Sir Christopher Wren (1632 to 1723) was a brilliant polymath: an astronomer, mathematician, anatomist, inventor, founder member and President of the Royal Society, and King Charles II’s Surveyor-General of the King’s Works.
He was considered by many to be the greatest architect of his time.
Wren designed many extraordinary secular, royal and religious buildings, now all listed, as well as fine landmarks of architecture and place.
These include Emmanuel College Cambridge, the Royal Hospital Chelsea, the south front of Hampton Court Palace, the Old Royal Naval College and the Royal Observatory Greenwich, and, after the Great Fire of London (1666), 52 City churches, as well as his architectural masterpiece, St Paul’s Cathedral.
Here we commemorate Wren’s life and works, 300 years after his death.
Wren’s father was Dean of Windsor and the family lived in the court precincts, moving within the intellectual circles of King Charles I. Here Wren, a small frail clever boy, whose childhood playmate was sometimes the Prince of Wales (later Charles II), developed an interest in mathematics.
The family’s lives were disrupted by the English Civil War (1642 to 1651), a series of conflicts, fundamentally about power and religion, fought between those loyal to the King (Royalists) and factions loyal to Parliament (Puritans), that led to the execution of the monarch. (His heir, the future Charles II, was exiled in Continental Europe, before being restored to the throne in 1660).
These were tumultuous dangerous times for staunch Royalists, such as the Wren family. Christopher Wren’s uncle, the Bishop of Ely, was imprisoned in the Tower of London. The Deanery at Windsor was attacked and Wren’s father forced to move out.
Wren, aged 9, a child prodigy who excelled at drawing and had an intense curiosity about the world, was sent to Westminster School in London. He also received private tuition in mathematics and astronomy from an uncle, William Holder, profoundly influencing his life.
The teenage Wren later experimented with sundials and anatomy. He made a model showing the working of muscles and another of the solar system.
He went up to Wadham College, Oxford University, aged 17.
Over the next few years, he carried out many scientific experiments, including a blood transfusion between 2 dogs. He drew the human brain, studied anatomy and dissected fish. His multiple inventions included instruments for surveying and another for measuring angles. He designed a beehive, and a device to measure the moisture content of the air. He studied the problem of calculating longitude at sea, and made observations about the Planet Saturn. He helped build a 24 metre long instrument for viewing the moon.
Still in his 20s, Wren’s breadth of scientific knowledge was extensive.
Wren was elected a Fellow of All Souls at Oxford in 1653, then appointed Professor of Astronomy at Gresham College in the City of London (which led to him becoming a founder member of the Royal Society in 1660 and later its President), followed by election to the Savilian Chair of Astronomy at Oxford in 1661. His international reputation started to grow.
Wren’s early architectural career
It is unclear why Wren turned to architecture, but it was considered at the time a branch of applied mathematics and a gentleman’s pursuit.
Wren’s wide interests in drawing, model-building, optics and perspective, as well as mathematics meant that architecture may also have been a natural progression for such a polymath.
Perhaps too was the fact that the subject was a fairly open field with few rivals. Inigo Jones (1573 to 1652), one of the country’s first recognised architects, designer of the the Queen’s House at Greenwich, the Covent Garden piazza, and the Banqueting House in Whitehall, had died when Wren was 20.
Wren had an interest in the open arenas of ancient Rome and wanted to reference such buildings in his design, but the central U-shaped space would need to be covered because of the British climate.
He created a dome (his first), supported by a roof truss that spanned the 21 metres and avoided load-bearing columns within which would have spoiled the sense of a Classical form. The truss was concealed by a ceiling painted by Robert Streater (1621 to 1679).
The Sheldonian Theatre was a tremendous technical achievement at the time. Wren’s understanding of engineering had produced a novel roof construction, further raising his status in the scientific and architectural worlds. From this point, architecture became his main focus.
Inspiration from France
As the bubonic plague raged across Britain in 1665, decimating the population especially in London (‘the Great Plague’), Wren had travelled to France for almost a year to study the latest in French architecture and learn about European Classicism. He had already been advising on repairs and improvements, at the King’s behest, to the dilapidated Medieval Old St Paul’s Cathedral back in London.
In France, as a distinguished member of the Royal Society, Wren met the renowned sculptor and architect, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, and saw the designs he was submitting for the east facade of the Louvre in Paris, visited the Palace of Versailles just outside the capital that Louis XIV was turning into a royal residence, court and seat of government, and studied magnificent châteaux.
Rebuilding the city after the Great Fire of London
Returning from Paris in March 1666, Wren submitted a radical design for Old St Paul’s Cathedral which dispensed with the tower, replacing it with a dome. This plan was confirmed at the end of August 1666.
But just a few days later, on 2 September, a catastrophic fire began to consume the City of London. Wooden scaffolding encasing the Old Cathedral caught fire. The stonework cracked and exploded in the heat. The huge lead roof melted in hot streams, flowing down onto the streets. The building was reduced to a ruin, along with most of the City.
