Whispers from the Wings

Written in London

April 20, 2012

Greg has arranged a tour of St Paul's Cathedral for us.

We are met by the canon chancellor Giles Fraser, a warm open-faced, balding man, fizzing with energy and the exact opposite to the kind of modern cleric I had expected to meet.

He later resigned with much controversy in October 2011 in protest at plans to forcibly remove the Occupy protesters from the cathedral steps.

He first regaled us with the history of the building and with some lighthearted gossip about the rivalry between St. Paul's and Westminster Abbey.

He then led our group of about twenty to the Library way up in the building. This is a very large room situated in the Triforium level behind the south-west tower.

A chamber designed by Wren and not open to the public. It has a high ceiling and a gallery half way up running round the walls. The large windows have the blinds permanentally drawn for conservation reasons The walls are covered with massive mahogany bookcases groaning under weighty tomes.

All available surfaces are covered with busts, bibles, ledgers, liturgical texts and documents. There is some dust.

We are introduced to the Librarian, Joseph Wisdom, a name that comfortably suits his occupation. He gives us a brief history of the library. He then shows us a very rare edition of a Tyndale Bible. We huddle round it. Somebody, I think Stephen Boxer, reads a few lines from it. It is a quietly moving moment.

We are then taken up some more stairs to see Wren's original model of the cathedral. This is a huge structure made of oak and plaster, which is raised on a platform allowing access to the inside. It was rejected for political reasons for appearing a little too Catholic. Giles tells us it cost £600 to complete, the equivalent at the time of a good London home.

On we go along quiet corridors giving access to parts of the building not seen by regular visitors, with the beautiful interior of the cathedral unfolding below us as we walk. Afterwards we gather in Paternoster Square and Greg takes us on a short local tour.

We visit the site of Stationer's Hall where the twelve scholars revised the final version of the KJB. Shakespeare would have registered his plays here. Sadly, though the present Hall is very attractive, the original was destroyed in the Great Fire in 1666.

We then walked to what was the former site of Launcelot Andrewes' Ely Place, the London home of The Bishop of Ely and where most of the play is set. Again little remains of the original, though the chapel houses some simple statues of local people martyred for their beliefs. I find them very moving.

We then moved on to Smithfield Market in the ward of Farringdon Without. Originally a broad grassy space, it was known as Smoothfield.

Along with Tyburn, Smithfield was for centuries the main site for public executions of heretics and dissidents. Fifty Protestants and religious reformers known as the Marian Martyrs were executed here during the reign of Mary 1. These, together with further executions earned her the nickname Bloody Mary.

As we stood in groups at these sites Greg regaled us effortlessly with stories, dates and events of topical historical information. I really envy him his scholarship. I can barely name all the London clubs in the Football Premiership.

by James Hayes  |  No comments yet

Previous in Whispers from the Wings
« Taking shape

Next in Whispers from the Wings
Grisly wood-cuts »

Post a Comment

Email address is optional and won't be published.
We ask just in case we need to contact you.

We reserve the right not to publish your comments, and please note that any contribution you make is subject to our website terms of use.

Email newsletter

Sign up to email updates for the latest RSC news:

RSC Members

Already an RSC Member or Supporter? Sign in here.

Teaching Shakespeare