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.

Wren, Newton, and the Chelsea Pensioners

This day in London history: on 28 November 1660 the Royal Society was founded. A group of twelve men met at Gresham College in Bishopsgate after a lecture by Christopher Wren, then the Gresham Professor of Astronomy, and decided to found “a Colledge for the Promoting of Physico-Mathematicall Experimentall Learning”.

The following year, the name The Royal Society first appeared in print when Fellows of the Society put forward a petition to King Charles II for a royal grant of incorporation; this, the First Charter, was granted. This Charter did not provide for all the privileges the Fellows desired, and a Second Charter was granted in 1663. In this Charter, the King declared himself to be the Founder and Patron of the Society.

However, before sufficient funds for building could be raised, Charles changed his mind and repurchased the land to provide an infirmary for soldiers. This was the Royal Hospital, built by Wren, and now home to the Chelsea Pensioners.

The Society's first home
The Society’s first home

The Society was given accommodation in Gresham College but meetings were sporadic in the early days, interrupted by events such as the Plague and the Great Fire. In 1669 Charles II granted Chelsea College and its surrounding lands to the Society so that it could have a permanent home.

For many years, there was a rumour that Nell Gwynn had beseeched Charles to build the hospital after she heard had been moved by the story of an injured soldier. Once the hospital had been built, old soldiers there would toast Nell as their benefactress. Romantic as it sounds, it seems unlikely that there is any truth to Nell’s involvement in the hospital.

It was not until 1710 that the Society had a home in Crane Court. Sir Isaac Newton was by now the President of the Society. His Principia Mathematica, in which he presents his ‘laws of gravity’, was published by the Royal Society. Another 18th-century Fellow was Benjamin Franklin; in 1753 the Society awarded him its Copley Medal for his work with electricity; in 1756 he was elected as a Fellow of the Society.