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 be 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, compared to other trades, have a very slow and fiddly task (all books are hand written at this point) so rather than wheel cartloads of their product about the city they remain stationery, hence becoming known 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.

St Paul's Cross

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

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