When John Donne took up residence inside Paul’s Churchyard in the Deanery in 1621, however, he moved into a space that had been going through a series of significant changes over the past 100 years.

In the early modern period, St Paul’s Cathedral — even after its spire was destroyed by fire in 1561 — continued to loom over the London cityscape, a constant point of reference for anyone out and about in the growing commercial rld of England’s largest city. During this period, London’s population grew from about 50,000 to 500,000 people, crowding the streets of the medieval City and spurring rapid expansion of its ever-growing suburbs.

Surrounded by a wall, bounded to the north by Paternoster Row, to the east by Old Change Street, to the south by Carter Lane, and to the west by Ave Maria Lane, accessible only through through passages and gateways – notably Paul’s Gate, to the north, Augustine’s Gate to the east, Paul’s Chain to the south, and of course Ludgate itself to the west — medieval Paul’s Churchyard was a place set apart from the growing commerical city surrounding it.

In 1500, the Churchyard had been chiefly a place devoted to the practice of medieval Catholicism. With its daily round of worship services chanted in Latin, with its large numbers of chantry priests saying Mass for the repose of the souls of the departed and its shrine to St Erkenwald drawing pilgrims from near and far, Paul’s Churchyard.

Life inside the medieval Churchyard was almost totally devoted to maintaining the worship life of the Cathedral. Buildings surrounding the Cathedral provided housing for the Dean and the other three chief officers of the Chapter – the Treasurer, the Chancellor,[3] and the Precenter.[4]

Group housing was provided by the Cathedral for the members of the Choir – the Vicars Choral, the Choristers, and the Minor Canons. Other housing – in St Peter’s College, Holmes College, and Lancaster College – sheltered clergy who spent their days in the Cathedral’s chantry chapels, saying Mass daily for the repose of the souls of those who had endowed this practice.

Estimates of the number of priests living at St Peter’s College alone range as high as 54 men. Chantry chapels lined the cathedral’s Nave and the side aisles of the Choir. At the cathedral’s east end stood the Shrine of St Erkenwald, the patron saint of London and the goal of pilgrimages to the shrine. We are told that St Erkenwald did not attract the kind of attention among those who would go on pilgrimages that the Shrine of St Thomas Beckett did at Canterbury, but he did have his devotees.

Antique vintage religious engraving or drawing of praying priest and two altar boys in church celebrating mass. Illustration from Book Die Betrubte Und noch Ihrem Beliebten…, Austrian Empire,1716. Artist is unknown.

The chief responsibility of a cathedral is maintaining the regular round of worship services, yet the cathedral itself had no formal congregation, since it was, in effect, the church of the entire Diocese of London, so, presumably, on many occasions the only people in the Choir for regular services were the cathedral’s clergy and its musicians.[5] Nonetheless, they were, presumably, joined on occasions by visitors to the cathedral, especially pilgrims coming to worship at the Shrine of St Erkenwald.

In spite of the sense one gets that the focus of attention for those living inside Paul’s Churchyard in the late Middle Ages was entirely on what one might call “Holy Work,” there were connections between the cathedral precincts and the larger city around it.

People living in houses adjacent to the Churchyard were members of parishes whose churches were inside the Churchyard. St Gregory’s Church stood adjacent to the southwest front of St Paul’s Cathedral. St Faith’s Church was actually in the basement of the Cathedral, underneath the choir.

The medieval cathedral’s role in the larger community is illustrated further by the fact that it was always on the path of the Lord Mayor of London’s annual procession through the city, as well as a part of the occasional royal procession as well.

The churchyard was also the site of acts of public penance as well as for executions of those convicted of capital crimes. Citizens of London could also request burial in Paul’s Churchyard; later their bones would be unearthed and moved to the Charnel House in the northeast side of the Churchyard.

Whatever timeless qualities the Cathedral itself brought to one’s sense of place in early modern London, however, when Donne took up residence in the Deanery inside Paul’s Churchyard in 1621, he moved into a space that had been undergoing substantial change for nearly a hundred years.

The English Reformers found enough commercial and very worldly activity going on at St Paul’s and other churches in the country to make the financial corruption of the medieval church a chief target of their reforming energies. The chantry priests were supported by money left by the well-to-do in their wills so that Masses could be said so that God would count the good deed of saying Mass against the departed’s sentence of years in Purgatory, a doctrine the Reformers rejected out-of-hand.

The Reformers also rejected the value for one’s salvation of activities like veneration of the saints, going on pilgrimages, owning relics of the saints, purchasing pardons and indulgences, and adoring paintings and depictions in stained glass of the saints.

Tracey Wellman trace of the Dessau copperplate map.

For St Paul’s, a center for these practices, the consequences were significant. While the core organization of the Cathedral – its Chapter of Canons, its organizational structure of Dean, Precentor, Treasurer, and Chancellor, its staff of Minor Canons and Vicars Choral all remained, the chantry chapels were torn down or abandoned, their clergy dispersed; the Charnel House and its chapel were torn down and the bones carted off; the Shrine of St Erkenwald was dismantled; the Cloister in the north central part of the Churchyard was demolished, stained glass windows were smashed; wall paintings were whitewashed over.

There had always been unused space in Paul’s Churchyard, especially in the northeast quadrant, around the Paul’s Cross Preaching Station (see the Cathedral as shown in the Copperplate Map, above). As a result of the abandonment of chantry priests’ residences, buildings owned by the Cathedral could be put out for lease. The clearing away of the Chantry Chapel in the area around Paul’s Cross opened up even more space, making other changes possible.

Perhaps the most interesting of these was an event which took place in 1554, five years after the dissolution of the chantry system, when the Stationers Company took over the property of the now vacant Peter’s College and established the Stationers Hall, which served as their headquarters until they moved to Ave Mary Lane in 1606.  The existence of the Stationers Hall in this space reflects the technological development of the printing press given organizational form in a system of production to support the cultural shift toward printed books from handwritten manuscripts through the development of the book trade in early modern London.

As a result of the development of printing, the world of a new kind of commerce moved aggressively into Paul’s Churchyard. The location of the Stationer’s Hall in the abandoned residence of chantry clergy in Peter’s College encouraged the development of the book trade in Paul’s Churchyard. This started in the area around the Paul’s Cross preaching station with sales from horse-drawn carts, then from freestanding bookstalls, then from the ground floors of mixed use houses that sprung up around the sides of Paul’s Churchyard, then along the sides of the North Transept. 

Interesting to note that when the Stationers Company moved out of the former Peter’s College, the property next became the Feathers Tavern – surely a telling transformation in the concept of the sacred, as the site of dwelling for priests who spent their days consecrating bread and wine eventually became a place for selling a dramatically different kind of food — whatever is the early modern equivalent of fish and chips, or bangers and mash, or Scotch eggs, with good English ale to wash it down.

Such transformations outside the cathedral – constituting, as they do, the flourishing of a commercial space in a formerly sacred space – need to be seen as reflecting a shift away from an understanding of the Churchyard as sacred space, a narrative that can be further supported by the consequences of the Reformation inside the cathedral.

For, post-Reformation, the Nave of St Paul’s  was no longer needed to provide space for festive religious processions, or for side altars where the Chantry priests could ply their trade. So this space – the largest enclosed space in London – became available to be repurposed for other activities. In fact, records from the late Middle Ages suggest that the Nave of the Cathedral had already become the site of