St Paul's defiled by drunks and tourists

May 21, 2004

It was St Paul's Cathedral's lowest ebb. Schoolchildren smashed windows, drunks defecated on the floor and tourists climbed the crumbling spire to drop stones on to people below. Even some of the clergymen were accused of disrupting services.

Scholars have revealed a disreputable episode in the building's history as significant as its destruction in the Great Fire of London - which led to its glorious rebirth - or the bombs that failed to destroy it during the Blitz - which cemented its place in the national consciousness.

Research by David Crankshaw, lecturer in the history of early modern Christianity at King's College London, shows how the cathedral hit rock bottom in the reign of Elizabeth I.

The work forms part of Dr Crankshaw's contribution to a six-year project chronicling the history of St Paul's Cathedral.

Forty-two historians participated. Their insights have now been published in a volume - St Paul's: The Cathedral Church of London 604-2004 - to mark its 1,400th anniversary.

While Elizabethan St Paul's was a vibrant focus of diverse and often conflicting theological views, the celebrated medieval Gothic building itself was neglected in the century before it was famously rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren.

It lost its steeple after being struck by lightning in 1561 and was only partially repaired.

Records of an official inspection of St Paul's by Bishop Bancroft in 1598 add detail to the decay inside.

Smoke from nearby workshops mixed with a pervading stench described as a "very evill savour greatly preiudiciall to mens health".

Drunks slept around the building "where they doe verie often tymes leave all yt is within them verye lothsome to beholde".

The resultant muck heaps were sometimes overlooked during the cathedral's monthly clean.

Aside from misbehaving tourists who carved their names in the fabric of the building and child vandals who intimidated the congregation, the cathedral also endured a battering from craftsmen who worked in space rented in the cloisters, chapels and crypt. A glazier who leased a chapel in the south aisle damaged the steps to the cathedral's south door with the wheels of his cart.

St Paul's was a thoroughfare and meeting place. Lawyers and salesmen touted for trade, and beggars pestered churchgoers in the nave while minor clergy arrived late for services, talked at inappropriate times and bunked divinity lectures.

Derek Keene, Leverhulme professor of comparative metropolitan history at the Institute of Historical Research and general editor of the book, said that in the post-Reformation England of Elizabeth I, the role of the cathedral was not always clear. Partly as a result, the building was allowed to decline.

"There was little investment in the building, much of which was essentially a secular space," he said.

While Wren's cathedral continued to host many secular activities, the disreputable elements did not return to the new building.

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