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Date updated: 17/05/2022

The Virtual St Paul’s Cathedral Project recreates the sights and sounds of religious life in early Stuart London

The Virtual St Paul’s Cathedral Project enables us to experience worship and preaching at St Paul’s Cathedral in the mid 1620’s. The project helps us understand the chief function of a cathedral in early modern England - to maintain the daily round of worship services according to the use of the Book of Common Prayer, and to do so as an end in itself, as the material embodiment of the diocese at prayer, and as a model of devotion and practice for other churches in the diocese.

View of a visual model of St Paul's Cathedral in 1620
St Paul’s Cathedral from the southwest, 1620. From the Visual Model, rendered by Austin Corriher

Funded by grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, a team of scholars based at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, North Carolina has recently completed a decade of work on this project. Led by John N. Wall, a professor of English, David Hill, a professor of architecture, and Yun Jing, a professor of acoustic engineering, the team called on students at NC State to build the visual models of the Cathedral and its surroundings, edit and auralise the sound files, and create the website where the results of their efforts are available to all. Professor John N. Wall explains more about the project and describes some of the sources consulted at London Metropolitan Archives from among the archives of St Paul’s Cathedral.

View of the choir from above, from the visual model, 1620
The Choir from above. From the Visual Model, rendered by Austin Corriher.

Worship in Early Modern London

The Cathedral Project’s website contains resources for understanding worship in English cathedrals and parish churches in the early seventeenth century. Chief among them are auralised recordings of the services appointed for use every day of the year - the Divine Services of Morning Prayer (Matins) and Evening Prayer (Evensong) - as well as services appointed for a narrower range of days - (the Great Litany, appointed for Wednesdays, Fridays, and Sundays and Holy Communion, appointed for Sundays and Holy Days). These services are auralised inside an acoustic model of the Choir of St Paul’s Cathedral, so that our experience of them will be that of a member of the congregation at these events in 1624 and 1625.

Using the tools of digital visual and acoustic modelling, the Project recreates two full days of worship in the Cathedral’s Choir. Users can attend services on a Festival Day -Easter Sunday in 1624, and a ferial, or ordinary day, the Tuesday after the First Sunday in Advent in 1625 - as they unfold in real time in a highly accurate model of the Cathedral and its surrounding Churchyard. These services show in the choice of music and in other ways, differences in style of performance reflecting the difference between a festival, or special occasion and an ordinary, everyday occasion.

View of the Choir from Dean's Stall. From the Visual Model, 1620
The Choir from the Dean’s Stall. From the Visual Model, rendered by Austin Corriher

Recovering Lost Sights and Sounds

To achieve the highest possible degree of accuracy in their models, the team leaders drew on archaeological surveys of the Cathedral’s foundations, still in the ground atop Ludgate Hill. They also used contemporary paintings and engravings of the Cathedral and its surroundings, records of leases of Cathedral-owned property found in the Cathedral Register for John Donne’s tenure as Dean, and surveys of Cathedral-owned property inside the Churchyard.

Two of these sources are among the archives of St Paul’s Cathedral held at London Metropolitan Archives - the St Paul’s Cathedral Register for John Donne’s tenure as Dean (LMA, CLC/313/C/001/MS25630/007) and surveys of Cathedral-owned buildings inside the Churchyard, especially the Parliamentary Survey of St Paul’s Churchyard in 1649 (LMA, CLC/313/M/002/MS11816).

Especially important for the project was the reconstruction of St Paul’s Deanery, by John Schofield, St Paul’s Archaeologist Emeritus, based on his study of the Parliamentary Survey of the building. His work led to the Project’s rendering of the Deanery, situated in its formal garden.

Outside view of The Deanery, from the visual model, 1620
The Deanery. From the Visual Model, rendered by Austin Corriher.

Users of the website can fly around the entire exterior model of the Cathedral and Churchyard, take walking tours of the Cathedral’s exterior and interior, or download a Virtual Reality version of the Cathedral’s Choir to explore either on one’s computer or by moving physically around the model using a VR headset.

Users can also explore all six complete worship services, listening to them from five different positions inside the Cathedral’s Choir. The sound files include spoken word performances of texts from the Church of England's Book of Common Prayer (1604) and Bible readings from the Authorised (King James) Version of the Bible. They also include two sermons, Bishop Launcelot Andrewes' sermon for Easter Day 1624 and John Donne's sermon preached in the Choir of St Paul's Cathedral on that day.

View of the South Façade, across roof-tops, from the visual model, 1620
The South Façade. From the Visual Model, rendered by Austin Corriher.

The Performers

Performers of the sound files include the British actors Ben Crystal, William Sutton, and Colin Hurley, who used original Elizabethan pronunciation scripts created by the distinguished English linguist David Crystal. Crystal also performs Lancelot Andrewes’ sermon. The role of the Choir of St Paul’s Cathedral was played by the Choir of Jesus College, Cambridge University, under the direction of Choirmaster Richard Pinel. Organ music in these recordings was played by Pinel and the Organ Scholars of Jesus College. The early modern musical scores performed in this recreation were chosen by the distinguished music historian Roger Bowers, an emeritus member of the faculty of Jesus College.

Internal view looking up into the Tower, from the visual model, 1620
The Tower. From the Visual Model, rendered by Austin Corriher.

Invaluable to this project from the beginning has been the involvement of the distinguished architectural historian John Schofield, long-time archaeologist at St Paul’s Cathedral, author of St Paul’s Cathedral Before Wren (2011) and a host of other books and articles on the official and domestic architecture of medieval and early modern London. John has worked actively on the Pauls Cross and Cathedral projects as advisor to the visual modelers at NC State as well as supervisor of staff at the Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) who created the interior models of the Cathedral.

As a result of the team’s work, visitors to the website will be able to glimpse how the daily worship of the post-Reformation Church of England, as scripted by the Book of Common Prayer, both informed congregations as to who they were as the church, the Body of Christ on Earth, and also formed them as Christian community, doing the work of 'living in love and charity with their neighbors.' The worship of the Church of England provided the context for all religious reflection, preaching, and practice. Now, users of this site can experience that liturgical day, learn how it was constructed, what was involved in performing it, and what messages were learned through its use.

View of the East front across roof-tops, from the visual model, 1620
The East front. From the Visual Model, rendered by Austin Corriher.

About the author

John N. Wall is Professor of English Literature at NC State University and Principal Investigator for the Virtual St Paul's Cathedral Project and the Virtual Paul's Cross Project.