On this day in 1561, “old” St Paul’s Cathedral (*) lost its spire in a lightning strike. The following is an account of the event from a news-sheet of the time:
“… [B]etween one and two of the clock at afternoon was seen a marvellous great fiery lightning, and immediately ensued a most terrible hideous crack of thunder such as seldom hath been heard, and that by estimation of sense, directly over the City of London. … Divers persons in time of the said tempest being on the river of Thames, and others being in the fields near adjoining to the City affirmed that they saw a long and spear-pointed flame of fire (as it were) run through the top of the broach or shaft of Paul’s steeple, from the east westward. And some of the parish of St Martin’s [Ludgate] being then in the street did feel a marvellous strong air or whirlwind with a smell like brimstone coming from Paul’s Church. … Between four and five of the clock a smoke was espied … to break out under the bowl of the said shaft … . But suddenly after, as it were in a moment, the flame broke forth in a circle like a garland round about the broach, … and increased in such wise that within a quarter of an hour or a little more, the cross and the eagle on the top fell down upon the south cross aisle … .
Some there were, pretending experience in wars, that counselled the remnants of the steeple to be shot down with cannons, which counsel was not liked … . Others perceiving the steeple to be past all recovery, considering the hugeness of the fire and the dropping of the lead, thought best to get ladders and scale the church, and with axes to hew down a space of the roof of the church to stay the fire, at the least to save some part of the church: which was concluded”.
“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. 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 name is something of a misnomer, as by the time it was built, there had already been three cathedrals on the site, built in 604, 675 and 962.