Sir Christopher Wren, Rebuilder of London After the Fire

(1632-1723)

Christopher Wren's image in stained glass is a popular attraction at St. Lawrence Jewry
Wren's image in stained glass is a popular attraction at the rebuilt St. Lawrence Jewry. Photo by Epics / Hulton Archive / Getty Images (cropped)

After the Great Fire of London in 1666, Sir Christopher Wren designed new churches and supervised the reconstruction of some of London's most important buildings. His name is synonymous with London architecture.

Background:

Born: October 20, 1632 at East Knoyle in Wiltshire, England

Died: February 25, 1723 in London, at age 91

Tombstone Epitaph (translated from Latin) in St. Paul's Cathedral, London:

"Underneath lies buried Christopher Wren, the builder of this church and city; who lived beyond the age of ninety years, not for himself, but for the public good.

If you seek his memorial, look about you."

Early Training:

Sickly as a child, Christopher Wren began his education at home with his father and a tutor. Schools attended:

  • Westminster School: Wren may have done some studies here between 1641 and 1646
  • Oxford: Began astronomy studies in 1649. Received B.A. in 1651, M.A. in 1653

After graduation, Wren worked on astronomy research and became a Professor of Astronomy at Gresham College in London and later at Oxford. As an astronomer, the future architect developed exceptional skills working with models and diagrams, experimenting with creative ideas, and engaging in scientific reasoning.

Wren's Early Buildings:

In the seventeenth century, architecture was considered a pursuit that could be practiced by any gentleman educated in the field of mathematics. Christopher Wren began designing buildings when his uncle, the Bishop of Ely, asked him to plan a new chapel for Pembroke College, Cambridge.

  • 1663-1665: New chapel for Pembroke College, Cambridge
  • 1664-1668: Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford

King Charles II commissioned Wren to repair St. Paul's Cathedral. In May 1666, Wren submitted plans for a classical design with a high dome. Before this work could proceed, fire destroyed the Cathedral and much of London.

After the Great Fire of London:

In September 1666, the "Great Fire of London" destroyed 13,200 houses, 87 churches, St. Paul's Cathedral, and most of London's official buildings.

Christopher Wren proposed an ambitious plan that would rebuild London with wide streets radiating from a central hub. Wren's plan failed, probably because property owners wanted to keep the same land they owned before the fire. However, Wren did design 51 new city churches and the new St Paul's Cathedral.

In 1669, King Charles II hired Wren to oversee reconstruction of all the royal works (government buildings).

Notable Buildings:

  • 1670-1683: St. Mary Le Bow, at Cheapside, London, UK
  • 1671-1677: Monument to the Great Fire of London (with Robert Hooke)
  • 1671-1681: St. Nicholas Cole Abbey, London
  • 1672-1687: St. Stephen's Walbrook, London
  • 1674-1687: St. James, at Picadilly, London
  • 1675-1676: Royal Observatory, Greenwich, UK
  • 1675-1710: Saint Paul's Cathedral, London
  • 1677: Rebuilt St. Lawrence Jewry, London
  • 1680: St. Clement Danes, at Strand, London
  • 1682: Christ Church College Bell Tower, Oxford, UK
  • 1695: Royal Hospital Chelsea, with John Soane
  • 1696-1715: Greenwich Hospital, Greenwich, UK

Architectural Style:

  • Classical: Christopher Wren was familiar with the 1st Century Roman architect Vitruvius and the Renaissance thinker Giacomo da Vignola, who outlined Vitruvius's ideas in The Five Orders of Architecture. Wren's first buildings were inspired by the classical works of English architect Inigo Jones.
  • Baroque: Early in his career, Wren traveled to Paris, studied French baroque architecture, and met the Italian Baroque architect Gianlorenzo Bernini.

Christopher Wren used baroque ideas with classical restraint. His style influenced Georgian architecture in England and the American colonies.

Scientific Achievements:

Christopher Wren was trained as a mathematician and scientist. His research, experiments, and inventions won the praise of the great scientists Sir Isaac Newton and Blaise Pascal. In addition to many important mathematical theories, Sir Christopher:

  • built a transparent beehive to help study bees
  • invented a weather clock similar to a barometer
  • invented an instrument for writing in the dark
  • developed improvements in the telescope and the microscope
  • experimented with injecting fluids into the veins of animals, laying the groundwork for successful blood transfusion
  • constructed a detailed model of the moon

Awards and Achievements:

  • 1673: Knighted
  • 1680: Founded the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge. Served as president from 1680 to 1682.
  • 1680, 1689 and 1690: Served as a Member of Parliament for Old Windsor

Quotes Attributed to Sir Christopher Wren:

  • "A time will come when men will stretch out their eyes. They should see planets like our Earth."
  • "Architecture has its political Use; publick Buildings being the Ornament of a Country; it establishes a Nation, draws People and Commerce; makes the People love their native Country, which Passion is the Original of all great Actions in a Commonwealth…. Architecture aims at Eternity."
  • "In things to be seen at once, much variety makes confusion, another vice of beauty. In things that are not seen at once, and have no respect one to another, great variety is commendable, provided this variety transgress not the rules of optics and geometry."

Learn More:

  • The Architectural Drawings of Sir Christopher Wren at All Souls College, Ashgate, 2007
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  • St Paul's Cathedral: archaeology and history by John Schofield, 2016
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  • On a Grander Scale: The Outstanding Life of Sir Christopher Wren by Lisa Jardine, Harper, 2003
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  • His Invention So Fertile: A Life of Christopher Wren by Adrian Tinniswood, 2001
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  • Wren by Margaret Whinney, Thames & Hudson World of Art series, 1998
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