Inside St Paul’s Cathedral Library

Recently I got that chance to have a look inside the St Paul’s Cathedral Library, a room that’s hardly changed since 1709!

The Old St Paul’s Library

There was a library within the old, Medieval St Paul’s. The first mention is in 1313 which records the earliest lists of the collection.

In 1658 William Dugdale wrote a History of St Paul’s Cathedral and he describes that in 1549 part of the ‘fair Library’ along with chunks of the old building were torn down. The stones were supposedly reused in “that stately fabrick called Somerset-House”.

What was left of the library, along with the Cathedral itself, was destroyed in the Great Fire of London of 1666. 

St Paul’s in the Great Fire by Wenceslas Hollar 1666 – public domain

Just three items from its previous collection of 160+ manuscripts survived including the St Paul’s Psalter.

Written c.1175 this book of psalms was used personally by the Dean of St Paul’s, Ralph Baldock.

© St Paul’s Cathedral Library Collection

Baldock served as Dean from 1294-1306 then became the Bishop of London until 1313. Amazing to think of this priest poring over its contents before sermons.

Today it’s the oldest item in the library’s collection.

History of St Paul’s Library

It was only in 1685, 19 years following the fire, that a final design was approved for Christopher Wren’s Cathedral.

Interestingly Wren had originally planned for two libraries, one for the Cathedral and one for the Dean.

Two spaces still survive in the Cathedral today but the other is now known as the Trophy Room and holds The Great Model, built 1673 by the joiner William Cleere.

The Great Model, St Paul's Cathedral | Look Up London

It’s hard to gauge from the picture but this model is VAST. Big enough for a grown man to stand inside and the story goes that Christopher Wren invited King Charles II to do just that, giving him the pitch for this as the Cathedral design. The King, unfortunately for Wren, said no.

Inside St Paul’s Library 

The library can be found up in the Triforium level behind the south west tower. From the outside, you can see the Palladian cluster of three windows (on the right hand side below) which allow light into the space.

St Paul's Cathedral Library | Look Up London

Built in 1709, the library is one of the best surviving 18th century interiors in London and has avoided any of the changes that have affected the main Cathedral floor (namely the addition of mosaics).

St Paul's Cathedral Library | Look Up London

It’s remained relatively untouched aside from two interventions. Electric heating and lighting installed in the early 1900s and the collection being shipped to Wales for safe storage during the Blitz.

It’s a relatively simple design with a wooden gallery including carved brackets by Grinling Gibbons.

St Paul's Cathedral Library | Look Up London

The only decoration are the richly carved stone wall pilasters. Look closely and you can see lots of literary-themed nods like loose parchment, books and pens in amongst the foliage.

St Paul's Cathedral Library | Look Up London

A nice matter-of-fact detail is also the arrangements of the books. The largest and heaviest books are on the bottom shelves and smallest are on the top!

St Paul's Cathedral Library | Look Up London

In 2018 work began on the first major refurbishment of the library. The entire collection (13,500 items!) was taken off the shelves and cleaned, a new humidity system was installed, blinds were added, walls and the ceiling were painted and all the wooden shelving was cleaned and restored. 

The restoration was finally complete in 2023 and it looks spectacular, so new that it’s hard to believe it all dates from 1709!

St Paul's Cathedral Library | Look Up London

One design element of the library that deserves some attention is the staircase used to reach it.

Dean's Stairs leading to St Paul's Cathedral Library | Look Up London

Known as the Dean’s Stair because it was designed to give the Dean (who has a house across the street) access to his library, it’s utterly enchanting.

The cantilevered staircase was designed by Christopher Wren and carved and built by William Kempster. Completed in 1705, it’s made up of 88 steps, each 6ft wide and almost entirely supported by the preceding step which means the whole thing appears to miraculously float.

Dean's Stairs leading to St Paul's Cathedral Library | Look Up London

St Paul’s Library Collection

The Commissioners for rebuilding St Paul’s set about also restoring the collection. They bought items which are now treasures of the library collection including Tyndale’s New Testament published in 1526.

It hard to imagine a more explosive book. For the first time this English translation of the Bible circumvented the established authority of the Church and made the word of God accessible to the common man.

Ironically, this was exactly the type of ‘heretical’ book that made perfect fuel for the fires at St Paul’s Cross, a place used for ceremonial book burnings.

The outdoor pulpit and meeting place survived until it was destroyed in the Civil War in 1643 and today there’s just an octagonal mark in the St Paul’s Churchyard.

St Paul's Cross | Look Up London

Tyndale himself was executed in 1536 but his work lives on in phrases that are still regularly used today, “the salt of the earth”, “eat, drink and be merry” and “pour out one’s heart” to name just a few.

The new collection was further bolstered by a generous donation from Bishop Henry Compton in 1712. Today his portrait hangs in pride of place in the library.

By the way, it’s this Bishop that gives us the name for Soho’s Old Compton Street, the centre of London’s LGBT community since at least the 1970’s.

Portrait of Bishop Compton by Godfrey Kneller, hanging above the fireplace

You can read more about the treasures of the library on the St Paul’s Cathedral website here.

Visit St Paul’s Library 

My visit to the St Paul’s Library was hosted by Airbnb.

They created an extraordinary extension to the St Paul’s Library, building a separate room which is available to request to book and stay for one lucky competition winner. You can read more about their campaign here.

Built on what is essentially just a corridor on the Triforium level, it was fairly impressive to see what they’ve built from nothing!

Hidden Airbnb Library in St Paul's Cathedral | Look Up London

Personally, It will always be the actual 18th century library which is the real hidden treasure for me and thankfully anyone can book to see the library as part of a special triforium level tour run by the Cathedral. More info on the St Paul’s website here (and you can see a sneak peek of the tour in my blog here).

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