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St Paul’s Cathedral and history

Interior view of Saint Paul's cathedral in London
Robert Tombs
Written by Robert Tombs

Is it too much to ask that the Cathedral authorities should be more careful with the truth in their various historical pronouncements?

St Paul’s Cathedral exists to honour God.  But throughout its history, a secondary purpose has been to commemorate those who have played a noteworthy part in our nation’s history, and hence to maintain the collective memories that bind us together.  The Church of England is the nation’s church, and it plays this part even for non-believers, by providing places to gather and a focus for our communities both in triumph and disaster.  Today, some in the Church seem embarrassed by this public duty—though not, it seems, to the extent of renouncing its wealth and privileges as the Established Church.

We have already criticized St Paul’s for its incoherent and in my view unethical policy of celebrating an African slave trader seemingly because he had the redeeming virtue (in their eyes) of having been deposed by Britain, and hence being a victim of colonialism in the person of Admiral Sir Harry Rawson, commemorated in their crypt and singled out for posthumous shaming.

Recently, it has been widely reported that on its website for visitors the Cathedral authorities attacked two of our greatest national heroes, Winston Churchill and Horatio Nelson.  Churchill was described as an “unashamed imperialist and white supremacist” (terms removed after protests), and he is still grudgingly described as “a figure of controversy, especially when viewed from a modern perspective”.  Nelson is accused of having “personal commitment to the system of slavery”.  Racism, colonialism, slavery—the trinity of unforgivable sins in the eyes of many self-proclaimed progressives.

Neither Churchill nor Nelson are being commemorated as saints, but for their great services to the nation and beyond, which need no summary here. To attack them stirs up dissension.  In the long run, this campaign of selective denigration weakens our national sense of self-worth.  To make such attacks frivolously and in pursuit of virtue signalling (surely a very un-Christian act) would be blameworthy.  If it is regarded as necessary, then it demands very careful consideration of the historical evidence.  Is there any sign that the Cathedral authorities did this?  Or is truth rather low in their priorities?

The accusation that Churchill was racist or “white supremacist” is one that History Reclaimed has discussed exhaustively—interested readers will find several articles if they type Churchill into the website search box.  We found, by examining the vast quantity of literature by and on him, that

“Examples of his belief in equal rights range from age 25 to 80. The paucity of racial epithets in his own speech meshes with that belief. Rather than excoriate him as a racist, we should praise Churchill for resisting the tides of a less tolerant era with eloquence and courage.”

That Churchill was a supporter of the Empire is undoubted, but can hardly be a meaningful reproach—most people in Britain and very many people in the Empire supported it too.  When Churchill became prime minister, the Empire was the only solid barrier against the global triumph of genocidal fascism.

History Reclaimed has also carefully considered the accusation that Nelson was a supporter of slavery.  We concluded that

“It is important to state that Nelson never owned slaves, never owned a slave plantation, never took part in slaving activities at sea and never financed a slave ship – after his early career he was never stationed in the Caribbean, making just one brief visit after 1787.  Moreover, Nelson’s very victory at Trafalgar, by confirming Britain’s naval primacy over France and Spain, made it easier for Parliament, and for British public opinion in general, to accept the abolition of the slave trade in 1807 and the emancipation of slaves in the British empire in 1833.”

St Paul’s Cathedral is one of the centres of our national life, and one of the places most visited by overseas visitors.  This places a special responsibility on those who speak with its authority as both a great religious and a great national institution.  Have they discharged that responsibility properly, by ensuring that their public statements are true and based on proper historical understanding?  Clearly not.

About the author

Robert Tombs

Robert Tombs

Robert Tombs is Emeritus Professor of French History, Cambridge, and a Fellow of St John’s College. He holds the Palmes Académiques for services to French culture. Recent works include The English and Their History (2014), Paris, bivouac des révolutions (2014), and This Sovereign Isle: Britain In and Out of Europe (2021).