December 2

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1697 Dedication of the new St Paul’s Cathedral.

There has been a cathedral church dedicated to St Paul in London ever since the 600s. As fire and the ravages of time brought these buildings down there was always a desire to see them rebuilt. The fourth cathedral to occupy the present spot was begun after fire destroyed the third version in 1087. This was a massive stone structure that was completed only in 1314, in the Gothic style. This meant flying buttresses supporting tall walls filled with stained glass windows, pointed arches, imaginative decoration and a towering spire, 490 feet high. In 1561, shortly after the beginning of Elizabeth’s reign and the restoration of Protestantism, a lightning strike destroyed the spire. The building remained a centre of London life where far more than religious services were carried on. Critics complained that people would use “the south alley for usury and popery, the north for sorcery, and the horse fair in the midst for all kinds of bargains, meetings, brawlings, murders, conspiracies, and the font for ordinary payments of money.” Little wonder that one of the cathedral’s paid staff was the “dog-whipper” whose job it was to control the noise of animals in the church.

In the seventeenth century John Donne was the Dean of the cathedral and preached there often (go here for a virtual reconstruction of his Gunpowder Day sermon of 1622: http://vpcp.chass.ncsu.edu ). After the Puritans won the English Civil War the building was used as a barracks and stable. Its final disgrace came in 1666 when the Great Fire of London destroyed the timber-arched edifice. A new structure was started under the supervision of Christopher Wren. The first stone was laid in 1675 and the building was declared open for use on this day in 1697 but it took another 14 years before it was completed.

Wren’s building was massive with a dome that dominated the eastern prospect of London before the rash of grotesque skyscrapers marred the view in the late twentieth century.

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