Cathedrals, cardinals, and brothels

This day in London history: on 2 December 1697 the first service was held in the incomplete St Paul’s Cathedral (the now-famous dome had not yet been built), designed by Sir Christopher Wren. Building had begun in 1675 and was finally finished in 1710.

Wren & St Paul'sThe site marks the spot where there has been a place of worship dating back at least to Roman times when there was a temple there. The current cathedral is the latest in a long line of buildings on the site, all either destroyed or seriously damaged by fire, by lightning, and by people. Old St Paul’s, which took around 150 years to complete, was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666 and Charles II commissioned Wren to design its replacement.

Wren, a Professor of Astronomy at Gresham College (original home of the Royal Society) and later Savilian Professor of Astronomy at Oxford, had been appointed Surveyor of Works to Charles II in 1669. In addition to the new St Paul’s he was responsible for the rebuilding of over 50 churches in London after the fire and, during the building works, lived at least some of the time in Cardinal Cap Alley just south of the Thames from the cathedral.

Cardinal Cap Alley cropThe alley takes its name from one of the licensed ‘stews’ – brothels – of Bankside that flourished for centuries until the time of Henry VIII and had their names painted on the walls rather than on a hanging sign. The stews, which were licensed under strict regulations, were leased from the Bishops of Winchester.

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