St Paul’s Cathedral: Hidden History & Half-truths


by John Schofield

‘A 12-year-old girl’s signature from 1689 and the effect of many fingers on a Falklands Campaign memorial of 1985.’

Much has been written about St. Paul’s Cathedral and about Sir Christopher Wren, but even now there are intriguing bits of hidden history to reveal and myths about the building to dismantle.


Jane Wren’s signature, 1689. [Credit: John Schofield]

For example, the new book shows for the first time the signature of Wren’s 12-year-old daughter Jane, as she signed for two small installments of his salary from the cathedral in 1689. She is called ‘Mistress Wren’, when mistress was the older form of our word Miss; but equally, as her mother was dead, she might have been running aspects of her widowed father’s household.


Half-truths and Myths

The cathedral itself is also festooned with half-truths and myths, and it is the archaeologist’s job, sometimes, to debunk them.

The Wren building differs in its alignment from that of the underlying and destroyed medieval cathedral by about six degrees, its east end turning more to the north. Whenever I lecture about St Paul’s, this is always the first question afterwards from the audience. Why did Wren do this? This fascinates many people and several solutions, some astronomical, have been proposed over the years.

My solution is simple and practical, and follows the theory of the cathedral’s archivist Robert Crayford in 2001. In 1673 Wren’s design was not the final one, but that represented today by the Great Model which sits in its own chamber at the cathedral. In that year he had the intended building staked out on the ground – in a famous episode, he called for a stone to mark a spot, and he was given a piece of an old gravestone with the single Latin word RESURGAM (I will arise) on it. Crayford argues that this laying-out must have been the Great Model design, and because the buildings forming the edges of the churchyard around had been rebuilt quickly after the Great Fire, the Great Model design only fits in a certain way – with its axis along the line of the present building.

Then there is the story that Wren wanted to incorporate a large telescope into the building’s structure. This one is true. The main stair at the junction of the nave and south transept, up which thousands of visitors trudge every day, is wrapped round a hollow stone tube going all the way up. Today this hollow contains a most useful lift, originally placed there in the 1970s. This is what Wren would have used for his telescope, by lying flat at the bottom and looking up the tube. But although it is over 90 feet high, it was not long enough for the astronomical observations proposed, and so the idea was abandoned.

Turning Points

Since its completion in 1711, there have been several turning points in the cathedral’s history. By 1800, it had become the nation’s church. Here two great military commanders, Horatio Nelson and the Duke of Wellington, were buried with spectacular ceremonies. For Nelson’s burial, a hole was cut in the floor below the dome so that his coffin could be dramatically lowered in during the service.

Then, during the 19th century, St Paul’s also became the head church of the British Empire, a role re-emphasised when it appeared to survive miraculously from the Blitz in World War II (actually it was the combined efforts of the Paul’s Watch firefighters and a corset of metal rods inserted over the previous four decades).

The Cathedral in the Modern Landscape

The architect in charge of the building has always been called, like Wren, the Surveyor. In the book I look at the long Surveyorship of Francis Penrose from 1852 to 1897, who — in stages over many years — opened up the cathedral inside and improved access from the outside, so that the cathedral and its churchyard became far more integrated with the City of London around it. Now, schoolchildren and workers eat sandwiches and sun themselves in its gardens. I have even seen a fox.


Coat of Arms, North Transept. [Credit: Andy Chopping, MoLA ]

Odd little things have appealed to me as I walked round, look at and occasionally prod the building. On the north side there are three large plane trees (a fourth had to be removed after a storm in 1987). They are ancient, perhaps over 250 years old, so somebody planted them in the middle of the 18th century. Like the cathedral, they have survived the Blitz. And in the present crypt there are many memorials to famous soldiers and lists of those who died. The most recent war memorial is to the Falklands campaign in 1982. If you look closely, you will see the name of Lieutenant-Colonel H Jones VC is marked by many people pointing it out with their fingers. Such is folk memory and how it gets expressed.

St Paul’s Cathedral is a partial biography of Wren’s St Paul’s Cathedral over its first 300 years; and is i9781785702754ntended to be a contribution to the management of the building and its future conservation.

John Schofield has been the Cathedral Archaeologist for St Paul’s since 1990. This is his
second book about St Paul’s: the previous one was St Paul’s Cathedral before Wren published by English Heritage in 2011. The medieval cathedral also figures in his book London 1100–1600: the archaeology of a capital city, also published in 2011.

St. Paul’s Cathedral is available to purchase from Oxbow Books