Lightning strikes (St Paul’s)

February 1st –  On this day in 1444, the spire of Old St Paul’s was destroyed by lightning.  A replacement spire was completed in 1462, and itself destroyed by lightning in 1561 (see July 2nd posting )

Left panel of Society of Antiquaries' Diptych (1616), showing Old St Paul's without spire

Left panel of Society of Antiquaries’ Diptych (1616), showing Old St Paul’s without spire

Right panel of Society of Antiquaries' Diptych, showing vision of Old St Paul's with spire

Right panel of Society of Antiquaries’ Diptych, showing vision of Old St Paul’s with spire

There have been five  cathedrals on the site of the present St Paul’s (see also  November 27th and December 2nd postings).

The first was built  in 604, shortly  after the first Christian mission under St Augustine landed in Kent, by the King of Kent, Ethelburg, for the Bishop of London, Mellitus, and destroyed by fire in 675.

The   second, the Church of Paulesbyri, was built between 675-85  by the Bishop, Erkenwald,  and destroyed by the Vikings in 962.

The  third was built in 962, and destroyed by fire in 1087.

The  fourth, Old St Paul’s, was built in the Norman, or Romanesque, to Early Gothic styles in the years after  1087 by the  Bishop, Maurice and his successors; rebuilt and extended in the Gothic style in 1221-1240,  and in the “New Work” of 1269-1332; renovated in the Renaissance  style by Inigo Jones in 1633-1641, and again by Wren, after the Civil War, during which it had been occupied by  Parliamentary troops and horses, in 1660; and burnt down in  the Great Fire of 1666.  There is a model of Old St Paul’s in the Museum of London.  It was clearly an impressive building, measuring some 600’ in length, and rising to a height of between 460-520’ (estimates vary),  inclusive of the spire, which  was substantially destroyed by a lightning strike in 1561, and subsequently demolished.  As John Denham wrote in 1624:  “That sacred pile, so vast, so high/That whether ‘tis a part of earth or sky/Uncertain seems, and may be thought a proud/Aspiring mountain or descending cloud … ”.

The fifth, present cathedral  was built in the High Renaissance or Baroque style by Wren between 1675-1711, after its immediate predecessor was burnt down in the Great Fire of 1666.  It famously survived the bombing of the Blitz of the Second World War essentially intact: some would say due to divine intervention; others,  due to the heroism of the St Paul’s Watch, who extinguished around 30 fires caused by incendiary bombs on the night of Sunday 29th December 1940 alone.

There are a great many important memorials in the interior of the cathedral.  The one in the south quire aisle to  the metaphysical poet John Donne (1572-1631) survived the Great Fire of 1666, although if you look carefully, you can still see scorch-marks around  its base!  The ones in the crypt to, among others, Nicholas Bacon (d. 1579), father of Francis, and Thomas Heneage (d. 1594), stepfather of Shakespeare’s patron Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton, also survived the fire, although again not without a certain amount of charring!

St Paul’s is visited, although not entered, on our “Historic Smithfield, Clerkenwell and Holborn – Fanfare and Plainsong”, “St Paul’s to Westminster Abbey – Priories, Palaces and Parliament”, “London Wall – A Story of Survival” and “Tower to Temple – The Heart of the City” walks.

Further details of all our walks are available in the “Our Guided Walks” section.  Bookings may be made through the “Contact/Booking” section, by e-mail (lostcityoflondon@sky.com), or by phone (020-8998-3051).

One thought on “Lightning strikes (St Paul’s)

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