Christopher Wren

Sir Christopher Wren (1632-1723) is best known as the architect of St Paul’s Cathedral in London. There is, however, more to Wren than one famous building.

Christopher Wren by Godfrey Kneller 1711

Christopher Wren by Godfrey Kneller 1711

Christopher Wren was an English architect, astronomer and mathematician. He is best known today as being the architect of London’s St Paul’s Cathedral, but he was responsible for many other buildings and scientific studies.

Family and Education

Born on 20 October 1632 in East Knoyle, Wiltshire, Christopher Wren was the only surviving son of the rector, Christopher, and his wife, Mary. Opinions differ about Wren’s early education but he did receive a BA in 1651 and an MA in 1653 from Wadham College, Oxford. Wren married Faith Coghill in 1669 who died of smallpox in 1675. He married again in 1677 but his second wife, Jane, died in 1680. The two marriages produced four children: Gilbert (1672), Christopher (1675), Jane (1677) and William (1679).

Life Before Architecture

Before his career in architecture Christopher Wren held a variety of university posts. He was elected a fellow of All Souls, Oxford in 1653. In 1657 he was appointed to the chair of astronomy at Gresham College, London. He resigned this post in 1661 and returned to Oxford when he was elected to the Savilian chair of astronomy.

With other leading experimenters of the time, including Robert Boyle and John Wilkins, Wren was a co-founder of the Royal Society. He held the post of vice-president from 1678-80 and became president for two years from 1681. His love of optics led him to become the first Englishman to make drawings of creatures seen under a microscope.

Architectural Career

Architectural theory was a popular gentlemanly pursuit and by 1661 Christopher Wren was advising on the repairs to the old St Paul’s Cathedral. But by 1663 Wren was ready to put theory into practice. A new chapel at Pembroke College, Cambridge was the first building erected to Wren’s design. Over the next 60 years many more were to follow including the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford, the Trinity College library in Cambridge and the Royal Naval Hospital at Greenwich.

In 1665-6 Wren had made plans to leave London for Paris luckily avoiding the plague sweeping through the capital. The visit allowed him meet fellow architects and to view French and Italian-inspired architecture for himself. This would have an important influence on his subsequent designs.

The Great Fire

When the great fire of London spread through the capital in 1666 a huge number of buildings were destroyed or damaged, most by the fire but others pulled down to create fire breaks. Christopher Wren was quick to submit plans for the rebuilding of the city incorporating the wide streets he had seen in Paris. Modern London would look very different if the plans had not been rejected. The movement of property boundaries required by the plans was deemed too costly and time consuming.

Appointed to the post of Surveyor-General in 1669, with an official residence in Scotland Yard, Wren was responsible for rebuilding over 50 of the 86 churches destroyed or damaged in the fire. Most of these were completed in batches over the next 20 years.

St Paul’s Cathedral

But it is for the centrepiece of the reconstruction that Christopher Wren is remembered. St Paul’s Cathedral was damaged so badly that it had to be demolished. Designs were drawn up by Wren and changed many times, even after building had commenced. In 1673, Wren was appointed to build a new St Paul’s and a 6.3 metre long wooden model of the design was built. He was knighted two days after his appointment.

The first stone was laid in 1675 and for the next 35 years Sir Christopher Wren worked on the cathedral and his other projects. The design was altered many times and often attacked by critics as being too Catholic. But the domed cathedral has become an iconic symbol of London thanks to Wren’s vision.

Sir Christopher Wren died on 25 February 1723 in Westminster. He was buried in the crypt of St Paul’s beneath a black marble floor slab. This simple marker was all that was required as the cathedral itself was his monument.

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