In the Shadow of St Paul’s Cathedral, by Margaret Willes

A veritable feast for anyone who loves books and history.
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As soon as I picked up this book I knew it was a brilliant idea, and wondered why no-one had thought to do it before. The answer lies in the book itself, which is that the amount of research taken is enormous. Writing as an amateur, and not a historian, it is a veritable feast for anyone who loves books and history. The research is backed up by black and white illustrations, colour plates, and thorough bibliographical and historical notes.

St Paul’s was the centre of London in earlier centuries and the hub of religious and political debate. Just about everything you can think of went on inside the churchyard at St Paul’s Cross – from the burning of heretics and the destruction of Papist relics, to bear baiting and plays by St Paul’s boy choristers. And for bibliophiles, it was the heart of the bookseller’s business for hundreds of years, housing printers, bookbinders and stationers, not to mention the many stalls selling the ‘penny godlies’ –  the reprints of sermons and psalms.

In these chapters we find out where Shakespeare got his history from, what an inspirational speaker John Donne was, how the church weathered the debates around Henry VIII and the split from the church, not to mention the devastating Great Fire that destroyed the book industry in 1666.

The carefully curated material is detailed but immensely readable and so will please academics and the lay-person alike. Within the text the anecdotes are backed up by quotations and evidence from original sources. A discussion about how the King James Bible originated rubs shoulders in this book with Moll Cutpurse, who having been caught on St Paul’s Walk ‘with her petticoat tucked up about her in the fashion of a man’ came to the Cross to be sentenced, having ‘tipled of three quartes of sacke’.  One of the joys of this book is that it is populated with a rich array of characters from all walks of life.

In these pages you will find the lesser known characters like Isabella Whitney the poet, and John Ogilby who rescued his father from debtor’s prison by winning the lottery at 12 years old. Lovers of the classic poets will enjoy the chapter on Literary Circles which examines the coffee houses and chop houses frequented by writers and booksellers. I would love to have gone back in time to Joseph Johnson’s shop of 72 St Paul’s Churchyard , where I might meet Wordsworth and Blake or visit the lodgings Johnson gave to Mary Wollstonecraft.

Though given this book by the publisher for review, I will be buying it again on kindle so I can use the search facility. The hardback is beautifully produced and will be taking pride of place on my bookshelf where I will no doubt dip into its treasures often. A great gift for any bibliophile or history buff and very highly recommended.

In the Shadow of St Paul’s Cathedral by Margaret Willes is out now and published by Yale University Press.

Deborah Swift is the USA Today bestselling author of the Pepys Trilogy and the award-winning Past Encounters. Her latest novel is The Silkworm Keeper set in Renaissance Italy.

In the Shadow of St. Paul’s Cathedral