Britain’s great cathedrals hold centuries of history and faith. We begin with an iconic London cathedral – St. Paul’s.
Known today for the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer, St. Paul’s was never originally intended for royal events. The 1981 wedding was unusual. The only royal marriage to take place prior to that was in “Old” St. Paul’s.
Old St. Paul’s? You read that right. St. Paul’s Cathedral has been rebuilt several times. In one of its earlier forms, it was the site of a marriage designed to strengthen ties between England and Spain. Arthur, the eldest son of Henry VII, married Catherine of Aragon, daughter of King Ferdinand of Spain. The old Saint Paul’s was Europe’s largest cathedral at the time, a looming medieval structure with a large pointed spire in the center of the building.
If Catherine of Aragon sounds familiar but not Arthur, there’s a reason why – Arthur died shortly after the wedding! Henry VII quickly married off his other son, Prince Henry, to Catherine. Unfortunately for her, the prince was the future King Henry VIII, who would become infamous for divorcing and/or lopping the heads off of his wives.
Defender of the Faith
Originally a Catholic church, St. Paul’s was swept up in the Reformation of 1517 begun by the German monk Martin Luther. The new faith was known as Protestantism.
Nearly twenty years after the Reformation began, King Henry VIII became the catalyst for removing Catholic power from Britain. Unhappy with Catherine of Aragon, the king approached Pope Clement VII to annul his marriage. The pope refused him. Enraged, Henry declared himself the final arbiter of all church matters in England. Henry broke from Catholicism, creating the Anglican church – and he remarried.
The old, old St. Paul’s
It’s hard to imagine now, but the cathedral began as a simple wooden structure established by Mellitus, a monk who came to the British Isles as part of Saint Augustine’s missionary group. They were tasked with spreading the Gospel throughout pagan Britain on the orders of Pope Gregory the Great. Augustine was greeted by the Anglo-Saxon king Aethelbert.
“Your words are fair, but of doubtful meaning; I cannot forsake what I have so long believed. But as you have come from far we will not molest you; you may preach, and gain as many as you can to your religion.”
– King Aethelbert to Augustine in the Summer of 597
St. Augustine became the first Archbishop of Canterbury, and in turn he ordained Mellitus as Bishop of London, the East-Saxon province ruled by King Saeberht, nephew of the Anglo-Saxon King Aethelbert.
Together, these two Christianized kings made it possible for Mellitus to create a foothold for the faith in southeastern England. King Aethelbert, according to the Venerable Bede, built the first St. Paul’s Cathedral in 604 AD where Mellitus sat as Bishop of London. Sadly, the Christian faith was not shared with Aethelbert’s nor Saeberht’s successors. When these two kings died, the kingdoms reverted back to paganism. Mellitus was banished, and he left Britain for Gaul (modern-day France).
When the dust settled, Mellitus returned to Britain and was appointed as the third Archbishop of Canterbury. St. Paul’s was rebuilt but still faced fires (accidental) and Vikings (purposeful!).
Fire and Restoration
Unfortunately, the Great Fire of London of 1666 tore through the city and decimated the cathedral. After the fire, reconstruction of London slowly began to take shape and with it, St. Paul’s Cathedral was created anew.
Christopher Wren, the famous architect, was tasked with designing a new structure for the church. He submitted various architectural drawings which echoed the modern-day St. Paul’s, but the concepts were shot down by the clergy. They were used to the more Gothic cathedral styles and insisted that Wren keep up this style for the new cathedral.
After reworking his concept, Wren completed “The Warrant” design, a smaller building that still had a medieval look. King Charles II approved of the new plans, and Wren began construction in 1675. Happily for Wren, the king’s approval was coupled with an allowance for artistic freedom, and the work on St. Paul’s became vastly different from the “Warrant” design Wren felt he had been forced into. The new cathedral began to take on Christopher Wren’s true vision, inspired by Baroque styles with a large central dome.
Today we see Christopher Wren’s great domed structure. In fact, it’s three domes – the first contains the Whispering Gallery; then a Stone Gallery, and finally, the Golden Gallery.
Tourism and Info
There are special services that may close all, or part, of the Cathedral. Check St. Paul’s online calendar before visiting the cathedral.
Church Events – General
St. Paul’s Cathedral serves as the heart of the Anglican Episcopal faith, termed the Anglican “see” like the Vatican in the Catholic tradition. As a major cathedral, it has served as the church for the funerals of Lord Nelson, Winston Churchill, and Margaret Thatcher.
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