Sir Christopher Wren (1632-1723) is Britain’s greatest architect. St Paul’s Cathedral in London is his masterpiece of design. It took 35 years to build. He was Surveyor-General to six English monarchs. His most famous buildings are at the centre of national life and ceremonials. They include Royal palaces, the Royal Hospital, Chelsea and 52 churches built after the Great Fire of London in 1666.
Christopher Wren was a child prodigy. He entered Oxford University at 17 years of age in 1649/50 during the English civil wars. He was already famous as an astronomer, mathematician and inventor before he took up architecture in his thirties. He taught himself architecture with the assistance of books.
Wren was a polymath and a practical intellectual. He is sometimes referred to as ‘the British Leonardo’. He excelled in many disciplines, including physiology, geometry, meteorology and drawing. As a child he made sundials; as a student he dissected human bodies; as an astronomer, he identified the rings of Saturn.
Wren’s legacy for us today is not only measured in the national heritage of wonderful buildings he designed but also as an extraordinary example of what a combined education in science andthe humanities can offer.
The Wren 300 UK national festival in 2023 marks the 300th anniversary of his death at the age of 91 in 1723.
Wren 300 is a showcase for independent events and initiatives and a source of general knowledge about Sir Christopher Wren’s life and career
Wren 300 aims to educate and inform a global audience about Christopher Wren’s astonishing achievements across a wide range of practical subjects and intellectual disciplines.
Wren lecturer, City of London, 2022
Honorary Fellow, Royal Institute of British Architects
Sir Christopher Wren
Born in 1632 in East Knoyle, Wiltshire, where his father was rector, Christopher Wren was already being singled out for great things while he was still a teenager. After a brilliant career at Wadham College, Oxford, he became a Fellow at All Souls, then – at 25 – a professor of astronomy at Gresham College the pioneering adult education institute on Bishopsgate in the City of London. A four-year stint at Gresham resulted in his joining with a few like-minded friends to found the Royal Society, and then in a move to Oxford, which he became Savilian Professor of Astronomy in 1661.
By now he was famous across Europe. He developed a double telescope to allow precise measurements of the stars, and built a model of the moon which had pride of place in Charles II’s private chamber. He tracked the path of comets, and looked for solutions to the problem of longitude.
And as if this weren’t enough, he began to dabble in architecture. A few years after Charles II returned to the throne in 1660, Gilbert Sheldon, the warden of Wren’s own college, All Soul’s, became Bishop of London and then Archbishop of Canterbury. He was determined that University ceremonies, which took place in St Mary’s Church, needed a more appropriate secular setting. So he decided to set up an appeal for a new theatre in Oxford. And he asked the young professor of astronomy to design the building for him.
The Sheldonian Theatre gave Wren a taste for building. In July 1665, when the plague was raging in England, he crossed the Channel to talk with French astronomers – and to study the latest in French architecture. He watched the Louvre being built; he visited chateaux outside Paris, he went to Versailles and met with Bernini. When he returned to England early in 1666, Archbishop Sheldon invited him onto a commission for repairing the medieval cathedral of St Paul’s.
Self-confidence was one of Wren’s most enduring characteristics. He wanted to sweep away the rickety cathedral tower and replace it with a dome – ‘a form of church-building not as yet known in England, but of wonderful grace’. But at the beginning of September 1666, the Great Fire broke out, destroying St Paul’s along with most of London.
Within the week Wren came up with a new plan for the entire city. He wanted to bring the labyrinthine medieval metropolis into the seventeenth century. God was given His due and His cathedral continued to preside over the city. But pride of place went to the Exchange piazza with its radial vistas and its complex of commercial buildings. Trade was to be the new religion.
In the end, though, the City was patched up. But by way of consolation prize, Wren was asked to design a new cathedral for London. Over the next nine years St Paul’s went through several design stages, the most interesting of which was the Great Model. For more than a year a team of joiners put in over 2,230 man-hours on this wooden model, which eventually cost over £600. The great dome was plastered by the King’s Master Plaster; there were 907 ornaments, including festoons and cartouches, cherubims’ heads and a figure of St Paul; and the Sergeant-Painter gilded the details.
