St Paul’s Cathedral Is Amusing, Awful, and Artificial

King Charles II? Queen Anne? King James II? King William III? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: There is a venerable tale illustrating the shifts that occur in the meanings of words over time. During the construction of the Cathedral of St Paul the monarch of England was taken on a tour of the edifice by the chief architect, Sir Christopher Wren.  When the excursion was complete the monarch told Wren that the new building was awful, pompous, and artificial. Remarkably, Wren did not feel insulted; instead, he was greatly pleased. In the 1600s amusing meant amazing, awful meant awe-inspiring, and artificial meant artistic. Is there any support for the accuracy of this entertaining legend?

Quote Investigator: There are many variants of this story involving different monarchs; for example, King Charles, King James, King William, and Queen Anne are sometimes named. The words with changing meanings include: awful, amusing, pompous, and artificial. The Cathedral of St Paul in London was built between 1675 and 1711 based on a design submitted by Christopher Wren, and this period overlapped the reigns of several monarchs in England. The previous cathedral on the site had been destroyed in a fire.

There is solid evidence that a royal warrant from King Charles II used the phrase “very artificial” while praising Wren’s design. This usage might be the seed that resulted in an efflorescence of different tales in later years. The warrant authorizing the beginning of the construction of the Cathedral of St. Paul was annexed to the surveyor’s drawings, and the document was signed in 1675.

The grandson of the cathedral designer published the text of the warrant in a book of family memoirs in 1750. The royal “We” was capitalized in the warrant. Boldface has been added to the following passage and some excerpts further below: 1 2

… among divers Designs which have been presented to Us, We have particularly pitched upon one, as well because We found it very artificial, proper, and useful; as because it was so ordered that it might be built and finish’d by Parts: We do therefore by these Presents signify Our Royal Approbation of the said Design, hereunto annexed; and do will and require you forthwith to proceed according to the said Design, beginning with the East-end or Quire, and accomplishing the same with the present Stock of Money, and such Supplies as may probably accrue, according to the Tenor of the Commission to you directed; and for so doing this shall be your Warrant. Given at Our Court at Whitehall, the 14th Day of May, 1675, in the 27th Year of Our Reign.
By His Majesty’s command, HENRY COVENTRY.

The words of praise in the warrant were remembered, and in 1873 an article in Fraser’s magazine stated that the meaning of the word “artificial” had changed. The commentator also noted that Wren’s plans for the cathedral were considerably altered during its multi-decade construction: 3

Even his last design, approved by the King and ordered to be carried out, is wonderfully unlike what was really executed. Luckily he had liberty in the prosecution of his work to make some variations; and if his Majesty had lived to see what those variations became he would certainly not have recognised the design which in the royal warrant had been described as being very artificial, proper, and useful! The word artificial, we need scarcely explain, then meant artistic.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1903 a book presenting the history of churches in England stated that a different phrase praising St Paul’s Cathedral was employed circa 1675. The phrase included the words “most awful”, and it was used during the design selection process. In the following passage the term “dean” referred to the chief cleric of the cathedral: 4

The fire gave the great opportunity; and the first stone of the new work, entrusted to the greatest of English architects, whose design was chosen by the dean because it was “the most awful and artificial,” was laid in 1675. Twenty five years later the masterpiece was completed

The same phrase was repeated in another section of the book. The term “chapter” below referred to the governing subdivision associated with the cathedral:

It was not till 1710 that the work was finished, based on the magnificent scheme of Wren, which the chapter had considered to be “the most awful and artificial” of all those submitted to their choice.

In 1928 an article in the Baltimore Sun newspaper titled “The King’s English” presented a more elaborate version of the plaudit given in the 1903 citation, and discussed the shift in meaning of the word “awful”: 5

When architects’ drawings for the rebuilding of St. Paul’s Cathedral after the fire were submitted, Sir Christopher Wren was told that his design had been chosen because it was “at the same time the most awful and the most artificial.” A modern architect would hardly think such a verdict complimentary. Far from being disparagement, it was the highest praise. “Awful” correctly meant inspiring awe, and “artificial” designed with art. As late as the beginning of the nineteenth century weddings were described as “awful ceremonies.”

In 1938 an article titled “How Talk Becomes Language” appeared as part of a series called “Capsule College” in the Sunday newspaper supplement “This Week Magazine”. The article was widely distributed because the supplement was included with many Sunday newspapers across the U.S. The accolade for St Paul’s now featured the word “amusing” together with two previously used adjectives. The monarch King James was credited: 6 7

Some words change in meaning for no apparent reason. Such changes explain the fact that the architect of St. Paul’s Cathedral was pleased when King James called it “amusing, awful, and artificial.” In those days amusing meant amazing, awful meant awe-inspiring, and artificial meant artistic.

