Category Archives: Sir Christopher Wren

The second Great Fire of London

0 - St Paul's

On this day in 1940, an air raid by the German Luftwaffe led  to the so-called “Second Great Fire of London”. Tens of thousands of incendiary bombs were dropped, and the small individual fires that they set off soon coalesced into a great conflagration that threatened the entire city centre.  Around 200 people were killed, and damage to property was on a then unprecedented scale.  The area around St Paul’s was essentially razed to the ground, although the cathedral  itself miraculously survived essentially intact, thanks to the heroic actions of the firefighters of the St Paul’s Watch, who put out no fewer than twenty-eight individual incendiary-bomb fires inside the building.   Ten other  Wren churches were struck by bombs, namely, Christ Church Newgate Street, St Alban Wood Street, St Andrew-by-the-Wardrobe, St Anne & St Agnes, St Augustine-by-St-Paul’s, St Lawrence Jewry, St Mary Aldermanbury, St Mary-le-Bow, St Stephen Coleman Street and St Vedast-alias-Foster.

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Of these, Christ Church Newgate Street and St Alban Wood Street were substantially destroyed, with only their towers  remaining intact.

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And St Mary Aldermanbury and St Stephen Coleman Street were essentially completely destroyed.

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Remarkably, St Mary Aldermanbury was rebuilt, out of salvaged material, and according to Wren’s original design, in Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, in 1966 (as a memorial to Winston Churchill, who had made his famous “Iron Curtain” speech there in 1946).

The rebuilding of London after the Great Fire of 1666  (Samuel Pepys, 1666)

View-of-the-River-Thames-and-the-City-of-London

On this day in 1666, Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary:

 “[T]hrough the City … , observing the ruins … .  So … to the [rebuilt] Upper ‘Change, which is almost as good as the old one; only shops are but on one side”.

Remarkably, a matter of mere  weeks after the devastating Great Fire of September 2nd-6th, the City was already getting back on its feet and beginning to function as normal again.  It would be well over forty years, though,  before the  rebuilding process was completed, with Christopher Wren’s St Paul’s Cathedral only officially opening on Christmas Day, December 25th, 1711.

The  new City was to differ  from the old one in several  important respects.  The old narrow streets were to be replaced with new wide ones, designed to  simultaneously hinder the spread of fire and unencumber the flow of traffic.  In accordance with the Royal Proclamation of 1666 and the  “Act for the Rebuilding of the City of London” of 1667, the old  houses were to be be replaced by new ones of four categories of standard build, of fire-proof stone and brick rather than timber: those of the first category, fronting “by-streets and lanes”, of two storeys; those of the second category, fronting “streets and lanes of note, and the Thames”, of three storeys; those of the third category, fronting “high and principal streets”, of four storeys, with storey heights specified; and those of the fourth category, designed for” people of quality”, also of four storeys, although with storey heights unspecified.      The old  breeding-grounds for disease would  be swept aside in the process, although incidentally rather than  by design.  And, as another incidental, the old organic economy would be replaced by a modern mineral economy, considerably ahead of its time, fuelled by (sea-)coal rather than wood.  The cost of the entire enterprise, incidentally, would be covered by an emergency  tax on coal imposed by Act of Parliament.

“How fine this would have been” (Vita Sackville-West, 1926)

Artist's impression of what Wren's London would have looked like.jpeg

On this day in 1926, Vita Sackville-West wrote, in a letter to Virginia Woolf:

“  … What I think of when I walk down the Strand is: how fine this would have been if Wren’s plans for rebuilding London after the Great Fire had been adopted.  Steps to the river, and all that – and a broad thoroughfare … ”.

Wren’s grandiose plans for the redesigning of the layout of London after the Great Fire of 1666, if fully implemented,  would have given it a radically new look and feel, much more like  that of the great European cities of the day, with their uniform architecture, broad boulevards and open piazzas.  But they  were soon essentially abandoned on the grounds of practicality and expendiency in favour of  one involving much less legal wrangling and groundwork, and much more like the old one.   Note also that, according to the Earl of Clarendon, “[V]ery many, with more expedition than can be  conceived, set up little sheds of brick and timber upon the ruins of their own houses, where they chose to inhabit rather than in more convenient places, though they knew they could not long reside in those new buildings”.  So in some ways the City that might have been never came to be, and  that that had been would come  to be again:  for the most part neither  particularly beautiful nor harmonious, but, rather,   “lived in”  and fractious; and yet, familiar and loved.

Praise be (St Paul’s)

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On this day in 1697 was held the first service in the present  St Paul’s Cathedral, at the time still in the process of being built by Sir Christopher Wren, after its immediate predecessor had been burnt down in the Great Fire of 1666 (*).  Building and repair work would continue until 1710, and the cathedral would only finally formally open on Christmas Day, December 25th, 1711..

There have been five  cathedrals on the site of the present St Paul’s.

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 961.

The  third was built in 961, and destroyed by fire in 1087.

