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Sir Christopher WrenLondon
1632 – 1723

 

 

Christopher Wren was born into a family with strong religious connections; his uncle was a bishop and chaplain to the King. His father was a Doctor of Divinity and Rector of East Knowle in Wiltshire at the time of Christopher’s birth on 20 October 1632.

A previous son named Christopher had died one day after birth. Although the second Christopher was reputed to be a ‘consumptive’ child it is more likely that his mother was overly anxious. He didn’t seem to suffer from ill health because he lived to the ripe old age of 91.

Early Life
The Wren family was quite wealthy and Christopher was educated at home by his father and private tutors. When he was three his father became Dean of Windsor but the family did not move to Windsor to live permanently. The family used to go and spend holidays with Dr Wren.
 
University Education
Christopher attended Westminster School for a short period before entering Wadham College, University of Oxford, in his late teens. He was interested in all things scientific and mathematical but the formal curriculum was study of the Classics – Aristotle and Latin. However, he did meet and socialise with a number of distinguished mathematicians, original and sometimes brilliant practical workers and experimental philosophers.
 
Academic Appointments
He attained graduate and post-graduate degrees and in 1653 was elected a Fellow of All Soul’s College, Oxford where he began a career in research and experiment. While a Fellow he was concurrently appointed Professor of Astronomy at Gresham College, London in 1657.
 
Wren was delighted with this job. He was provided with accommodation, a grant and all he had to do was give weekly lectures in both Latin and English to anyone who wished to attend.
 
Birth of the Royal Society 1662
His scientific friends and colleagues from Oxford would come to his lectures and they would carry on discussions afterwards. These gatherings became formal weekly meetings and led to the formation, in 1662, of the Royal Society, England’s premier scientific body. The Society received its Royal charter from King Charles II.
 
Man with multi-disciplinary Talents
Wren’s primary scientific disciplines were Mathematics, Astronomy and Engineering. He was interested in optics, ballistics, the problem of finding longitude at sea, mechanics, microscopy, surveying, medicine and meteorology. He observed, measured, dissected, built models and improved a number of instruments.
 
He invented many gadgets such as a device for writing double and a machine that knitted 9 pairs of stockings all at once! He also explored many ideas on the planets, comets, and solar eclipses which were later proved correct but never published any papers. He did make a relief globe of the moon which he presented to King Charles II.
 
Move to Oxford 1661
In 1661 Wren was elected Savilian Professor of Astronomy at Oxford and he moved there to live. This seems to be when he became interested in architecture. In those days architecture was seen more as a science employing applied mathematics. He continued to attend his weekly meetings with his scientific friends in London. He was also appointed Deputy Surveyor of Royal Works.
 
First Foray into Architecture
Wren’s first foray into architecture was the Chapel at Pembroke College, Cambridge, paid for by his uncle Matthew, Bishop of Ely. He made a trip to Europe and was greatly influenced by French and Italian architecture.
 
The second building he designed was the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford. He also became unofficially involved in the restoration of Old St Paul’s Cathedral.
 
Patrons
Christopher Wren relied on aristocratic and royal patronage for his architectural commissions. When the Great Fire of London destroyed the City of London in 1666 Wren had decided on architecture as his primary occupation. He promptly submitted a grand design for rebuilding the City which was just as promptly rejected.
 
Appointment as Surveyor of Royal Works 1669
In 1669 he was appointed Surveyor of Royal Works to Charles II and this position gave him overall control of all buildings erected in England. He designed 53 London churches including St Paul's Cathedral and St Bride's Church in Fleet Street.
 
Significant secular structures included The Monument memorial to the Great Fire, Old Greenwich Royal Observatory, and Trinity College, Cambridge. King Charles II knighted Sir Christopher Wren on 14 November 1673.
 
Christopher Wren enjoyed royal patronage from James II, William and Mary, Queen Anne and George I. Over this period he was involved in work on the Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich, Kensington Palace, Hampton Court Palace, Chelsea Hospital and Windsor Castle. He was also President of his beloved Royal Society from 1680-82.
 
In the 1690s Christopher Wren started to slow down. He was appointed Surveyor of Greenwich Naval Hospital (1696-1716) and Surveyor of Westminster Abbey from 1699 until his death.
 
Family Life
Although Christopher Wren married twice his marriages did not last long due to the premature deaths of both wives. He was thirty seven when he married his first wife, Faith, in 1669 and they had two children. Their first son did not survive but their second son, Christopher, became an architect like his father. Faith died from smallpox in 1675.
 
Seventeen months later Sir Christopher married again, this time a lady of Irish lineage, Jane Fitzwilliam. The marriage in 1677 produced two children, a daughter Jane who died aged 5, and a boy William who was retarded. Mrs Wren died of tuberculosis in 1680.
 
Wren’s Legacy
Wren was undoubtedly England’s greatest architect, and his work can be seen all over England. After an extraordinary life, Sir Christopher retired to the country village of Hampton Court in 1718 and died on 25 February 1723. He is buried in the Crypt of St Paul's Cathedral.