In 1939 the mass-circulation Reader’s Digest printed a version of the anecdote based on the information in “This Week Magazine” and acknowledged the periodical. This provided another avenue for its wide dissemination. 8

In 1966 an advertisement in the Times-Picayune of New Orleans, Louisiana mentioned the tale. The laudatory words were ascribed to Queen Anne who was on the throne when the cathedral was officially completed: 9

Queen Anne summed up her feelings in three adjectives: AWFUL, AMUSING, ARTIFICIAL. Sir Christopher was joyous. You see, in 1710 the word awful meant “awe-inspiring,” amusing meant “amazing,” and artificial meant “artistic.” Language is a living, moving, dynamic thing. Words change their meaning.

In 1968 the award-winning science-fiction author Poul Anderson published a short story about an interplanetary encounter and the resultant misunderstandings caused by the evolution of language semantics. Anderson’s version of the praise lavished on St Paul’s included the word “amusing”: 10

Once in ancient days, the then King of England told Sir Christopher Wren, whose name is yet remembered, that the new cathedral of St. Paul which he had designed was “awful, pompous, and artificial.” Kings have seldom been noted for perspicacity.

Anderson split the anecdote into two parts. The preface to his short story presented the words above, and the coda completed the anecdote with the words below:

In the case of the King and Sir Christopher, however, a compliment was intended. A later era would have used the words “awe-inspiring, stately and ingeniously contrived.

In 1989 a newspaper column with the theme “Words” printed a note from a correspondent that credited the phrase in the tale to King William III: 11

Sometime around 1700: writes Poul (cq) Anderson of Orinda, Calif., King William III told Christopher Wren that the architect’s St. Paul’s Cathedral, then nearing completion, was “awful, pompous, and artificial.”
Of course, says Mr. Anderson, “Meanings have changed since then, and what the king would have said nowadays is ‘awe-inspiring, stately, and skillfully done.’”

In conclusion, there is good evidence that King Charles II or one of his representatives described the plans for the Cathedral of St Paul as very artificial, proper, and useful in a royal warrant. It is possible that other words such as: awful, amusing and pompous were used to characterize the cathedral by succeeding monarchs or by the dean of St Paul’s, but QI has so far been unable to locate substantive citations in the proper time-period supporting this possibility.

(Thanks to the members of the Wombats mailing list and the Language Log blog for sharing information on this topic. Also, thanks to Nigel Rees for the pertinent analysis in Brewer’s Famous Quotations.)

Notes:

  1. 1750, “Parentalia: Or, Memoirs of the Family of the Wrens; Viz. of Mathew Bishop of Ely, Christopher Dean of Windsor, &c. But Chiefly of Sir Christopher Wren, Late Surveyor-General of the Royal Buildings, President of the Royal Society, &c &c.”, Now published by his Grandson, Stephen Wren, Esq., Quote Page 281, Printed for T. Osborn, London. (Google Books full view) link
  2. 2006, Brewer’s Famous Quotations by Nigel Rees, Section: “JAMES II English King (1633-1701)”, Page 253, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London. (Verified on paper) [This valuable reference gave the wording of the phrase used in the royal warrant with a 1937 cite]
  3. 1873 September, Fraser’s Magazine, Volume 8, St. Paul’s Cathedral by C. L. Eastlake, Start Page 284, Quote Page 292, Longmans, Green, and Co., London. (Google Books full view) link
  4. 1903, A History of the English Church, Series Edited by the late Very Rev. W.R.W. Stephens and the Rev. William Hunt, Volume 6: The English Church from the Accession of Charles I to the Death of Anne (1625-1714) by the Rev William Holden Hutton, Page 197 and 346, Macmillan and Co., London. (Google Books full view) link
  5. 1928 March 18, The Baltimore Sun, The King’s English by Arthur Ponsonby, Quote Page M15, Column 4, Baltimore, Maryland. (Verified with scans)
  6. 1938 December 11, Omaha World Herald, [This Week Magazine, Sunday Newspaper Supplement], Capsule College: How Talk Becomes Language by Tracy York, Page 15, Column 1, Omaha, Nebraska. (GenealogyBank)
  7. 1938 December 11, Cleveland Plain Dealer, [This Week Magazine, Sunday Newspaper Supplement], Capsule College: How Talk Becomes Language by Tracy York, Page 15, Column 1, Cleveland, Ohio. (GenealogyBank)
  8. 1939 March, Reader’s Digest, [Untitled stand-alone anecdote], Page 30, Volume 34, The Reader’s Digest Association. (Verified on paper)
  9. 1966 July 16, Times-Picayune, [Advertisement: Title: The Meaning of Words, Sponsor: St. Charles Avenue, Baptist Church, New Orleans], Section Two, Page 4, Column 5, New Orleans, Louisiana. (GenealogyBank)
  10. 1978, The Night Face and Other Stories by Poul Anderson, A Tragedy of Errors by Poul Anderson, Start Page 109, Quote Pages 109 and 165, Gregg Press, Boston, Massachusetts. (Verified on paper in 1978 collection) [The story "A Tragedy of Errors" by Poul Anderson appeared in the February 1968 issue of Galaxy magazine according to the Internet Speculative Fiction Database isfdb.org which provided a pointer to the issue cover showing the date, story title, and author. link ]
  11. February 7 1989, Milwaukee Journal, Awful Lost Its Awe by Michael Gartner, Page 3G, Column 2, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Google News Archive)