Building St Paul’s: The Nation’s Church

Sandy Nairne

The Great Fire of 1666. Great swathes of London were reduced to rubble, including its cathedral. The idea of a replacement at such a moment of catastrophe was inconceivable for many. However, young architect Sir Christopher Wren – a ‘great geometric genius’ – not only imagined a new cathedral, but also a plan for the new city.

In this talk, Art Historian Sandy Nairne tours the resplendent architecture of St Paul’s. Discover the extraordinarily complex feats of engineering Wren devised in order to erect the church’s iconic – and significantly weighty – dome; all the while attempting to create a sense of open, light and graceful space.

Wren’s edifice represented a new kind of openness for the many, and not just for the few. Over the centuries, St Paul’s has become the splendid focal point for many of our national sentiments.

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St Paul’s is the place in which we feel what the nation is feeling. And I think we know that, both for celebrations and the sadder commemorations.

[Archive footage of Lady Diana Spencer and Prince Charles’ Wedding, 1981]
‘With this ring’
‘I thee wed’
‘I thee wed’

St Paul’s has become a focal point for many of our national sentiments, but why do we think of St Paul’s in this way? I think the answer is not just in its great architecture or indeed in Christopher Wren’s design, but it’s also rooted in our history. In 1666, at the moment of The Great Fire of London, it would have been a moment of complete terror, as the fire was coming from the east towards the medieval cathedral that stood here behind us. People were fleeing that way to the river, finding any form of escape that they could. And this appalling, terrible thing for London, was what provided an opportunity for Christopher Wren to be the person who would then propose that he would build a great new cathedral for London.

The great fire had left hundreds of thousands of people homeless, it also actually helped wipe out the plague, that had previously ravaged the city, and the new king, Charles II, understood that the demands of the people had to be met. This was a time of cultural liberation and development, there were very significant advances in science, medicine and engineering. Christopher Wren himself was a founder member of the Royal Society. And it was an opportunity for him to demonstrate a new kind of thinking about space and light in architecture – which represented a new kind of openness for the many, and not just for the few.

To create this new St Paul’s, he needed to make something that had the manner, the scale of a great medieval cathedral, but he wanted something that felt completely different in terms of its light, its openness, its use of a classical language of architecture – looking back to Rome and Greece – round-headed arches, open windows, none of the kind of tight, Gothic infrastructure that was here in all other medieval cathedrals. And what emerged in his thinking was that the height of the dome, to have a central, dominant feature, was going to matter both for the building of St Paul’s, but also for the skyline of the city. And as he developed that thinking and ideas it gradually became clear to him that it needed to be even higher than he had first thought. And what we’re seeing here, the peristyle of columns running around, that peristyle comes in relatively late into his thinking, but with it comes a great deal of weight, and the lantern on top of the dome that we see, like a little church perched above the dome itself, that lantern is the weight of a whole stone church.

There is actually a great iron chain around the dome that Wren put in there to stop it spreading, he was very concerned that the weight shouldn’t allow the dome to spread. So, what we’re actually seeing is the outside of what in fact are three domes. We see the outer lead covering of the external dome, when we’re inside the cathedral we see the painted interior dome, but between it, is a separate dome that does the supporting work, and that dome is an extraordinary feat of building, to create something to hold the weight of the lantern and take that weight and transmit it right the way down to the foundations. And with it, therefore, the supports great buttresses, for they are actually now hidden by the side walls on each side of the transepts, there are buttresses that support the weight of the dome. So, for Wren this involved enormously complex engineering.

Under the bell tower is one of the most exceptional elements of Christopher Wren’s design. Known as the Geometric Stair, it’s actually built by Wren simply designing something where the treads follow each other up, and the weight of each tread is simply held on the stair tread below. It makes the most beautiful geometric arrangement, and it’s a perfect example of how Christopher Wren as mathematician, great geometric genius, is also the great architect. I think Christopher Wren realised that St Paul’s could be more than just a place of worship, it would be a place of meeting, a place where people gathered, but also, with this great, great dome, would soar above the skyline of the capital, it would embody the optimism of a nation at that moment rising out of the ashes of the Great Fire.

Below us are the crypts, and in those crypts, probably the most famous figure of all, is Viscount Nelson – Horatio Nelson – the hero of the wars against the French in the early 19th Century, and after the Battle of Trafalgar in which he was, sadly, shot and died – he was brought here, and it’s that moment, when Nelson comes to St Paul’s for a great moment of commemoration for the nation, that actually St Paul’s changes. St Paul’s is no longer just a great cathedral for London and the country, it becomes the National Church. And his spirit, his determination, his extraordinary abilities seem, to me, to be also part of the way we think of St Paul’s over this long period.