Then the Dean and Chapter decided they didn’t like it. How long would it take to complete the new cathedral, they asked? When could services begin? Wasn’t the whole idea rather unconventional, rather foreign?
Wren was furious. If he had to come up with another design, then fine. He would give them what they wanted, a traditional plan just like the cathedral they had lost in the Fire, in fact. But he would make no more models, no more presentation drawings.
In the spring of 1675 he offered a new scheme, as conventional as anything the Dean and Chapter could imagine, as practical as anything they could hope for, as breathtaking in its ugliness as the Great Model was beautiful.
They loved it. The King approved the design, and ordered that work should begin immediately. But Charles II privately told Wren that he was at liberty to make ‘variations, rather ornamental, than essential, as from Time to Time he should see proper’; and that the management of the whole project was left in his hands.
So during the summer of 1675 Wren did begin to rework the Warrant design, with the ink scarcely dry on the warrant. He retained the traditional cathedral-plan. But that was about it: his view of what constituted ‘variations, rather ornamental, than essential’ was an exceptionally liberal one.
If St Paul’s is Wren’s greatest memorial, the City of London churches come a close second. And they share the same mythical status, defining the landscape of the capital in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, rising phoenix-like from the ashes of the Blitz in the twentieth. Only around a dozen were personally designed by him – masterpieces like St Clement Danes, the domed St Stephen Walbrook, and high-status commissions such as St James Piccadilly. Others were the work of members of his team. Yet taken as a single body of work, the City Churches have a coherence, a sense of style, an idiosyncratic beauty which delights enthusiasts and drives the purists to distraction. They show Wren as director, administrator and architect.
As if this wasn’t enough, in 1669, when St Paul’s was still a distant dream and the City churches still smouldering ruins, Sir John Denham, the Surveyor-General of the King’s Works, died. Against all the odds Wren was appointed to succeed him. He moved into the Surveyor-General’s official residence in Scotland Yard, and stayed there almost fifty years, the arbiter of architectural taste for the nation.
In the end death came quietly, as a friend. Wren lived his last years in a house at Hampton Court. On a trip into London, the city he had done so much to create, he caught a cold, and over the next few days he became increasingly ill and confused. On 25 February 1723 a servant went into his room to wake him from his afternoon nap, and couldn’t. That was all.
He was buried in the crypt of his greatest creation, and his son composed for him one of the most famous epitaphs in the world. ‘Reader, if you seek his monument, look around.’
Further ReadingA Wren Bibliography
BIOGRAPHY / GENERAL:
Geoffrey Beard, The Work of Christopher Wren, Edinburgh: Bartholomew, 1982.
James A. Bennett, ‘Christopher Wren: The Natural Causes of Beauty’, Architectural History, vol. 15 (1972), pp. 5-22.
————, ‘Wren’s Last Building?’, Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London, vol. 27, no. 1 (August 1972), pp. 107-118.
———, ‘A study of Parentalia’, Annals of Science, 30 (1973), 129–47.
————, ‘Hooke and Wren and the System of the World: Some Points Towards and Historical Account’, The British Journal for the History of Science, vol. 8, issue 1, March 1975, pp. 32-61.
————-, ‘Christopher Wren: Astronomy, Architecture, and the Mathematical Sciences, Journal of the History of Astronomy, vol. 6, 3, October 1975, pp. 149-84.
————-, ‘A Note on theories of Respiration and Muscular Action in England c.1660 (Christopher Wren), Medical History, vol. 20, issue 1, January 1976, pp. 59-69.
————-, The Mathematical Science of Christopher Wren, Cambridge 2002.
A.T. Bolton and H.D. Hendry, eds, The Wren Society, 20 vols. (1924–43).
Arthur Harold Booth, Sir Christopher Wren, London: Muller, 1967.
