The founding of St.Paul’s Cathedral

The tomb of Saebbi, King of the East Saxons, who was converted to Christianity by Bishop Erkenwald in 667 and became a monk. Beside him lay Ethelred II (the Unready), King of England, who died while defending London from attack by Cnut in 1016. They are the only kings who are known to have been buried at St. Paul’s. The tombs were created in the mid-12th century and still in existence when Wenceslaus Hollar made this etching, published in 1658. They were destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666. (Courtesy of the collection of Hawk Norton)

St. Paul’s, the great Anglican cathedral church of London, had humble beginnings in the 7th century Saxon period as a small building in an almost deserted city.

After the Roman period Christianity waned in Britain. Augustine arrived in 597, sent by Pope Gregory the Great to convert the Saxons, and he was followed in 601 by a group of monks that included Mellitus. A hundred years later the monk Bede wrote in his Ecclesiastic History of the English People an account of the founding of St. Paul’s Cathedral:

In the year of our Lord 604, Augustine, Archbishop of Britain, consecrated two bishops, Mellitus and Justus. Mellitus was appointed to preach in the province of the East Saxons, which is separated from Kent by the river Thames, and bounded on the east by the sea. Its capital is the city of London, which stands on the banks of the Thames, and is a trading centre for many nations who visit it by land and sea. At this time Sabert. Ethelbert’s nephew through his sister Ricula, ruled the province under the suzerainty [overlordship] of Ethelbert, who, as already stated, governed all the English peoples as far north as the Humber. When this province too had received the faith through the preaching of Mellitus, King Ethelbert built a church dedicated to the holy Apostle Paul in the city of London, which he appointed as the episcopal see of Mellitus and his successors.¹

As the church was dedicated to St. Paul it is possible that it contained some minor relics of the apostle, perhaps pieces of cloth from his tomb at the basilica of San Paolo in Rome.

Following the deaths of Ethelbert and Sabert the East Saxons reverted to paganism and Mellitus left for Gaul in 616. He returned later as Archbishop but, with London occupied by the pagan East Saxons, he based himself at Canterbury and thus the see of southern England has remained there since. The fate of St. Paul’s is unknown during the mid-7th century. Perhaps the building was put to some other use or could have been demolished and rebuilt later.

Christianity re-emerged in London when the Archbishop appointed Erkenwald as Bishop of London and Essex in 675 and the line of bishops has remained unbroken since that time. Erkenwald died in 693 and his remains were kept at St. Paul’s. He was later canonised, sometime by the 10th century, and his tomb became a medieval shrine and place of pilgrimage until it was destroyed in the Reformation.

The diocese of the Bishop of London during the time of Mellitus and Erkenwald included, broadly speaking, Essex and what would later become the counties of Middlesex and much of Hertfordshire. During the following centuries however the borders of the diocese occasionally changed with, for example, the loss of St. Albans and the north part of the diocese during the reign of King Offa of Mercia in the 8th century. On occasions it found itself straddling more than one Saxon kingdom.

During the times of raids in the mid-9th century London came under the control of heathen Vikings. An agreement by Alfred of Wessex in the latter part of the century set a border along the River Lea between the Saxon and Viking territories, with London under Alfred’s control and Essex as Viking land. Thus, for a time the authority of the bishops probably did not extend eastwards of London.

Bede’s account of the founding of St. Paul’s continues by explaining that Ethelbert, who had converted to Christianity along with Sabert, bestowed many gifts to the churches at London, Rochester and Canterbury, as well as land and possessions to provide an income for the bishops. The exact location of the areas provided to St. Paul’s is not entirely clear and changed over time, particularly following the Norman conquest in 1066. This is in part due to benefactions (both received, as well as provided by the bishop) and changes in diocesan boundaries, and by politics. There is also a lack of clarity, as well as some fluidity, regarding those lands held for the benefit of the bishop and those for the chapter of St. Paul’s. The waters as to which lands were legitimately held by St. Paul’s and the division between bishop and chapter were further muddied because the canons took to forging legal documents during the 12th century in order to substantiate their claims. Genuine original legal documents prior to the Domesday Book of 1086 regarding land ownership are rare.

At an early stage areas held by St. Paul’s seem to have included 24 hides stretching north from the London wall, including Moorfields, St. Pancras and the modern Camden, as well as an area on the Essex coast around Tillingham. During the 8th century the Bishop of London was granted the manor of Fulham, which included Finchley to the north of London, while the chapter of St. Paul’s gained much of the modern-day north-western suburbs of London. Other lands acquired by the bishops during Saxon times included territory between the rivers Crouch and Blackwater in Essex and by the bishop and chapter in the Clacton area. By the time of the Domesday Book the bishop also held land to the north and east of London that included Stepney, Hackney and Clerkenwell. At some point the bishops gained the sokes of Cornhill and Bishopsgate within the city, giving them control of large sections of adjoining and strategically important areas inside and outside of the city walls.

London during the later Saxon period began to grow into a strategically and economically important town but was yet to be the major city it became in subsequent centuries. Likewise, its bishops of London were of lesser political importance than others within the kingdom. When, for example, King Alfred met his closest advisors at Chelsea in 898 to formally lay out a new street pattern for London the group included the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Bishop of Worcester but not the Bishop of London.

It was noted in the Anglo Saxon Chronicles for the year 962 that a great fire destroyed St. Paul’s minster and that it was re-founded, probably under Bishop Aelfstan, in the same year. Although perhaps small compared with the vast cathedral of the future, this new building, located at the top of Ludgate Hill, was likely to have stood high above the others in London. It was probably built of stone and by the time of its demise in 1087 it had an elegant ceiling supported by wooden beams, with the tomb of St. Erkenwald behind the high altar.

King Cnut did not favour St. Paul’s during his reign, perhaps because his father’s enemy Aethelred had been buried there and also that Bishop Aelfwig had backed Cnut’s rival to become king. One of the cathedral’s most prestigious relics, the body of Alphege, Archbishop of Canterbury who had been murdered by Vikings, was moved on the king’s orders to Canterbury. Despite London’s growing economic importance the lack of regard for its cathedral continued under King Edward, who instead greatly favoured both Winchester and Westminster Abbey.

Following its destruction yet again by fire in 1087 the Normans decided to rebuild St. Paul’s Cathedral on a much grander scale and it became one of the largest of all Christian churches, eclipsing even Edward the Confessor’s great monastery at Westminster.

¹ Translation: Leo Sherley-Price, A History of the English Church and People (Penguin publishing)

Sources include: Various ‘St. Paul’s – The Cathedral Church of London; Christopher Brooke ‘London 800-1216’; John Schofield ‘London 1100-1600’. Illustration courtesy of the collection of Hawk Norton.

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