In the aftermath of the Fire, King Charles II ordered the submission of schemes to rebuild London. Many were put forward.
Within days of the Fire, Wren along with surveyors including Dr Robert Hooke, Surveyor to the City of London, had assessed the destruction and submitted his own radical re-design. This dispensed with the medieval street plan with its maze of narrow alleyways, replacing it with a new grid pattern that included wide avenues and piazzas.
But Wren’s scheme did not see fruition. Like others, it was deemed prohibitively expensive and impractical in terms of negotiation over land. There was a shortage of labour and the priority was to rebuild homes quickly and revive commerce.
As a result, reconstruction over the next decade largely followed the same Medieval street pattern that existed before the Fire.
The city churches
84 out of over 100 City churches had been lost to the Fire.
Wren was now appointed Surveyor for Rebuilding the City Churches. 52 destroyed or severely damaged churches were selected to be rebuilt.
Working closely with Hooke, Wren designed many of the churches, along with delegating and over-seeing the design of others.
The destruction wrought by the Fire provided Wren with an opportunity to introduce a more modern Classical-style church architecture that often included large clear glass windows, galleries on three sides, steeples and domes, as well as creating internal spaces with few obstructions to the view of the altar and pulpit.
Work on the first churches began in 1670, with most completed within 20 years.
St Paul’s Cathedral
Alongside the rebuilding of the City churches, Wren worked for 9 years on designs for St Paul’s. He was appointed Surveyor of St Paul’s Cathedral in 1669. He also became Surveyor-General of the Kings Works in the same year (and knighted in 1673).
His first St Paul’s scheme was considered not grand enough. Wren responded by creating a new design with a magnificent dome, backed up with an immense ‘Great Model’, beautifully crafted from wood (preserved in St Paul’s Cathedral today).
However, it was not well received by the clergy and others as it was considered not Christian enough in form. Wren was forced to compromise and produced a less ambitious scheme known as the Warrant Design in 1675 which was accepted by the King.
The first stone for the Cathedral was laid 21 June 1675, but the building work did not start for many months as Wren continued to make radical amendments to almost every element of the design (the King had privately told Wren he was free to do this). As a result, the final spectacular building is very different from the original Warrant Design.
The Cathedral, considered Wren’s greatest masterpiece, was eventually completed in 1711. It had taken nearly 36 years. Wren had been in his early 40s when the work began, he was now nearly 80.
Other great works by Wren
As Surveyor-General of the King’s Works, Wren had also been asked to design a memorial to the Great Fire. He produced several schemes with Dr Robert Hooke, including a colossal column with a statue of the King at the top (vetoed by the King).
The version built between 1671 to 1677 is a fluted Doric column of Portland stone, surmounted by a symbolically flaming urn of gilt bronze, with an internal spiral staircase of 311 steps up to a viewing platform.
The Monument was built on the site of the first church to be destroyed by the Great Fire, St Margaret.
In parallel to his work in the City of London, in the decades from the 1670s to the 1700s, Wren also designed other iconic buildings (now all listed) in London and elsewhere, among them the Royal Observatory, Greenwich (again with Hooke), the Royal Hospital, Chelsea, and the Wren Library at Trinity College Cambridge.
He remodeled Kensington Palace and Hampton Court Palace and began work on his last great masterpiece, the Royal Naval College, Greenwich.
Wren’s final years
Wren lived under 6 monarchs. The last, Queen Anne (1665 to 1714), leased him a house at Hampton Court in lieu of fees owed from his work on St Paul’s Cathedral.
He was still active in his later years, including serving on several Royal Commissions, such as the one established to enable the building of 50 new City churches. He remained Surveyor of the Fabric of Westminster Abbey until his death.
He was found dead on 25 February 1723 after suffering a chill, sitting in a chair at his son’s house in St James’s Street, Piccadilly, London.
Wren was 91 years old.
The last Latin words on the plaque read: ‘Lector, si monumentum requiris, circumspice’ – Reader, if you seek a monument, look about you.
Written by Nicky Hughes.
- Find out about the Wren 300 celebrations
- Plan your visit to St Paul’s
- Wren’s investments and commercial activities, and their moral context, are examined in this piece by Dr Paula Gooder, Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral.
A true polymath , a very interesting look at Wren’s life.
I took a corse at Washington University titled English Architecture 1630 to 1790. I came out of that believing that Nicholas Hawksmore was one of the greatest architects who ever lived. His baroque neoclassical was rebellious modernism in its time. Thanks to Christofer Wren for recognizing that talent and getting him started with Wren’s great commissions.
What a wonderfully informative post! I wonder why I have never learned much about Wren’s life, when I have heard his name so many times and seen many of his works. Thank you for bringing him to life!
Wren also designed St Stephen’s Walbrook. In fact he lived for a time at number 15 Walbrook.
Just learned that my ancestors were Christopher Wren’s master stonemasons-Thomas and Edward Strong. Amazing!