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Paul's Cross
by E. Beresford Chancellor

St. Paul's Preaching Cross, in St. Paul's Cathedral Churchyard, was the setting, and perhaps to some extent the inspiration, of some of the most pregnant scenes in the story of London, and almost of England. Certainly, if it were possible to secure a complete collection of the sermons delivered at Paul's Cross, we Old Paul's Crossshould have a history, almost complete, of the Anglican Church. Even before it became the pulpit of the cathedral - we may almost say the pulpit of England - it was the traditional spot for the announcement of general proclamations, civil as well as religious in nature. It was, too, the spot at which Londoners, in the management of their own affairs or in times of national crisis, assembled as if drawn thither by a natural magnet.

Hear we first hear of the summoning of the citizens assembly known as the folkmoot, by John Mansell, a king's justice, in 1236. To Paul's Cross, on Paul's Day, the people were called to receive announcement of King Henry III's pleasure that the citizens of London be ruled with virtue, that the liberties of the city be maintained, and that any person who vexed the citizens should be grievously punished for the example of others.

At another folkmoot, in 1259, in the presence of the King and the Archbishop of Canterbury, the citizens came to Paul's Cross to swear true allegiance to the King and his heirs, an oath which - perhaps because it was taken with the royal guard holding the gates of the city - did not prevent the same citizens from answering the summons of the great bell of St. Paul's Jesus Bell Tower to stand fast with Simon de Montfort for the liberties of Englishmen.

"Powles Crosse" witnessed a stranger scene in about 1422 when one Richard Walker, a chaplain of Worcester, there appeared to plead guilty to charges of sorcery. He was harangued by the Bishop of Llandaff and made a statement forswearing all magical practices. Thereupon two books of images, the possession of which had been one of the chief grounds for the accusations brought against him, were slung upon him wide open and he was marched along Cheapside under their burden. Returning to the Cross, the chaplain was relieved both of the offending books, which were burned before his eyes, and of any further punishment.

The episode of the dramatic appearance in the pulpit of Paul's Cross of Reginald Pecock, Bishop of St. Asaph, belongs to ecclesiastical history rather than to the record of St. Paul's. He provoked, by his attack on Wycliffe's Lollard doctrines and his equally uncompromising vindication of the rights, privileges and duties of bishops, one of the most heated religious controversies of a period not unused to doctrinal strife. Yet ten years later, in 1447, from motives which are difficult to discern from the evidence available, Pecock, now Bishop of Chichester, appears again at Paul's Cross before twenty thousand hostile people, to kneel in his bishop's robes at the feet of the Primate of Canterbury and other bishops and make full confession of his grievous errors. Into the fire which burned alongside, a grim reminder of his own possible fate, the abject bishop cast, with his own hands, the writings which had provoked the displeasure of the orthodox.

New glory came to Paul's Cross with the munificent bishopric of Thomas Kemp in the late 15th century. He rebuilt it with such imposing grandeur and with such grace of form that he made of it one of the outstanding decorative features of the whole city of London. It was an open-air pulpit, largely of timber, mounted upon steps of stone with a roof covered in lead and a low wall was built around. There was room in it for three or four persons. Unfortunately, there followed Puritan fanaticism, abhorrent of this popish emblem, and Paul's Cross was eventually destroyed.

Latimer preaches to King Edward VI at Paul's CrossMeanwhile we must picture it as the stage, as it were, of much that was vital in the affairs of the nation. It is particularly to be observed that national and political scenes took place there as well as affairs ecclesiastical and semi-ecclesiastical. We see the promulgation of papal bulls, the pronouncement of dire excommunications, public confessions and recantations of heresy. We see, too, subsequently, the public exposure of impostors and frauds, intermixed with royal edicts, public proclamations, national addresses, proclamation of kings and denunciation of traitors, with announcements of victories by sea and land, and tidings of royal marriages and deaths. It has been said that "All the Reformation was accomplished from the Cross".

At the very first sermon preached at Paul's Cross after the death of the protestant Edward VI and the eventual accession to the throne of his catholic sister, Queen Mary, there was a riot provoked by the words of Bishop Bourne. A dagger was thrown at the preacher and stuck quivering in one of the side posts. "There was shouting at the sermon as it were like mad people, and if the Lord Mayor and Lord Courtenay had not been there, there would have been great mischief." As it was, the preacher had to be rescued by force and hurried away to sanctuary in St. Paul's School.

Modern Day St. Paul's Cross erected in 1910Queen Elizabeth I would risk no repetition of such a scene and kept the pulpit empty for months whilst the nation waited expectant to learn what form the national religion of England was now to take. So that when at length the silence was broken by the appearance of Dr. Samson to preach from Paul's Cross, the pulpit was found to be locked and the keys mislaid. My Lord Mayor gave orders for a smith to force open the door, which was done, to reveal that the place was almost too filthy and unclean to be used.

Paul's Cross was, as we have said, swept away by the wave of Puritanism which robbed English architecture and history of so many treasures. From the time of its destruction in 1643, the site was unmarked and only recorded in tradition. It was not until 1910 that a new cross was built, the means being provided by the will of Mr. H.C. Richards, KC, MP.

Edited by David Nash Ford, from E. Beresford Chancellor's 'St. Paul's Cathedral' (1925)




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