So standing at the west of St Paul’s, looking up at the extraordinary double-portico that Christopher Wren creates, it makes me very aware that while he wanted to make this great cathedral the same sort of shape and scale of a medieval cathedral, he also needed to make a grand frontage that would be here as the backdrop to ceremonies, because it’s coming up Ludgate Hill that we have to think of royal approaches, and I think that for Wren, this is a piece of theatre, it’s a piece of theatre that can allow people to be the participants within the architecture. And it has become the quintessential stage for all kinds of national celebration – tragedy, romance, political drama – they’re all involved at St Paul’s.

The building work started in 1675, it was completed in 1711. However, at the end of his time he was actually put out of office – political change, differences of views, the old master being now regarded as maybe too controlling – and he had to actually suffer at the end of his life, watching the cathedral in its final moments being finished off by others. But nevertheless, we know it’s Wren’s building, and we know it’s Wren’s great, great, greatest achievement.

As well as being a mathematical genius, and indeed a pioneer of modern engineering, Christopher Wren was very much engaged as somebody politically astute who could gain the resources for the building of the new St Paul’s, and indeed of the city churches. And it was his philosophical approach to a new architecture, to a new type of classicism, that allowed St Paul’s to embody an openness, a way of inviting everybody into this light and airy building in quite a new way. Once, previously, national buildings had been about asserting the power of hierarchy, now there’s a sense of them embodying the openness to the whole nation.

With thanks to…
New York Chamber Choirs
St Paul’s Cathedral


Alamy Stock Photo
AP Archive
British Pathé
British Council
British Movietone
British Museum
National Portrait Gallery
The Royal Collection
Wellcome Collection
Yale Center for British Art


9 Lives
New York Chamber Choirs


Images shown:

The Nation Mourns, 1965
British Pathé


Winston Churchill’s Funeral
From: Selected Originals – The Nation Mourns, 1965
British Pathé


Crowds at Churchill Funeral, 1965
British Pathé


Winston Churchill’s Funeral
From: A Year In Our Time, 1965
British Pathé


The Royal Wedding – Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer, 1981
British Movietone / AP Archive


Occupy LSX protesters at St Paul’s Cathedral, 2011
Jeff Gilbert / Alamy Stock Photo


Photo taken looking out from a tent of Occupy St Paul’s with a masked protester, 2011
Maggie Sully / Alamy Stock Photo


Occupy St Paul’s, 2011
Ian Jones UK / Shutterstock


Aerial view of St Paul’s Cathedral, London
HOsiHO / Getty Images


The Great Fire of London
Philippe-Jacques de Loutherbourg, c.1797
Paul Mellon Collection
Yale Center for British Art
Public Domain Mark 1.0


The Great Fire of London in the Year 1666
Print made by: William Russell Birch, after: Jan Griffier
Published by: T Thornton, 1792
British Museum
(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)


Portrait of Sir Christopher Wren
Artist unknown, nd.
Wellcome Collection
(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)


Great Fire of London, 1666
Print c.19th Century
Mayson Beeton Collection
Heritage Image Partnership Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo


Great Plague of London, 1665
Everett Collection Historical / Alamy Stock Photo


Charles II (1630-1685)
John Michael Wright, c.1671-1676
Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2018


The beheading of Charles I outside the Banqueting Hall of Whitehall in 1649
Engraving with etching
Unkown artist, nd.
Wellcome Collection
(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)


Portrait of The Honourable Robert Boyle (1627 – 1691), Irish natural philosopher
Johann Kerseboom, nd.
Wellcome Collection
(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)


From: Robert Hooke, Micrographia: or some physiological descriptions of minute bodies made by magnifying glasses. With observations and inquiries thereupon
London: Printed by J. Martyn and J. Allestry, 1665
Wellcome Collection
(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)


Sir Isaac Newton
Sir Godfrey Kneller, 1702
NPG 2881
© National Portrait Gallery, London
(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)


A science lecture in progress, 17th Century
Chronicle / Alamy Stock Photo


Study elevation of north side of western body
Drawn by Hawksmoor, probably with Wren’s assistance, 1685
St Paul’s Cathedral


Foro Romano, Palatino Hill, Rome
David Bowman / Alamy Stock Photo


Ancient Rome
Giovanni Paolo Panini, 1757
FineArt / Alamy Stock Photo


Astronomy: a view of London in 1748, with diagrams of an eclipse
Plate to: The Universal magazine, 1748
Wellcome Collection
(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)


Aerial view of Cityscape, London
Smithsonian / Getty


Cross-section through the dome and transepts, looking east
Drawn by Arthur Poley, 1927
St Paul’s Cathedral


St Pauls, The East Prospect
Published by Thomas Bowles, 1702


Composite section, plan and elevation of two versions of a 16-bay dome, developed from the ‘Revised design’
Drawn by Hawksmoor, c.1690
St Paul’s Cathedral


