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Guest Post: LH Member Jill Finch reviews In the Shadow of St Paul’s Cathedral by Margaret Willes, published today. 

coverThe pre-fire Cathedral of St Paul in London stood on Ludgate Hill, one of the highest points in the City.

Its magnificent spire rose to nearly 500 feet and it dominated the lives of medieval Londoners.

It was a walled and gated Cathedral within a walled and gated City; its surrounding churchyard/precinct – known as Paulsbyrig – was a busy, bustling complex.

And it’s this that Margaret Willes’ book ‘In the Shadow of St Paul’s Cathedral’ conjures up for us.

Much has been written about the Cathedral itself over the years but this book tells us what was going on just outside those gothic walls – and later on outside its more classical ones.

Divided into ten sections the author details the way the precinct was used over the centuries.
The booksellers and publishers come to life with their colourful signs in the North Churchyard.

The chantry chapels and the homes of the Senior Clergy side by side with the artisans who kept the Cathedral going on a day-to-day basis.

And the daily routine changing to drama when St Paul’s churchyard becomes the stage for some very historical moments – not least when a French Dauphin is hailed as King there.

The churchyard saw many a religious procession and from the 15th Century, when a chapel was built and dedicated to St Thomas Becket, it became a place of pilgrimage.

But it also had a darker side, witnessing book burnings pre-reformation and executions after the Gunpowder Plot.

The Medieval Folk Moot took place there and later a focal point of the churchyard was Paul’s Cross, the octagonal preaching stage at the north end.

The Cross was where sermons were heard, it was a place of penance, a place to hear the news – described at one time as the Times Newspaper of the Middle Ages. It was also the place to make a religious point and Catholic and Puritan preachers alike did just that over the centuries.

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Woodcut from Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, showing James Bainham, a member of the Stationers’ Company, having accepted recantation for his Reformist view, standing in penance at Paul’s Cross in the Churchyard. The lighted candle and sheaf of wooden faggots were a warning of his fate should he lapse.

There are some terrific photographs in the book and reproductions of old prints, but my favourite illustration is the map outlining the parameters of the old churchyard and the surrounding streets in the 13th Century. Walking the area today it is still possible, with a little imagination, to recreate Paulsbyrig.

This book is a fascinating history of an area not often given much thought. Wren’s Cathedral dominates our view of the area today, and so little is left of the pre fire churchyard that it has become practically a historical footnote.

I really thought I knew quite a bit about St Paul’s Cathedral and the history of the surrounding area but Margaret Willes’ book has been a joyful addition to that knowledge. I particularly enjoyed the details of the booksellers and printers and the evolution of the churchyard and surrounding streets into a retail centre that most people who have visited within the last 30 years can hardly imagine.

One description that has topical relevance at the moment is the author’s description of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee celebration which took place outside rather than inside the building. We are, of course, looking forward to another Diamond Jubilee celebration in a few months’ time.

The Cathedral and its churchyard have always been at the centre of national activity. Londoners always considered it to be their own. Theirs to meet in, theirs to process through, theirs to protest in.

From Simon de Montfort’s rallying cries in the 13thC to the Occupy Movement in the 21st it has long been the practice to air your thoughts, hopes and grievances In the Shadow of St Paul’s Cathedral.
At over 300 pages this is not a book to read in one sitting but it is definitely one to have and to hold and dip into over and over again.

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In the Shadow of St Paul’s Cathedral: The Churchyard that Shaped London (320pp) by Margaret Willes is published today in hardback by Yale University Press. It has a cover price of £25.00 but is available for less.

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Our reviewer, Jill Finch, is a City of London Guide & Lecturer, a guide in St Paul’s Cathedral, the Guildhall Art Gallery and the church of All Hallows’ by the Tower.  She gives regular talks for The Barbican & Guildhall Libraries. 

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