Extracts from Daniel Defoe’s Account of London

Selected by Pat Rogers
Introduction and Contents


The churches in London are rather convenient than fine, not adorned with pomp and pageantry as in Popish countries; but, like the true Protestant plainness, they have made very little of ornament either within them or without, nor, excepting a few, are they famous for handsome steeples, a great many of them are very mean, and some that seem adorned, are rather deform’d than beautified by the heads that contrived, or by the hands that built them.

Some, however, hold up their heads with grandeur and magnificence, and are really ornaments to the whole, I mean by these, such as Bow, St. Brides, the new church in the Strand, Rood-Lane Church, or St. Margaret Pattens, St. Antholins, St. Clement Danes, and some others, and some of the fifty churches, now adding by the county and charity of the government, are like to be very well adorned.

Three or four Gothick towers have been rebuilt at the proper expences of the fund appointed, and are not the worst in all the City, namely St. Michael at Cornhill, St. Dunstan in the East, St. Christophers, St. Mary Aldermary, and at St. Sepulchre’s.

But the beauty of all the churches in the City, and of all the Protestant churches in the world, is the cathedral of St. Paul’s; a building exceeding beautiful and magnificent; tho’ some authors are pleased to expose their ignorance, by pretending to find fault with it: ’Tis easy to find fault with the works even of God Himself, when we view them in the gross, without regard to the particular beauties of every part separately considered, and without searching into the reason and nature of the particulars; but when these are maturely inquired into, viewed with a just reverence, and considered with judgment, then we fly out in due admirations of the wisdom of the Author from the excellency of His works.

The vast extent of the dome, that mighty arch, on which so great a weight is supported (meaning the upper towers or lanthorn of stone work seventy feet high) may well account for the strength of the pillars and butments below; yet those common observers of the superficial parts of the building, complain, that the columns are too gross, that the work looks heavy, and the lower figures near the eye are too large, as if the Dorick and the Attick were not each of them as beautiful in their place as the Corinthian.

The wise architect, like a compleat master of his business, had the satisfaction, in his lifetime, of hearing those ignorant reprovers of his work confuted, by the approbation of the best masters in Europe; and the church of St. Peter’s in Rome, which is owned to be the most finished piece in the world, only exceeds St. Paul’s in the magnificence of its inside work; the painting, the altars, the oratories, and the variety of its imagery; things, which, in a Protestant church, however ornamental, are not allowed of.

If all the square columns, the great pilasters, and the flat pannel work, as well within as without, which they now alledge are too heavy and look too gross, were filled with pictures, adorned with carved work and gilding, and crowded with adorable images of the saints and angels, the kneeling crowd would not complain of the grossness of the work; but ‘tis the Protestant plainness, that divesting those columns, &c. of their ornaments, makes the work, which in itself is not so large and gross as that of St. Peter’s, be called gross and heavy; whereas neither by the rules of order, or by the necessity of the building, to be proportioned and sufficient to the height and weight of the work, could they have been less, or any otherwise than they are.

Nay, as it was, those gentlemen who in Parliament opposed Sir Christopher Wren’s request, of having the dome covered with copper, and who moved to have had the lanthorn on the top made shorter, and built of wood; I say, those gentlemen pretending skill in the art, and offering to reproach the judgment of the architect, alledged, That the copper and the stone lanthorn would be too heavy, and that the pillars below would not support it.

To which Sir Christopher answered, That he had sustained the building with such sufficient columns, and the buttment was every where so good, that he would answer for it with his head, that it should bear the copper covering and the stone lanthorn, and seven thousand ton weight laid upon it more than was proposed, and that nothing below should give way, no not one half quarter of an inch; but that, on the contrary, it should be all the firmer and stronger for the weight that should be laid on it; adding, That it was with this view that the work was brought up from its foundation, in such manner, as made common observers rather think the first range of the buildings too gross for its upper part; and that, if they pleased, he would undertake to raise a spire of stone upon the whole, a hundred foot higher than the cross now stands.

When all these things are considered complexly, no man that has the least judgment in building, that knows any thing of the rules of proportion, and will judge impartially, can find any fault in this church; on the contrary, those excellent lines of Mr. Dryden, which were too meanly applied in allegory to the praise of a paltry play, may be, with much more honour to the author, and justice to this work, applied here to St. Paul’s Church.

Strong Dorick pillars form the base,
Corinthian fills the upper space;
So all below is strength, and all above is grace.

Sir Christopher’s design was, indeed, very unhappily baulked in several things at the beginning, as well in the situation as in the conclusion of this work, which, because very few may have heard of, I shall mention in publick, from the mouth of its author.

1. In the situation: He would have had the situation of the church removed a little to the north, that it should have stood just on the spot of ground which is taken up by the street called Pater-noster-Row, and the buildings on either side; so that the north side of the church should have stood open to the street now called Newgate-street, and the south side, to the ground on which the church now stands.

By this situation, the east end of the church, which is very beautiful, would have looked directly down the main street of the City, Cheapside; and for the west end, Ludgate having been removed a little north, the main street called Ludgate-street and Ludgate-Hill, would only have sloped a little W.S.W. as they do now irregularly two ways, one within, and the other without the gate, and all the street beyond Fleet-Bridge would have received no alteration at all.

By this situation, the common thorough-fare of the city would have been removed at a little farther distance from the work, and we should not then have been obliged to walk just under the very wall as we do now, which makes the work appear quite out of all perspective, and is the chief reason of the objections I speak of; whereas, had it been viewed at a little distance, the building would have been seen infinitely to more advantage.

Had Sir Christopher been allowed this situation, he would then, also, have had more room for the ornament of the west end, which, tho’ it is a most beautiful work, as it now appears, would have been much more so then, and he would have added a circular piazza, to it, after the model of that at Rome, but much more magnificent, and an obelisk of marble in the center of the circle, exceeding any thing that the world can now shew of its kind, I mean of modern work.

But the circumstance of things hindered this noble design, and the City being almost rebuilt before he obtained an order and provision for laying the foundation; he was prescribed to the narrow spot where we see it now stands, in which the building, however magnificent in itself, stands with infinite disadvantage as to the prospect of it; the inconveniencies of which was so apparent when the church was finished, that leave was at length, tho’ not without difficulty, obtained, to pull down one whole row of houses on the north side of the body of the church, to make way for the ballister that surrounds the cimetry or church-yard, and, indeed, to admit the light into the church, as well as to preserve it from the danger of fire.

Another baulk which, as I said, Sir Christopher met with, was in the conclusion of the work, namely, the covering of the dome, which Sir Christopher would have had been of copper double gilded with gold; but he was over-ruled by Party, and the City thereby, deprived of the most glorious sight that the world ever saw, since the temple of Solomon.

Yet with all these disadvantages, the church is a most regular building, beautiful, magnificent, and beyond all the modern works of its kind in Europe, St. Peter’s at Rome, as above, only excepted.

It is true, St. Peter’s, besides its beauty in ornament and imagery, is beyond St. Paul’s in its dimensions, is every way larger; but it is the only church in the world that is so; and it was a merry hyperbole of Sir Christopher Wren’s, who, when some gentlemen in discourse compared the two churches, and in compliment to him, pretended to prefer St. Paul’s, and when they came to speak of the dimensions, suggested, that St. Paul’s was the biggest: I tell you, says Sir Christopher, you might set it in St. Peter’s, and look for it a good while, before you could find it.