The  fourth, “old St Paul’s”, was built in the Norman,  or Romanesque, style 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 it  in the Museum of London.  It was clearly an impressive building, measuring some 600’ in length, and over 400’, or, according to some estimates, over 500’, in height, inclusive of the spire (which  was destroyed by lightning in 1444, rebuilt  in 1462, and destroyed by lightning again in 1561).  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 Baroque style by Wren between 1675-1710.  It is faced in plain Portland Stone  (66000 tons of it, quarried in Dorset and  brought round the coast and up the Thames to London in barges), wonderfully reflective of the City’s light and mood.  It is crowned  with a glorious and iconic dome, making it unique among all the cathedrals of England.     The stone-work is by the Master Masons  Joshua Marshall and the brothers Edward and Thomas Strong and their team, overseen by Grinling Gibbons; the wood-work by the Master Carpenter John Langland and his team, also overseen by Grinling Gibbons; and the demi-grisaille paint-work inside  the dome by the Painter-Stainer James Thornhill and his team.  Wren’s simple epitaph inside the cathedral reads “Lector, si monumentum requiris, circumspice”, meaning “Reader, should you seek his memorial, look about you”.   On the pediment above  the  south door is a stone bearing  the image of a Phoenix rising from the ashes, together with  the inscription “Resurgam”, meaning “I shall rise again” (a different stone bearing the same inscription had happened to be found among  the smouldering ruins of the old  cathedral – a positive portent if ever there was one).

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, 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!

(*) The service was one of thanksgiving for the end of the Nine Years War, also known as the War of the Grand Alliance or the War of the League of Augsburg, between France on the one side, and a coalition of European countries, including Britain, on the other.

Old St Paul’s

July 2nd – On this day in 1462, “old” St Paul’s cathedral received a new spire.
Model in the Museum of London, showing the new spire.
Almost exactly 100 years later, the spire was destroyed by a fire after being struck by lightning.
Detail from Visscher Panorama, 1616

St Swithin London Stone

St SwithinThe last in the series on churches built by Wren after the Great Fire of 1666 that have been lost  since …

St Swithin London Stone was originally built sometime before 1291.  It was burnt down  in the Great Fire of 1666, and rebuilt by Wren in 1677-86, using materials from St Mary Bothaw, only to be  severely damaged by bombing in 1941, and subsequently demolished in 1957. John Dryden was married to Lady Elizabeth Howard in the church in 1663.  

St Swithin London Stone parish boundary marker

St Swithin London Stone parish boundary marker

Essentially only the so-called “London Stone” that was built into the south wall of the church in 1798 still survives at the site, as stipulated in the conditions for its redevelopment.  There are parish boundary markers on Cannon Street and in Oxford Court (and another just off  Walbrook).  

St Swithin’s Church Garden also survives,  between Salters Hall Court and Oxford Court (and near where Henry Fitz-Ailwyn or FitzAlywn de Londonestone, the first Lord Mayor of London between 1189-1213, once lived).   The pulpit of 1682 salvaged from the church is now in All Hallows Barking.  Swithin was Bishop of Winchester in the ninth century.

St Swithun's church garden

St Swithun’s church garden

The London Stone 

London Stone (in there somewhere)

London Stone (in there somewhere)

In the Medieval period, “The London Stone” stood in the middle of the street, as indicated on the map of 1520, and on the “Agas” one of 1561-70, and was apparently used as a place from which to make important public pronouncements, being evidently richly endowed with  symbolic significance.   Its recorded history extends as far back as the twelfth century, when the first Lord Mayor of London, from 1189-1213, was one Henry Fitz-Ailwyn or FitzAlywn de Londonestone; and it  is possible, although not proven, that before that, it  was associated in some way with  the Roman Governor’s Palace complex that once stood nearby, and now forms part of a Scheduled Ancient Monument substantially under Cannon Street Station.  Indeed, according to one of many romantic myths surrounding the stone, it was the very one from which King Arthur drew the Sword Excalibur, and possessed magic powers; and according to another, it was the one Brutus used to mark the city of Troia Nova, and “So long as the Stone of Brutus is safe, so long will London flourish”.  As Hollis put it, “We will never know [its true origin], and perhaps that is as it should be”.

London Stone

London Stone

 

St Stephen Coleman Street

St Stephen Coleman StreetThe last but one of the series on churches built by Wren after the Great Fire of 1666 that have been lost  since …

St Stephen Coleman Street was originally built around 1214. It was burnt down in the Great Fire of 1666, and rebuilt by Wren in 1674-81, only to be  destroyed by incendiary bombing on 29th December, 1940.  Photographs of the church as it was before the War still survive, and a replica of the carved panel depicting the Last Judgement, clearly seen above the entrance gate in one of the photographs, also survives,  in the Museum of London.   

Entrance gate with Last Judgement panel

Entrance gate with Last Judgement panel

St Stephen Coleman Street parish boundary marker

Nothing  of the church remains at its original site, other than some parish  boundary markers bearing the insignia of the encircled cockerel.

St Stephen Coleman Street plaque

A Corporation “Blue Plaque” marks the site.  Apparently Anthony Munday, who continued John Stow’s “Survay”, was buried in the church  in 1633, alongside members of the Coleman family who gave it its name.