James W P Campbell, ‘Wren and the development of structural carpentry 1660-1710, arq: Architectural Research Quarterly, vol. 6, issue 1, March 2002, pp. 49-66.
James Chambers, Christopher Wren, Stroud: Sutton, 1998.
R L Colie, ‘Dean Wren’s Marginalia and Early Science at Oxford’, Bodleian Library Quarterly, vi (1957-61), pp. 541-51.
C S L Davies, ‘The Youth and Education of Christopher Wren’, The English Historical Review, vol. 123, no. 501 (April 2008), pp. 300-327.
- S. L. Davies and K. A. Johnson, ‘The marriage of Christopher Wren, later dean of Windsor: a cautionary tale’, Southern History, 33 (2011), pp. 101–7.
Kerry Downes, Christopher Wren, London: Allen Lane, 1971.
—————-, The Architecture of Wren, London 1982.
—————, ‘Wren, Hawksmoor and Les Invalides Revisited’, The Burlington Magazine, vol. 150, no. 1261, British Art and Architecture (April 2008), pp. 250-252.
—————-, ‘Sir Christopher Wren, Edward Woodroffe, J. H. Mansart and architectural history’, Architectural History, 37 (1994), 37–67.
James Elmes, Memoirs of the Life and Works of Sir Christopher Wren: With a Brief View of the Progress of Architecture in England, from the Beginning of the Reign of Charles the First to the End of the Seventeenth Century, London: Priestley and Weale, 1823.
Tom Foxall, ‘Schooled by Wren, or a School by Wren? The Conception and Design of Christ’s Hospital Writing School, London, Architectural History, vol. 51, 2008 pp. 87-110.
William Carleton Gibson, ‘The bio-medical pursuits of Christopher Wren’, Medical History, vol. 14, issue 4, October 1970, pp. 331-41.
Heywood Gould, Sir Christopher Wren: Renaissance architect, philosopher and scientist, London: Franklin Watts, 1972.
Anthony Geraghty, ‘Introducing Thomas Laine: Draughtsman to Sir Christopher Wren’, Architectural History, vol. 42 (1999), pp. 240-245.
———————, ‘Edward Woodroofe: Sir Christopher Wren’s First Draughtsman’, The Burlington Magazine, vol. 143, no. 1181 (August 2001), pp. 474-79.
———————, The Architectural Drawings of Sir Christopher Wren At All Soul’s College, Oxford: A Complete Catalogue, Aldershot: Lund Humphries 2007.
———————, ‘Wren and the English Baroque’, in British Baroque, Power and Illusion, Tabitha Barber, ed., London 2020, pp. 77–92.
R T Gunther, ‘The First Observatory Instruments of the Pavilion Professors’, The Observatory, lx (1937) pp. 190-7.
- Hunter, ‘The making of Christopher Wren’, London Journal, 16 (1991), pp. 101–16.
Harold F Hutchison, Sir Christopher Wren. A biography, London 1976.
Lisa Jardine, ‘Monuments and Microscopes: Scientific Thinking on a Grand Scale in the Early Royal Society’, Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London, May, 2001, Vol. 55, No. 2 (May, 2001), pp. 289-308.
————-, On a Grander Scale: The Outstanding Life of Sir Christopher Wren, London: HarperCollins, 2002.
Stephen Johnston, ‘Wren, Hooke and Graphical Practice’, Journal for the History of Astronomy, vol. 41.3, August 2010, pp. 381-92.
- W. Jones, ‘Sir Christopher Wren and Natural Philosophy: With a Checklist of His Scientific Activities’, Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London, vol. 13, no. 1 (June 1958), pp. 19-37.
Bryan D.G. Little, Sir Christopher Wren: a historical biography, London: Hale, 1975.
Ruth Musser and John C Krantz Jr., ‘The friendship of Robert Boyle and Christopher Wren’, Bulletin of the History of Medicine, vol. 7, no. 8, (October, 1939), pp. 979-74.
