In the Great Fire of London of 1666, Old St Paul’s was gutted. While it might have been possible to reconstruct it, a decision was taken to build a new cathedral in a modern style. This course of action had been proposed even before the fire.
The task of designing a replacement structure was officially assigned to Sir Christopher Wren on 30 July 1669. He had previously been put in charge of the rebuilding of churches to replace those lost in the Great Fire. More than 50 City churches are attributable to Wren. Concurrent with designing St Paul’s, Wren was engaged in the production of his five Tracts on Architecture.
Wren had begun advising on the repair of the Old St Paul’s in 1661, five years before the fire in 1666. The proposed work included renovations to interior and exterior to complement the classical facade designed by Inigo Jones in 1630. Wren planned to replace the dilapidated tower with a dome, using the existing structure as a scaffold. He produced a drawing of the proposed dome which shows his idea that it should span nave and aisles at the crossing. After the Fire, it was at first thought possible to retain a substantial part of the old cathedral, but ultimately the entire structure was demolished in the early 1670s.
In July 1668 Dean William Sancroft wrote to Wren that he was charged by the Archbishop of Canterbury, in agreement with the Bishops of London and Oxford, to design a new cathedral that was “handsome and noble to all the ends of it and to the reputation of the City and the nation”. The design process took several years, but a design was finally settled and attached to a royal warrant, with the proviso that Wren was permitted to make any further changes that he deemed necessary. The result was the present St Paul’s Cathedral, still the second largest church in Britain, with a dome proclaimed as the finest in the world. The building was financed by a tax on coal, and was completed within its architect’s lifetime with many of the major contractors engaged for the duration.
The “topping out” of the cathedral (when the final stone was placed on the lantern) took place on 26 October 1708, performed by Wren’s son Christopher Jr and the son of one of the masons. The cathedral was declared officially complete by Parliament on 25 December 1711 (Christmas Day). In fact, construction continued for several years after that, with the statues on the roof added in the 1720s.
On 2 December 1697, 31 years and 3 months after the Great Fire destroyed Old St Paul’s, the new cathedral was consecrated for use. The Right Reverend Henry Compton, Bishop of London, preached the sermon. It was based on the text of Psalm 122, “I was glad when they said unto me: Let us go into the house of the Lord.” The first regular service was held on the following Sunday.
Opinions of Wren’s cathedral differed, with some loving it: “Without, within, below, above, the eye / Is filled with unrestrained delight”, while others hated it: “There was an air of Popery about the gilded capitals, the heavy arches … They were unfamiliar, un-English …”.
During World War II, the cathedral survived the Blitz although struck by bombs on 10 October 1940 and 17 April 1941. The first strike destroyed the high altar, while the second strike on the north transept left a hole in the floor above the crypt. The latter bomb is believed to have detonated in the upper interior above the north transept and the force was sufficient to shift the entire dome laterally by a small amount.
On 12 September 1940 a time-delayed bomb that had struck the cathedral was successfully defused and removed by a bomb disposal detachment of Royal Engineers. Had this bomb detonated, it would have totally destroyed the cathedral; it left a 100-foot crater when later remotely detonated in a secure location.
Wreathed in billowing smoke, amidst the chaos and destruction of war, the pale dome stands proud and glorious—indomitable. At the height of that air-raid, Sir Winston Churchill telephoned the Guildhall to insist that all fire-fighting resources be directed at St Paul’s. The cathedral must be saved, he said, damage to the fabric would sap the morale of the country.