Wren's St Paul's Cathedral is one of the dominant images of tourist London. The religious history of the site, however, goes back to the very arrival of Christianity in England. Sitting atop one of the two hills of ancient London it has long gazed down on the doings of men and women. Few definitive histories of St. Paul's have been written but one of the most "delightful" is that penned by Dean H H Milman in the 1860s. Here we present his great work for the enjoyment of the modern age. Our first instalment takes us back to the Roman period and the evidence of a cult to Diana, the huntress goddess, on the hill itself, or in is close proximity.
The Annals of St Paul's Cathedral
by Henry Hart Millman D.D.
LATE DEAN OF S. PAUL'S
S. Paul's under the Romans and the Saxons
The first part: Roman and Christian London – Ancient Catacomb – Worship of Diana.
THE CATHEDRAL Of S. PAUL stands on a site which might seem designated and predestined for Divine worship. Almost all, if not all, heathen religions affect high places for the temples of their gods. If, then, there was indeed a British city where London now stands, we might not unreasonably suppose that this spacious and commanding eminence might have been chosen for the celebration of the barbarous religious rites. If any faith could be placed in Druidism, as described by the Roman writers, and embellished by later poetry, we might lead forth the white-robed priests in their long procession, with their attendant bards, their glittering harps and sounding hymns, from the oak-clad heights to the north of London, to offer their sacrifices-bloody human sacrifices - or more innocent oblations of the fruits of the earth - on that hill-top, from which anthems have so long risen to the Redeemer of mankind.
But Geoffrey of Monmouth's great Trinobantine city, the 'Troy-novant' of later romance, has long vanished into thin air; and London, more modest, must content itself with the fame of being an early and rapidly flourishing colony of our Roman conquerors. It cannot justly aspire to an earlier date than the reign of Claudius; and for that date we have the weighty authority of Tacitus.
There seems evidence, not to be contested, that on this eminence was a Roman praetorian camp to defend and to command the rising city below. That a Roman temple should stand beside, or in the neighbourhood of, the strong military position, is no great demand on our belief. In height and strength no eminence, in what was then London, could compare with the spacious esplanade on which S. Paul's stands. The imagination may find it difficult, but may succeed in clearing - if it may be so said and exposing its commanding elevation, as it rose in those distant days, when it looked down on the broad and clear, and yet unbridged Thames, ebbing and flowing at its feet, and, deep below to the west, the narrower, and then, no doubt, pellucid Fleet. This smaller rivulet, having welled forth from the dense forests which covered the hills to the north of London, and having wound its quiet course through the lower level, expanded into a navigable stream before it fell into the Thames. Ill-fated stream! which, having gradually sunk to the ignominious name of Fleet Ditch, became proverbial for its filth and foetid odours; and in its last days, before it was closed for ever, was darkly immortalised by Pope, who plunged his Dunces into its foul waters, to rise again in majesty of mud.' At length, as it were for very shame, the Fleet was hidden out of sight, and degraded to a dark and inefficient sewer.
So soon as Christianity attained to strength and ascendancy in the Roman world, it would find its way into the provinces, even to the most remote, in all likelihood noiselessly and 'without observation.' Sober history has long dismissed the fable of Joseph of Arimathea, even of S. Paul, preaching in Britain. The Apostle, in the time of the Emperor Nero, would have found only a fierce and as yet doubtful conflict between the Roman legions and the yet barbarous and hardly broken tribes, with Boadicea at their head. King Lucius and the missionaries of his Court have likewise quietly withdrawn into the dim region of Christian mythology. In truth, of the first introduction of Christianity into Roman Britain, nothing is historically known. Yet, as soon as there were Christian churches, there can be no doubt that there would be a church in London; and that such church might be within the precincts of the great military fortress, is by no means improbable. I must not pass over the legend, unearthed by Dugdale from an obscure monkish chronicler, that, during the persecution by Diocletian, the church on the site of S. Paul's was demolished, and a temple to Diana built on its ruins; while at Thorney; Westminster) rose a kindred shrine to Apollo; the heathen deities supplanting S. Peter and S. Paul. This myth, however, must, at least in its larger part, follow he fictions of those, or rather of succeeding, ages. But of Diana more below. The Diocletian, or rather Galerian, persecution raged chiefly in the East, and in the West at Rome. Remote Britain, under the doubtfully faithful government of Constantius, the father of Constantine, can hardly have been much disturbed. At all events, the persecution lasted far too short a time for the destruction of Churches, and the building of heathen temples in their place. Of all this, the Roman temples and Christian churches, the authority, it must be acknowledged, is altogether vague and obscure, and so they may pass into oblivion.
One singular fact, however, seems to rest on stronger evidence. No doubt on part of this area of S. Paul's there was a very ancient cemetery, in which not only successive generations, but successive races, deposited the remains of their dead. A cemetery, however, by no means implied a place of divine worship. With the Romans rather the contrary. By the laws of the Twelve Tables, and by immemorial and unbroken usage, the interment of the dead within the walls of a city was inexorably interdicted. The urns of the great, after the practice of burning the dead prevailed, were alike banished beyond the pomoerium. These laws and usages, no doubt, were enforced in all cities throughout the Roman empire. Till the days of dominant Christianity, when, in its more material form differing from the sublime spiritualism of S. Paul, it gave an inalienable sanctity to the buried body, interment within a city, still less within a church, was unknown. Constantine was the first who broke through that law, and ordered his remains to repose in the Church of the Apostles.