Engraving of the east–west section
Probably by Simon Gribelin and annotated by Hawksmoor, c.1687–1688
St Paul’s Cathedral


Schematic plan of the whole crossing with a superimposed plan of the drum and peristyle
Sir Christopher Wren, c.1693–1694
St Paul’s Cathedral


Quarter-plan of the crossing, 1675
Over-drawn by Wren and Hawksmoor with variant eighth-plans of the dome, the lower one c.1694
St Paul’s Cathedral


Composite section, plan and elevation of two versions of a 16-bay dome, developed from the ‘Revised design’
Drawn by Hawksmoor, c.1690
St Paul’s Cathedral


Untitled (geometrical staircase)
Francis Cranmer Penrose, nd.
St Paul’s Cathedral


Horatio Nelson
Lemuel Abbott, 1799
Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo


Death of Nelson Battle of Trafalgar 1805
Historical Images Archive / Alamy Stock Photo


Nelson boarding the San Josef at the Battle of Cape St Vincent, Portugal February 1797
Hilary Morgan / Alamy Stock Photo


A detail bearing the message given by Lord Nelson on to his men on the eve of the Battle of Trafalgar
Nelson’s Tomb at St Paul’s Cathedral
Peter Macdiarmid / Getty Images


St Paul’s Cathedral
Dir. James E. Rogers, 1942
British Council
(CC BY-NC 3.0)
St Paul’s Cathedral (1942) is part of the British Council Film Collection, 120 short documentaries made by the British Council during the 1940s designed to show the world how Britain lived, worked and played.
View, download and play with the Collection at


Servicemen and women at the service of commemoration to mark the end of combat operations in Afghanistan at St Paul’s Cathedral, London, 2015
Paul Marriott / Alamy Stock Photo


A Service Of Commemoration – Afghanistan, 2015
WPA Pool / Getty Images


The Queen and Prince Philip attend a service and parade at St Paul’s Cathedral to mark the end of combat operations in Afghanistan, 2015
Matthew Chattle / Alamy Stock Photo


The front of St Paul’s Cathedral as visitors gather for the service of commemoration for Captain R.F. Scott RN, 2012
Matthew Chattle / Alamy Stock Photo


King George V Silver Jubilee Celebrations, 1935
Their Majesties’ procession along Ludgate Hill
Archive – King George V / Alamy Stock Photo


A protester holds a sign reading ‘Goodbye friend of Pinochet’
Margaret Thatcher’s Funeral, 2013
Piero Cruciatti / Alamy Stock Photo


Funeral of Margaret Thatcher at St Paul’s Cathedral, April 17th 2013
Mark Thomas / Alamy Stock Photo


Queen Victoria’s 1897 Diamond Jubilee celebrations
De Luan / Alamy Stock Photo


Queen Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee, 1977
Fox Photos / Getty Images


Memorial service for the victims of the Titanic shipwreck, 1912
Granger Historical Picture Archive / Alamy Stock Photo


Lady Diana Spencer arriving at St. Paul’s for her wedding to Prince Charles, 29 July 1981
Granger Historical Picture Archive / Alamy Stock Photo


Occupy London protestors, 2011
ZUMA Press, Inc. / Alamy Stock Photo


Jeremy Corbyn with attendees of the memorial service for victims of Grenfell Tower fire disaster, 2017
Jonathan James Syer / Alamy Stock Photo


David Cameron and Boris Johnson at the 10th Anniversary of the 7/7 bombings, 2015
Peter Manning / Alamy Stock Photo


Prince Phillip attending a National Service of Thanksgiving at St. Paul’s Cathedral to commemorate HM Queen Elizabeth II 90th birthday, 2016
Paul Marriott / Alamy Stock Photo


Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip at National Service of Thanksgiving to mark Queen Elizabeth II’s 90th Birthday, 2016
Finnbarr Webster Editorial / Alamy Stock Photo


King Charles II Visiting Wren during the Building of St. Paul’s Cathedral, 1888
John Seymour Lucas, 1912
The Print Collector / Alamy Stock Photo


Portrait of Sir Christopher Wren
Artist unknown, nd.
Wellcome Collection
(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)


Royal Ballet dancers rehearse their parts, 1969
Trinity Mirror / Mirrorpix / Alamy Stock Photo


Dancers from English National Ballet at a dress rehearsal, 2012
theatrepix / Alamy Stock Photo


King Charles I on Horseback with a view in the background of the river Thames and Saint Paul’s Cathedral
Unknown artist, c.16th Century
Wellcome Collection
(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)


Attendees leaving Grenfell Tower Memorial Service, 2017
Shakeyjon / Alamy Stock Photo


‘Fires Ancient’ projection by Martin Firrell marking the 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London, 2016
Guy Bell / Alamy Stock Photo

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