In 1630, the 4th Earl of Bedford was given permission to demolish buildings on an area of land he owned north of the Strand, and redevelop it. The result was the Covent Garden Piazza, the first formal square in London. The new buildings were classical in character. At the west end was a church, linked to two identical houses. The south side was left open.
St Paul's was the first entirely new church to be built in London since the Reformation. The design of the church, and the layout of the square, has been attributed to Inigo Jones since the 17th century, although firm documentary evidence is lacking. According to an often repeated story, recorded by Horace Walpole, Lord Bedford asked Jones to design a simple church "not much better than a barn", to which the architect replied "Then you shall have the handsomest barn in England".
Work on the church was completed in 1633, at a cost of to Bedford estate of £4,886, but it was not consecrated until 1638 due to a dispute between the earl and the vicar of St Martin-in-the-Fields. It remained a chapel within the parish of St Martin-in-the-Fields until 1645, when Covent Garden was made a separate parish and the church dedicated to St. Paul.
In 1789 there was a major restoration of the church, under the direction of the architect Thomas Hardwick. Six years later, in September 1795, the church was burnt out by a fire, accidentally started by workmen on the roof. A survey of the damage found that the outer walls were still structurally sound, but that the portico would have to be reconstructed. It is unclear whether this was in fact done. Having been restored once more, again under Hardwick's supervision, the church was reconsecrated, on 1 August 1798. Despite the destruction, the parish records were saved, as was the pulpit — the work of Grinling Gibbons.
The puritan Thomas Manton ministered from the pulpit of St Paul's until the Great Ejection. On 23 September 1662 Simon Patrick, later Bishop of Ely, was preferred to the rectory of St. Paul’s where he served during the plague.
The first known victim of the 1665–1666 outbreak of the Plague in England, Margaret Ponteous, was buried in the churchyard on 12 April 1665.
The building is described by Sir John Summerson as "a study in the strictly Vitruvian Tuscan Order". It has been seen as a work of deliberate primitivism: the Tuscan order is associated by Palladio with agricultural buildings. The east end, facing the piazza, is faced in stone, with a massive portico, its boldly-projecting pediment supported by two columns and two piers. There were originally three doorways behind the portico; the middle one, which survives, was built as a false door as the interior wall behind it is occupied by the altar. The other two were blocked up in the 19th century, when the chancel floor was raised. The main entrance to the church is through the plainer west front, which has a pediment, but no portico.William Prynne, writing in 1638 said that it was originally intended to have the altar at the west end, but pressure from the church hierarchy led to the imposition of the traditional orientation.
The earliest existing detailed description, dating from 1708, says that the exterior was not of bare brick, but rendered with stucco. In 1789 it was decided to case the walls in Portland stone as part of a major programme of renovation, which Thomas Hardwick was chosen to supervise. At the same time the tiled roof was replaced with slate, the dormer windows, added in the 1640s, were removed, and the archways flanking the church, originally of stuccoed brick, were replaced with stone replicas. When Hardwick's stone facing was removed from the church in 1888; it was found to be a thin covering less than three inches thick, poorly bonded to the brick. The building was then reclad in the present unrendered red brick.
West entrance of St. Paul's and garden
There were originally six or seven steps leading up to the portico, but these disappeared as the level of the Piazza was raised gradually over the years. By 1823 there were only two steps visible, and none by 1887. The arches at the side of the portico were substantially widened and raised during a restoration of 1878–82 by Henry Clutton, The 9th Duke of Bedford's architect. Clutton also removed the bell-turret over the western pediment.
The interior is a single space, undivided by piers or columns. The eastern third was originally marked out as a chancel by means of the floor being raised by one step. The level was raised further during alterations by William Butterfield in 1871–72. The church was built without galleries, but they were soon added on three sides. Hardwick included them in his rebuilding, and the western one remains today.
St Paul's connection with the theatre began as early as 1663 with the establishment of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, and was further assured in 1723 with the opening of Covent Garden Theatre, now the Royal Opera House.
On 9 May 1662, Samuel Pepys noted in his diary the first "Italian puppet play" under the portico — the first recorded performance of "Punch and Judy", a fact commemorated by the annual MayFayre service in May.
Samuel Butler (1613–1680), of Hudibras fame, was buried at St. Paul's, Covent Garden. Aubrey in Brief Lives describes his grave as "being in the north part next to the church at the east end.. 2 yards distant from the pillaster of the dore". His grave was never marked. A monument to him was placed in Westminster Abbey in 1732 by a printer with the surname Barber, and the Lord Mayor of London.
The Orchestra of St Paul's (OSP) is a professional chamber orchestra resident at the Actors' Church. In addition to a concert series in Covent Garden, the Orchestra of St Paul's gives regular performances all around the UK and makes annual visits to the Southbank Centre and St John's, Smith Square. OSP appears regularly at UK festivals such as the English Music Festival.
OSP is unique among modern instrument chamber orchestras in playing music of the baroque, classical and even romantic periods entirely without vibrato. This pure tone is complemented by the orchestra’s employment of authentic articulation, phrasing and style. With the exception of natural trumpets in appropriate repertoire the orchestra does not use period instruments; however, this historically informed focus is absolutely central to the group’s approach. The flexible line-up of the Orchestra of St Paul's adapts to suit each project, from the standard classical chamber orchestra to an ensemble of between four and fourteen players; exceptionally OSP expands to a full symphony orchestra.