A Phoenix Rising from the Ashes: How Did Christopher Wren Build St Paul’s Cathedral?

Alice Roberts

4 mins

16 Oct 2019

In the early hours of Sunday 2 September 1666, a fire started in Pudding Lane, London. For the next four days, it raged through the the medieval City of London, the area inside the old Roman city wall.

The fire destroyed over 13,200 houses, 87 parish churches, St Paul’s Cathedral, and most of the buildings of the City authorities.

An anonymous painting from 1670 of Ludgate in flames, with Old St Paul’s Cathedral in the background.

‘Inartificial congestion of Houses’

London in 1666 was the largest city in Britain, home to around 500,000 people – although this number had decreased in The Great Plague of 1665.

London was congested and overpopulated, characterised by unregulated urban sprawl, with warrens of narrow cobbled alleys increasingly squashed inside the confines of the old Roman walls and the River Thames. John Evelyn described it as a ‘wooden, northern, and inartificial congestion of Houses’.

The medieval streets were packed with wood and thatched houses, cheaply thrown together to accommodate the growing population. Many contained foundries, smithies and glaziers, which were technically illegal within the City walls, but tolerated in practice.

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Fuel for the Great Fire

Although they had a small ground footprint, the six – or seven – storey timbered London tenement houses had projecting upper floors known as jetties. As each floor encroached into the street, the highest floors would meet across narrow alleys, almost blocking out natural light in the backstreets below.

When the blaze broke out, these narrow streets became the perfect timber to fuel the fire. Furthermore, firefighting efforts were frustrated as they tried to manoeuvre through gridlocks of carts and wagons, carrying the belongings of fleeing residents.

The Monument to the Great Fire of London, marking the site where the blaze started. Image source: Eluveitie / CC BY-SA 3.0.

The Lord Mayor’s lack of decisiveness allowed a potentially manageable situation to cascade out of control. Soon, order came directly from the King to ‘spare no houses’, and pull them down to prevent more burning.

18 hours after the alarm was raised in Pudding Lane, the fire had become a raging firestorm, creating its own weather through vacuums and chimney effects, supplying fresh oxygen and gathering momentum to reach temperatures of 1,250°C.

Christopher Wren and the rebuilding of London

After the fire, fingers of blame were pointed to foreigners, Catholics and Jews. Since the fire started at Pudding Lane, and ended at Pye Corner, some believed it was a punishment for gluttony.

Despite the loss of life and hundreds of medieval buildings, the fire provided a wonderful opportunity to rebuild.

John Evelyn’s plan for rebuilding the City of London was never carried out.

Several town plans were proposed, mainly channelling visions of sweeping Baroque piazzas and avenues. Christopher Wren proposed a plan inspired by the gardens of Versailles, and Richard Newcourt proposed a rigid grid with churches in squares, a plan which was later adopted for the building of Philadelphia.

However, with complexities of ownership, private financing and a widespread eagerness to start rebuilding immediately, the old street plan was kept.

Canaletto’s ‘The River Thames with St. Paul’s Cathedral on Lord Mayor’s Day’, painted in 1746. Image source: Ablakok / CC BY-SA 4.0.

Strict regulations to improve hygiene and fire safety were implemented, such as those to ensure brick and stone were used instead of wood. Commissioners issued proclamations concerning the width of streets and the height, materials and dimensions of buildings.

Designing St Paul’s

Although his town plan was not accepted, Wren designed and built St Paul’s Cathedral, deemed the pinnacle of his architectural career.

Wren’s design developed over nine years, through several stages. His ‘First Model’ was duly accepted, prompting the demolition of the old cathedral. It consisted of a circular domed structure, possibly influenced by the Pantheon in Rome or Temple Church.

Wren’s iconic dome. Image source: Colin / CC BY-SA 4.0.

By 1672, the design was considered too modest, prompting Wren’s grandiose ‘Great Model’. Construction of this modified design started in 1673, but was deemed inappropriately Popish with its Greek Cross, and did not fulfil the requirements of Anglican liturgy.

A Classical-Gothic compromise, the ‘Warrant Design’ was based on a Latin cross. After Wren received permission from the king to make ‘ornamental changes’, he spent the next 30 years altering the ‘Warrant Design’ to create the St Paul’s we know today.

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‘If you seek his memorial, look about you’

Wren’s challenge was to construct a large cathedral on the relatively weak clay soil of London. With the help of Nicholas Hawksmoor, the great blocks of Portland stone were supported by bricks, iron and wood.

The last stone of the Cathedral’s structure was laid on 26 October 1708, by the sons of Christopher Wren and Edward Strong (the master mason). The dome, inspired by St Peter’s in Rome, was described by Sir Nikolaus Pevsner as ‘one of the most perfect in the world’.

Whilst overseeing St Paul’s, Wren built 51 churches in the City of London, all built in his recognisable Baroque style.

Nelson’s sarcophagus can be found in the crypt. Image source: mhx / CC BY-SA 2.0.

Buried in St Paul’s Cathedral in 1723, Wren’s gravestone has a Latin inscription, translating to ‘If you seek his memorial, look about you.’

Since its completion at the start of the Georgian age, St Paul’s has hosted the funerals of Admiral Nelson, the Duke of Wellington, Sir Winston Churchill and Baroness Thatcher.

Its importance to the nation was recognised by Churchill during the Blitz of 1940, when he sent word that St Paul’s Cathedral should be protected at all costs to maintain national morale.

Featured Image: Mark Fosh / CC BY 2.0.