Lucy Phillimore, Sir Christopher Wren, his family and his times, with original letters, and a discourse on architecture hitherto unpublished, 1585-1723, etc., London: Kegan Paul & Co., 1881.
Paul A. Rabbitts, Sir Christopher Wren, Oxford: Shire Publications, 2019.
Cedric D Reverand II, ‘Wren’s Stylistic Development’, Eighteenth Century Life, 25.2 (2001), pp. 81-115.
Arthur Searle, ‘“A pleasing example of skill in old age”: Sir Christopher Wren and Marlborough House’, British Library Journal?
Elkanah Settle, Threnodia Apollinaris. A funeral poem to the memory of the honourable Sir Christopher Wren, Kt. etc., London: 1723.
J S G Simmons, Wren’s Dial Removed, privately printed, Oxford, 2000
Lydia M. Soo, Wren’s “tracts” on architecture and other writings, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
————— , ‘Fashion and the Idea of National Style in Restoration England’, Thresholds, no. 22, Fashion (2001), pp. 64-71.
Gail Griffin Stringer, A bibliography of works about Sir Christopher Wren, 1972.
John Summerson, ‘The mind of Wren’, in Heavenly mansions and other essays on architecture, London: Cresset Press, 1949, pp. 51–86.
———————, Sir Christopher Wren, London: Collins, 1953.
Adrian Tinniswood, His Invention So Fertile: A Life of Christopher Wren, LondonL Jonathan Cape, 2001.
John Ward, The lives of the Professors of Gresham College, to which is prefixed the life of the founder Sir T. Gresham, London, 1740.
Lawrence Weaver, Sir Christopher Wren, scientist, scholar and architect, London: Country Life, 1923.
Margaret Dickens Whinney, Wren, London: Thames & Hudson, 1971.
Christopher Wren, ‘Tom Tower’, Christ Church, Oxford. Some letters of Sir Christopher Wren to John Fell, Bishop of Oxford, hitherto unpublished. Now set forth and annotated by W. Douglas Caröe, Oxfords: Clarendon Press, 1923.
Christopher Wren, Parentalia, or, Memoirs of the family of the Wrens, London 1750. Facsimile edition 1965.
A.V. Grimstone, Building Pembroke chapel: Wren, Pearce and Scott, Cambridge: Pembroke College, 2009.
David McKitterick, ed., The making of the Wren Library, Trinity College, Cambridge, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.
Peter Meadows, ‘Sir Christopher Wren and Pembroke Chapel’, The Georgian Group Jounal, Vol. IV, 1994, pp. 55–57.
R F Scott, ‘The Old Bridge of St John’s College: Letters of Sir Christopher Wren and Nicholas Hawksmoor Relating to The Old Bridge of St. John’s College’, Proceedings of the Cambridge Antiquarian Society, London 1981, [vol. ?, pp. ??].
Wren’s Plan for London
- F. Reddaway, The rebuilding of London after the great fire, 1940.
Michael Hebbert, ’The long after-life of Christopher Wren’s short-lived London plan of 1666’, Planning Perspectives, Taylor and Francis, 2019. https://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/id/eprint/10081417/1/Hebbert_PP%20Wren%20ms_.pdf
The City Churches:
Andrew Derrick, ‘The Post-War reconstruction of Wren’s City Churches’, AA Files, Autumn 1993, no. 26, pp. 27-35.
Angelo Hornak, After the Fire: London Churches in the Age of Wren, Hawksmoor and Gibbs, London: Pimpernet Press Ltd, 2016.
- Jeffery, The City churches of Sir Christopher Wren, London: Hambledon Press, 1996.
Anthony Geraghty, New light on the Wren city churches: the evidence of the All Souls and Bute drawings, Cambridge 1999.
———————-, ‘Nicholas Hawksmoor and the Wren City church steeples’, The Georgian Group Journal, Vol. x, 2000, pp. 1–14.
Mark Kirby, Furnishing Sir Christopher Wren’s churches: Anglican identity in late-seventeenth century London, York 2018.
