St Paul’s Cathedral before Wren: a new study
A new study of St Paul’s Cathedral before Wren has been published by English Heritage. Written by John Schofield and numerous specialists, this is the first ever comprehensive archaeological account of the cathedral and its churchyard from Roman times to 1675, when the Wren cathedral began construction. Observations of the previous ecclesiastical and secular buildings, burials and monuments on the site go back to the time of Wren.
In this new study all the major evidence for the successive cathedrals, since St Paul’s was founded in AD604, is analysed; particularly that for the medieval cathedral, which like those surviving elsewhere (Peterborough, Norwich, Winchester) displayed many separate periods of growth and expansion. The nave and transepts were largely of the twelfth century, the precocious tower of the 1220s, the Gothic choir of 1269–1314 and the important cloister and chapter house of 1332–49, seminal buildings in the development of Perpendicular architecture in England. Many external and internal features are illustrated by engravings of 1656–7 by Wenceslaus Hollar [Fig. 1], but as he was commissioned to restore the building to its state in 1641, each one may contain some well-meaning restoration by the artist.
The report now published compares recovered architectural fragments to the drawings, and one notable production is a reconstruction by Mark Samuel of the rose window in the east gable of the choir, of around 1300 [Fig. 2.]. This can be compared with similar rose windows at other great churches, such as Notre Dame in Paris [Fig. 3.]. But from this graphic history, and from the small number of archaeological excavations in and around the Wren building in recent decades, there is sadly little to report concerning stained glass. No fragment has been recovered from excavation. There are two documentary references which are mentioned in the present report without further research, and colleagues are invited to take them up. The first is that a visiting herald in 1609 noticed 28 coats of arms in the windows of the north and south sides of the choir, which had presumably not yet been attacked by Reformation zealots. The manuscript containing these drawings is MS Lansdowne 874 in the British Museum. Second, there are two references which may relate to a group of new windows in the early 17th century. A ‘great north window’ was glazed at the expense of Stephen Soame, mayor and MP for London, who died in 1619; and in 1620 James I visited the cathedral and was taken to see ‘three great windows, newly glazed, in rich colours, with the story of St Paul’ on the north side of the choir (I Archer, C Barron and V Harding (eds), Hugh Alley’s Caveat: the markets of London in 1598, 1988, 89; for James’s visit, see Calendar State Papers Domestic 1619–23).
To recover fragments of stained glass from the various periods of St Paul’s Cathedral up to the time of the Great Fire, as well as from the Wren building, is therefore a consistent priority.
John Schofield, St Paul’s Cathedral before Wren, English Heritage, 2011. ISBN 978-1-848020-56-6. Price £100 hardback.
The Cluniac priory and abbey of St Saviour Bermondsey, Surrey: excavations 1984 – 95
The Cluniac priory and abbey of St Saviour Bermondsey, Surrey: excavations 1984 – 95 by Tony Dyson, Mark Samuel, Alison Steele and Susan M Wright, Museum of London Archaeology ( MOLA) 2011, h/b, 297 pages, 189 illustrations, £27.
Founded in the 1080s on the south bank of the Thames, across the river from the White Tower (now part of the Tower of London), the Cluniac priory of St Saviour, Bermondsey, was a daughter house of the French monastery of La Charité-sur-Loire. When built it formed an important part of the London landscape and hosted both the king’s court in 1154 and an assembly of crusaders in 1250. Although initially well-endowed and well-regarded, it suffered severe financial problems in the late thirteenth-century due to a fall-off in donations, mismanagement including possible corruption, and losses caused by devastating floods before gradually restoring its reputation in the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries when it was upgraded to an abbey and ‘divorced’ from its French parents. Like other ‘larger houses’ it was dissolved in 1539 and its most famous pilgrimage attraction, a miracle working statue of Christ on the rood screen, was dismantled (and presumably destroyed) as part of the protestant purge of superstitious images and objects.
For Vidimus readers the immediate interest of this book will be the references to glazing schemes at the monastery, but this is only a small part of what can only be described as a superb study of this once important church and claustral complex which now lies below Bermondsey Square, a redeveloped area in south London, buzzing with a mix of apartments, offices, a boutique hotel, restaurants and an independent cinema.
Glass first. Finds include three pieces dated to the second half of the eleventh century by context, two from the twelfth century and a larger number of fragments with painted designs of a broadly fourteenth-century date. Although some decorative motifs survive, most are not interpretable in their present condition. Identified designs include trefoils, a trumpet flower with silver stain, a bell-like floral motif and a fragment depicting ashlar masonry.
Documentary records throw some extra light on the pre-Dissolution glazing. According to the annals of the monastery nine glass windows were installed in the presbytery in 1387. However, an entry in a separate account roll covering the period Easter 1391 – Michaelmas (autumn) 1392, lists the expenditure of £22 for glass for seven windows, suggesting that the 1387 work might not have been finished until this later date.
Despite these relatively austere discoveries (as far as glass historians are concerned) the book itself is hugely impressive consisting not only of immaculately researched archaeological finds and illustrations but also an extremely satisfying history of the priory/abbey. Comparisons of finds at Bermondsey with those recovered at other Cluniac sites are particularly interesting and make this volume of much wider value than the title alone might seem.