Saving the Best for Last: St. Paul’s Cathedral

Some last minute schedule-jiggling meant our last stop on the educational library tour was St. Paul’s Cathedral, the baroque masterpiece by architect Christopher Wren, the architect who lived 1632-1723. Wren built his masterwork on the site of the previous St. Paul that had perished in the Great Fire, with construction funded by a coal tax and felicitated by bright Portland Stone from the “King’s Quarry” in the county of Dorset.

After several plans were rejected as overly modest, Wren began work in 1675 and finished in 1710, which sounds kind of speedy on consideration. It’s also poignant that it was the great architect Inigo Jones who had redesigned the west end of the gothic former St. Paul in 1660, but the fire would soon wipe out his vision.

The cathedral’s history is as vast and deep as that of the city it represents, the site of many famous weddings and funerals over the centuries. A place of Christian worship has occupied the spot since the year 604 (yes, only three digits in that year). Oliver Cromwell barracked soldiers at old St. Paul during the Protectorate phase (1653-1658). And of course it stood as vital support to British morale during the Second World War. The stained glass was blown out on one side by the Luftwaffe, and the cathedral took two direct hits, in 1940 and 1941, though somehow there were no casualties and the cathedral stayed mostly open throughout the war.

The idea for the library on the site was hatched by one John Evelyn (a cohort of the famous 17th century diarist Samuel Pepys) who suggested a national library at the west end of St. Paul. However, the library initially held fewer books than expected because of the Great Fire.

Elizabeth, our lively and humorous hostess, took us to the Triforium (with a view of the vast nave) and into a private alcove where mosaics were tested. The art was done by William Blake Richmond, named for the famous mystical religious artist, whose mosaics decorated the vaults of the choir. We saw his “cartoons” (preliminary drawings) of the  Annunciation, a bit of a fretful-looking King David, and Jesus telling the parable of the wheat.

We saw the bust of George Cruikshanks, Charles Dickens’ illustrator, who had the honor (?) of being so well-respected that he was dug up from his tomb and reburied in St. Paul’s. She told stories of the cathedral history with relish. She explained that St. Paul’s is still a working church with daily services. 

Off the alcove was a room I did not catch the name of (I wrote down Lapsarian, which is churchy but doesn’t seem to be correct) where a collection of marble was stored, including half a lion’s head, that had been salvaged or discovered via excavation from the ruins of the the old St. Paul. 

Then we went to the dim, high-ceilinged reading room to meet the dryly witty Cathedral Librarian, Jo Wisdom. In a musty-smelling room filled with old theological tomes, Wisdom laid out the library’s holdings: Strong in theology and church history, obviously, and bits of related things like philosophy, and holy topography; i.e.,  travels to the Holy Land. The official religion of Great Britain is Reformed and Catholic.

When asked about how “heretical” books were treated at this religious library, and how various denominations had been catalogued over the centuries, under different rulers with different beliefs, Wisdom argued that such shunning and separation of books “wasn’t the English way,” perhaps referring to religious tolerance in England. It’s rather touching in this secular age — especially in England, where Christianity is pretty much inert — to see people who take religion seriously.

As always, the talk turned to cataloguing and digitizing. For the St. Paul’s library, he brought good news and bad. The good news: The database contains 85% of collection. The bad news is that there are some challenges to work through before it gets online and in front of the public. Still, Wisdom said the library was available to all who had a use for it.

Going off on an interesting tangent, Wisdom related how the Victorians may have unwittingly hurt the profession of librarians/archivists when it “professionalized” everything, stamping everyone with a particular specific title, resulting in curators, archivists, museum directors, librarians…inhabiting their own knowledge silos and not working together sufficiently, even though they share a common cultural language.

The room we spoke in was shelved in the early 18th century, with the “big books shelved at the bottom” and relying on an author catalog for finding them. The library doesn’t do restoration, Wisdom emphasized; they were not trying to make things look like they did in the 18th century. Berated himself for “gassing far too long.”

Continuing the “wow” tour, Elizabeth showed us a dizzying geometric spiral staircase bolted into the wall with no other means of support, it looked tenuous, and frankly I was afraid to peer over the edge. The singular staircase has made several appearances in movies, including Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.

Elizabeth showed us colorful Victorian fonts and pulpits, add-ons to Wren’s vision, now in storage, and updated us on the status of the big bells, like Great Paul, the largest bell at St. Paul’s and the largest ever made in Britain. (It’s currently broken.). There are several big bells, like Great Tom that strikes the hours and marks the deaths of members of the Royal Family or the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Perhaps most impressive was the model of St. Paul, in a room of its own, a miniature version of the original accepted design (though Wren created a loophole that let him be generous with alterations) at 1:24 scale. Even the tiles had an elaborate floor plan drawn by another draftsman, also on display.


The view from near the top was worth the many hundreds of spiral steps it took to get there. After three separate flights I was certainly feeling “closer to God” (or perhaps it was a heart attack coming on) but the trip literally couldn’t have ended on a higher note, as can be seen below:



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