Andrew Thomas Taylor, The Towers and Steeples designed by Sir Christopher Wren. A descriptive, historical and critical essay, with … illustrations, London: B T Batsford, 1881.
Lawrence Weaver, ‘I. – The Complete Building Accounts of the City Churches (Parochial) designed by Sir Christopher Wren’, Archaeologia, vol. 66, [year?] pp. 1-60.
- Allen, ‘The Monument in the City of London: Repair and Discoveries’, Ancient Monuments Society, Part 56, 2012, pp. 68-69.
Matthew F. Walker, ‘The limits of collaboration: Robert Hooke, Christopher Wren and the designing of the Monument to the Great Fire of London’, Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London, vol. 65, no. 2 (20 June 2011), pp. 121-143.
Thomas Woodward (Keeper of the Monument), History of the Monument of London, from its completion by Sir Christopher Wren, until the present time: with translations of the different historical Latin inscriptions, to which iOS added, an official memoir of the Fire of London, in remembrance of which awful event the Monument was erected, London, 1850.
The Royal Hospitals at Chelsea and Greenwich:
John Bold, ‘Comparable Institutions: The Royal Hospital for Seamen and the Hôtel des Invalides’, Architectural History, vol. 44, Essays in Architectural History Presented to John Newman, 2001, pp. 136-44.
‘Wren and Soane at the Royal Hospital, Chelsea’, Architects’ Journal, vol. 208, no. 20, 1998, pp. 26-44.
John Bold, Greenwich: an architectural history of the Royal Hospital for Seamen and the Queen’s House, 2000.
St. Paul’s Cathedral:
James W.P. Campbell, ‘The supply of stone for the rebuilding of St. Paul’s Cathedral 1675-1710’, Construction History Society, 2013, vol. 28, no. 2, pp. 23-49.
Robert Crayford, ‘The Setting-Out of St. Paul’s Cathedral’, Architectural History, 2001, vol. 44, Essays in Architectural History presented to John Newman, pp. 237-48.
Kerry Downes, Sir Christopher Wren: the designs for St. Paul’s Cathedral, London: Trefoil, 1988.
Ronald D. Gray, Christopher Wren and St. Paul’s Cathedral, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979.
Jane Lang, Rebuilding St. Paul’s after the Great Fire of London [with reference fo Sir Christopher Wren], London: Oxford University Press, 1956.
- E. Poley, St Paul’s Cathedral measured, drawn and described, 2nd edn., 1932.
John Summerson, ‘The penultimate design for St Paul’s’, The Burlington Magazine, 103 (1961), pp. 83–9.
Gordon Higgot, ‘Sir Christopher Wren’s failed project for a crossing tower and spire at Westminster Abbey, 1713-25’, The Burlington Magazine, vol. 162, January 2019, pp. 44-57.
Anthony Geraghty, ‘Wren’s preliminary design for the Sheldonian Theatre, Architectural History, vol. 45, 2002, pp. 275-88.
———————, The Sheldonian theatre: architecture and learning in seventeenth century Oxford, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013.
———————-, ‘Donnish delight: Anthony Geraghty considers the importance of the Sheldonian Theatre, the heart of Oxford University ceremonial’, Country Life, vol. 207, no. 1341, pp. 74-79.
Charles Saumarez Smith, ‘Wren and Sheldon’, Oxford Art Journal, 1983, vol. 6, no. 1, Prints 1983, pp. 45-50.
Pete Smith, ‘A House by Sir Christopher Wren? The Second Newby Hall and its Gardens’, The Georgian Group Journal, Vol. xVI, 2008, pp. 5–30.
Ptolemy Dean, ‘The Wren Wing at Easton Neston: A Tenacious Survivor’, The Georgian Group Journal, Vol. xx, 2012, pp. 33–50
The Bicentenary of the Death of Sir Christopher Wren, Royal Institute of British Architects, London, 1923.
Kerry Downes, Sir Christopher Wren: an exhibition (1982) [exhibition catalogue, Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, 9 July – 26 Sept 1982]