Destruction of Old St Pauls Cathedral highlights Great Fire of Londons devastating impact

In 1666 the Great Fire of London burned its way through the city, displacing thousands of residents and destroying many buildings - including Old St Paul’s Cathedral.

On the 350th anniversary of the fire, to mark the occasion, the Special Collections has made available a number of contemporary eye-witness accounts held within the University archives that illustrate the damage caused to the great historical and religious site of Old St Paul’s – as well as highlighting some of its previous unfortunate encounters with fire.

The Great Fire of London lasted between Sunday 2 September to Wednesday 5 September 1666, causing unprecedented damage to the historical city of London. 

Diarist and writer John Evelyn provided a vivid eye-witness account of the tragedy on Tuesday 4 September, 1666, writing: “The stones of Paules flew like granados, ye mealting lead running downe the streets in a streame, and the very pavements glowing with fiery rednesse …”

The construction of Old St Paul’s had begun after another fire in 1087, which completely destroyed an Anglo-Saxon church on the same site. Work on the Cathedral continued for over 200 years, temporarily interrupted by yet another fire in 1135. 

The building was enlarged over the years and by the mid-14th century had become, according to later sources, ‘the finest in England in its time’. 

The old Cathedral’s greatest glory was arguably the Shrine of St Erkenwald, a popular destination for medieval pilgrims. Many miracles were believed to have occurred after petitioners visited the Shrine. 

Old St Paul’s also housed the tombs of many influential figures from history – among them, Ethelred the Unready and the great portrait painter Van Dyck - and was the scene of dramatic and formative events – such as a Thanksgiving Service in 1588 attended by Elizabeth I, after her victory over the Armada.