The churchyard that shaped London by Margaret Willes

THERE are many accounts of the architecture and history of St Paul’s, but rather less attention has been given to the environs of the cathedral through the centuries. In this new book, handsomely illustrated and produced by Yale University Press, Margaret Willes traces the development of the area around the cathedral from the Anglo-Saxon “Paulesbyrig” to our own day.

Today, St Paul’s is surrounded by restaurants and shops catering for office workers and tourists. It has yet to be seen what the new post-Covid “normal” will be; so this study of change through many centuries is timely.

Inevitably, in sketching on such an extensive canvas, Willes relies on specialist studies, which are helpfully noted in the introduction. Then the story moves briskly forward, enlivened by colourful anecdotes, from medieval London to the events surrounding Occupy and the erection of a protest camp in 2011.

William Fitzstephen, the 12th-century biographer of Becket, famously described London as a noble city whose only “plagues” were “the immoderate drinking of fools and the frequency of fires”.

From being a place of assembly and protest, in the 15th century, the cathedral precincts became the centre of the English book trade. William Caxton set up the first press in London close to Westminster Abbey, but, in about 1500, it was his successor Wynkyn de Worde who transferred the business to Fleet Street. He and other immigrant booksellers linked up with the craftsmen who had previously worked on manuscripts: scriveners and limners, as well as suppliers of parchment, pens, and paper. The Stationers’ Company had already come into existence. Its name was derived from the “stations”, the barrows from which their wares were sold in St Paul’s Churchyard, the heart for many centuries of the English book trade.

Printed books played a crucial part in the early years of the Reformation, but the outdoor pulpit of Paul’s Cross was also a significant battleground. In May 1521, John Fisher, the learned Bishop of Rochester, preached against Luther, and, at the conclusion of his sermon, copies of Luther’s books, which had been impounded by Cardinal Wolsey, were burned in the churchyard.

In 1907, the spring sale at Nicholson’s, drapers, draws shoppers to St Paul’s Churchyard; a postcard photo in the book

In the 1570s, in the reign of Elizabeth I, there was a drama company based in the churchyard. The actors were the ten boy choristers who sang at the services in St Paul’s. They also attended St Paul’s School, founded by Dean Colet, which still exists in more salubrious circumstances in west London. Shakespeare, in Hamlet, attests to the popularity of these boy actors.

By this time, the cathedral itself was in poor repair, despite various restoration appeals, but the coup de grâce for Old St Paul’s came with the Great Fire in September 1666. As the flames approached, the booksellers of the churchyard removed their stock into the crypt, where it was all destroyed with the cathedral itself.

As Wren’s new cathedral rose, the book trade re-established itself, and the churchyard became a dispatch centre for all parts of the country and markets overseas, not least in the English colonies in North America. As the churchyard was a place of fashionable resort, the printers and publishers were joined by the sellers of fine fabrics, and workshops supplying top-of-the-range furniture.

In the 19th century, however, the residential community gradually moved further out, with the exception of the Dean and those directly connected with the cathedral and its worship.

The Blitz completed the work of dislodging the publishing industry, although in recent years there has been a modest increase in residents. The Bishop, whose palace had been such a significant landmark until the Civil War, returned to live in the Old Deanery, which was reconverted from its use as a Scandinavian merchant bank. What the post-Covid future holds is anyone’s guess, but, as this book suggests, there are all kinds of possibilities.

The Rt Revd Lord Chartres is a former Bishop of London.


In the Shadow of St Paul’s Cathedral: The churchyard that shaped London
Margaret Willes
Yale £25
Church Times Bookshop £19.99

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