The Thing Everyone Misses At St Paul’s Cathedral

Step inside St Paul’s Cathedral today and you’re in the calm, methodically planned world of Christopher Wren.

St Paul's Cross

But “The People’s Church” wasn’t always a picture of serenity.

What was it like?

Well, it was more like a bazaar, A huge town hall or community centre.

Londoners would assemble to pay debts, look for work or sell their wares. There would be the occasional wrestling matches, groups of lads playing games and one church pillars was marked with measurements for the sale of cloth.

Of course the religious authorities aren’t happy about any of this, but it’s the largest public space in London so they can’t do much to deter the crowd from gathering.

So a far cry from the peaceful scene today…

But the really chaotic part was outside and it’s something that most people completely miss on a visit to the Cathedral…

St Paul’s Cross

Today a stone column, completed in 1910, is one of the only reminders of St Paul’s Cross. 

St Paul's Cross

It was one of the most open and public places in Medieval London, drawing crowds of thousands from at least 1191 (the first recorded mention) up until 1643. 

If you want to see the exact spot of St Paul’s Cross there’s an octagonal plaque embedded in the floor nearer the side of the Cathedral.

St Paul's Cross

Photo taken by Fay Bennett on David Charnick‘s ‘Unquiet City’ walk.

It was a place for both religious and civil gatherings, including in 1422 when the chaplain of Worcester, Richard Walker, pleaded guilty to the charge of sorcery. His punishment was to be walked up Cheapside carrying two large books of magical imagery, then watch them burn in front of him.

Other activities were more gory.

Gruesome Entertainment

Public executions are known to have happened here, with the most severe punishments reserved for traitors. The more common site were Tower Hill or Smithfield, however in the 17th century four of the conspirators of the 1605 gunpowder plot were hanged then disembowelled in St Paul’s Churchyard.

A project by Joshua Stephens from NC State University has built a virtual reconstruction of St Paul’s Cross which gives a good flavour of what it would’ve been like.

St Paul's Cross

It’s worth remembering that the Medieval St Paul’s was very different from today’s. Ginormous too, a Gothic mass with a wood and lead steeple 124 foot taller than the top of the current dome!

St Paul’s Cross became the bandstand-esque pulpit was a late 15th century creation made of timber.

St Paul's Cross

The model was created in Google SketchUp by Joshua Stephens, a graduate student in architecture in the College of Design at NC State University. Rendered and  imported in to Photoshop by Jordan Gray

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But there’s more…

The area was also the centre of the city’s book trade.

London’s First Publishing Quarter

Well before Fleet Street became the heart of London’s printing and the famous ‘street of ink’ St Paul’s Cross was where you’d go to buy books. And not just religious ones either.

Stalls decorated with colourful signs featuring devils, lovers or dragons signalled the kind of stories on offer. Shakespeare’s plays were sold in various degrees of accuracy and William himself might have come to browse his contemporaries.

A reminder of this history can be found towards Ludgate Circus. It was in Stationer’s Court where you’d find London’s first printing house in the 15th century, eventually publishing 250 books a year (if you pass their censorship rules).

St Paul's cross

Today you can see The Stationer’s Guild Hall via Amen Corner or down the narrow Passageway of Stationer’s Hall Court off Ludgate Hill.

Founded in 1403 as a fraternity for booksellers and illustrators, they were joined by the printers in the 16th century and became and official livery company in 1559. 

A Word on the Name

Book sellers had the slow and fiddly task of hand writing their heavy tombs. Thus, rather than wheel cartloads of their product about the city, they had fixed stations around St Paul’s. It’s thought that this led to their collective name as the ‘Stationers Guild’.

St Paul’s Cross was eventually destroyed by the Puritans in 1643 during the Civil War and only after 260 years was the lasting reminder installed.

At its base is a plaque with a bit of history, I enjoyed the explanation of its purpose so much here it is in full;

‘On this plot of ground stood old St Paul’s Cross where amid such scenes of good and evil as make up human affairs the conscience of church and nation through five centuries found public utterance.’

Have you ever spotted it?

Make sure you duck into the churchyard next time you’re nearby! The nearest station is St Paul’s.

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St Paul's Cross


  • Alex Casals


    Whispers gallery?????

    April 20, 2018 at 2:47 pm
  • Alex Casals

    April 20, 2018 at 2:50 pm
  • Very interesting. I once climbed up to the top of the crown and I’m sure there must be a photo of that somewhere on the net. I didn’t know I would be going there that day. (It was before the days of mobile phones/cameras so didnt have a camera with me!).

    April 27, 2019 at 8:23 pm
    • Michael Clegg


      In 1951, aged 14, I climbed up the ladder inside the cross at the top of the dome of St Pauls and took a photo with my Box Brownie out over London through one of the openings. I have the image saved on my laptop but still have the original print somewhere.

      January 29, 2020 at 4:33 pm
  • Michael Clegg


    Katie, are we allowed to exchange email addresses.

    January 30, 2020 at 11:43 pm
  • Neil Brazil


    Hi Michael,
    How amazing,I too went up that ladder in about 1953 when I was 7 yrs old .I was beginning to think I had imagined it .You could actually feel the wind in your face. You had to be a fairly small person to do it. Quite scary for a small boy but what a view Any chance of an email with that photo
    Neil Brazil

    February 2, 2020 at 7:14 am
  • Ray Weeks


    I climbed in 1960. Not sure if it is possible any more.

    April 9, 2020 at 4:02 am
  • Jacki Yorke


    I did that , probably early 70s, amazing, never met anyone who has, , think people think lm making it up ! You had to wait your turn then climb a ladder, never seen any photos

    June 5, 2020 at 1:12 am
  • Walt Hopkins


    Just looking for some proof of climbing to the top because I am transcribing my hand-written diaries (62 years of them) on to my computer so I search for things more easily.

    November 19, 2020 at 6:33 pm
  • Mrs Gillian Webb


    I remember climbing the ladder to look out of the cross at the top, it was amazing. I went on a school trip in around 1961. I’ve never seen anything written about this, not sure when the stopped allowing it.

    June 10, 2021 at 7:44 pm
  • Roberta Jennings


    I climbed up into the cross in about 1953 or 1954. I must have been 11 or 12. I was always amazed by the view, and wondered what might have happened in the area when London was being bombed in WW11!

    June 29, 2022 at 3:37 pm

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