In the camp, in as close conformity as possible with this usage, the dead were buried in the vallum, the enclosing trench, beyond the actual precincts of the camp, yet secure from hostile violation. That there was a catacomb excavated beneath, or on the declivity of, the hill of S. Paul's, if not within the very outskirts of the Praetorium, there can be no doubt; and that this catacomb contained the remains of successive masters and inhabitants of London. Upon digging the foundation of the fabric of S. Paul's, "he (Sir Christopher Wren) found under the graves of the latter ages, in a row below, the burial places of the Saxon times. The Saxons, as it appeared, were accustomed to line their graves with chalk-stones, though some more eminent were entombed in coffins of whole stones. Below these were British graves, wherein were found ivory and wooden pins of a hard wood, seemingly box, in abundance, of about six inches long. It seems the bodies were only wrapt up and buried in woollen shrouds, which being consumed, the pins remained entire. In the same row and deeper were Roman urns intermixed. This was eighteen feet or more, and belonged to the colony when Romans and Britons lived and died together."
>Sir Christopher Wren dismissed the fable, as he esteemed it, of the temple of Diana, somewhat contemptuously. This temple rested on a very questionable and almost contradictory tradition (Dugdale's chronicler assigns it no higher date than Diocletian's persecution); on wild etymological fancies (so grave a writer as Selden derives London from the Roman-Welsh Llan-den, the Church of Diana), but chiefly on a report, endorsed by Camden and others, of the exhumation on this site, in the reign of Edward III., of 'an incredible' quantity of skulls, bones of cattle, staghorns, boars' tusks, with instruments and vessels thought to be sacrificial. We say nothing as to doubts of the real owners of these bones, as determined in ante-Cuvierian days; but it was decided without hesitation, that they were remains of ancient sacrifices, of course to Diana. In due time the learned took up their parable, and talked with grave solemnity of the Taurobolia, the votive offerings of bulls to that goddess. I suspect that the Taurobolia was an Eastern rite in honour of Diana the Nature goddess, the Diana Multimamma, the Diana of the Ephesians, not the Artemis, the Huntress Queen of the Greeks, or the Diana Venatrix of the Romans. A more vulgar and less poetical theory seems never to have occurred, that the spot might have been the shambles, the slaughter-house (the Newgate Market) of the great Praetorian Camp. Dr. Woodward was more modest, and insisted only on the more appropriate immolation of the stags, whose horns abounded, to Diana.
Wren, however, refused to be persuaded. His first argument, indeed, was by no means conclusive. He averred that in his own deep and searching excavations he found not a single shell, bone, or horn. Now, it is quite possible that these 'incredible heaps,' in one spot, may have been entirely cleared away when they were discovered (no doubt at the time of the extension of the church into the choir), and no vestige of them may have remained in the other part of the soil. Wren however, on other grounds, continued obstinately sceptical, and did not yield to the arguments of his friend Dr. Woodward. Woodward, though unhappily the Martinus Scriblerus whose scoured shield was celebrated by the learned wits of his day, was an antiquarian of research; and, to judge by his letters to Wren, not without good sense. He appealed to sacrificial vessels, and other undoubted Roman remains, in his own possession, and in the collection of a Mr. Conyers; above all to an image of Diana, found between the Deanery and Blackfriars.
The image is thus described: 'An icunculus of Diana made of brass, and two inches and a half in height. It is in the habit of a huntress, unquestionably ancient, and of Roman make. The hair is very handsomely plaited, made up into a wreath, passing on each side the head, and collected into two knots, a larger at the top and a lesser behind the head. The arms are both bare, and quite naked. At her back, towards the right shoulder, hangs a quiver tied on by a fascia, passing over that shoulder, by the breast, under the left arm, round to the back. In the left hand has been a bow, in the right an arrow. The habit is shortened, and girt up about her waist, after the manner of the cinctus Gabinus ; while it reaches not quite to her knees below, nor to the hams behind. On the feet are the hunting buskins, extending over the ankles up to the lower part of the calf of the leg.' Malcolm, Londinium Redivivum, vol.. iii. p. 509. Mr. Malcolm says that he drew that description from a MS. dissertation of Dr. Woodward's lent him by Mr. Alexander Chalmers (the compiler of the' Biographical Dictionary'). Mr. Elmes, in his 'Life of Wren,' p. 504, speaks of a refutation of Woodward's views in a dissertation by Wren, in the possession of the same Mr. Chalmers. I suspect some confusion. The statue is not described in Woodward's ' Letter to Wren,' London, 1713. What became of it?
Wren, however, did not yield; whether he wrote, may be doubted, certainly he did not publish, the reasons for his doubts. So at that time rested the right of Diana to a temple on the site of S. Paul's. But, extraordinary as it may seem, in our own day, the question has quickened again to new life. In the year 1830, in the excavations for the foundation of Goldsmiths' Hall, in Foster Lane, at no great distance from the cathedral; was found a stone altar, with an image of Diana, about which there can be no doubt of misapprehension. It is, of rude provincial workmanship, yet in form and attitude closely resembling the Diana of the Louvre, the twin sister of the Apollo.
Now, considering what capital hunting-grounds must have been the wild and wide forests to the north of London, peopled, as they doubtless were, with all kinds of game, deer, wild-boars, perhaps the urus (the wild bull), it cannot be surprising that the Roman sportsmen, the officers and soldiers of the great Praetorian camp, should have raised altars and images to the goddess of the chase. It has been well observed, that the shrine was placed just where the old British road led forth the hunter by the northern gates of the city, whose walls were encompassed by the primeval forest . . . we may conceive the ancient votary of Diana to have made his oblation on going forth, or an offering of part of the spoils or returning, to the tutelary goddess of his sports.
The Parentalia adds a description of the most curious "Roman urns, lamps, lachrymatories, and fragments of sacrificing vessels, &c. They were found deep in the ground towards the north-east corner of S. Paul's wrought, and embossed with various figures and devices like the modern red Portugal ware. Some brighter, like coral, and of hardness equal to China ware and as well glazed.