

30 January 2012

Courtier: the funeral effigy of Sir Thomas Heneage (1532-94) in St Paul’s survived the Great Fire. A detail, from the book under review ANDY CHOPPING, MOLA

Courtier: the funeral effigy of Sir Thomas Heneage (1532-94) in St Paul’s survived the Great Fire. A detail, from the book under review ANDY CHOPPING...

FROM the 13th to the 17th cen­turies, a huge cathedral rose above London’s skyline. Longer than Wren’s St Paul’s, the medieval building stretched to about 175 metres (575 feet), and soared even higher with a spire whose weathercock whirled 123 metres (404 feet) from the ground: equal with the top of Salisbury’s.

Around the building were two cloisters, an extensive walled and gated precinct, a bishop’s palace, a prison, and clergy houses. There was a parish church, St Faith, in the cathedral crypt, and another, St Gregory, at the south-west end. The cathedral contained more than 30 chapels and altars, some of which have yet to be located.

It had its own shrine, St Erkenwald’s, to rival the Confessor’s over at Westminster, but its burials could not compete with the Abbey’s. One of its two kings was only a ruler of Essex and the other was Ethelred the Unready — hardly a name to impress. For most visitors, the best-known celebrity must have been John of Gaunt, with his first wife. There were, however, plenty of bishops, deans (including Colet and Donne), and prominent courtiers to interest the tourists of the day.

Most of this was destroyed in the Great Fire, and most of the rest by Wren’s cathedral, but it is satisfying to learn how much can be deduced from documentary records, depictions in art, and archaeological searches. True, we know hardly any­thing of the first Anglo-Saxon build­ing — not even where it was sited. But the medieval Gothic cathedral has left more traces, and can often be reconstructed in close detail.

John Schofield’s book is based on excavations carried out in the past 20 years, amplified with much other information to provide a compre­hensive account of the site and its buildings down to the late 17th century. The study ranges through the geology and archaeology of the site to the fabric and fittings of the medieval and Tudor periods. Pottery, tiles, tombs, and monuments are examined by a team of experts, and there is a rich array of plans and photographs.

Inevitably such a book is largely concerned with structures, not the activities within them. The worship for which the building existed and the resort of people to work, pray, socialise, or wonder lie outside its scope. Much has already been writ­ten about them in a massive history of St Paul’s published in 2004. But Scho­field’s endeavour will be an essential tool for reconstructing these activ­ities in the future.

He promises that more may yet be learnt. There is still information to be gained from the ground. We may eventually understand why the cathedral was built where it stands, and what it was like in Anglo-Saxon times. Meanwhile, we can share in the wonder of contemporaries as they beheld it. All depictions of the cathedral before the Fire, most of which are featured in the book, show what struck them most: that amaz­ing length and that stupendous spire.

Nicholas Orme

Professor Orme has written widely on English religious and cultural history.

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