Biography of Sir Christopher Wren

Portrait of Christopher Wren

Sir Christopher Wren was a seventeenth century architect chiefly remembered for designing St Paul’s Cathedral in London.

When and Where was Christopher Wren Born?

20th October 1632. Village Rectory, East Knoyle, Wiltshire, England.

Family Background:

Christopher Wren’s father was the Reverend Dr Christopher Wren. His mother was Mary Cox, the daughter of a Wiltshire squire.

Education:

Westminster School, Westminster, London, England.
Wadham College, Oxford, England.

Chronology of Sir Christopher Wren:

1634: Probable death of his mother after the birth of her daughter Elizabeth. His father becomes Dean of Windsor.

1642: At the outbreak of the English Civil War his Uncle Matthew Wren, Bishop of Ely, is imprisoned in the Tower of London and the Deanery at Windsor is attacked. The Wren family were forced to move out and his father went to live in Bletchingham, Oxfordshire with his daughter and son-in-law William Holder the mathematician.

1646: Wren leaves Westminster School but does not immediately go to university. Encouraged by Holder he begins to experiment with astronomy. He becomes an assistant to Dr Charles Scarburgh to sustain himself and helped him with his anatomical experiments.

1649: Christopher Wren enters Oxford University.

1652: He makes observations of the Planet Saturn.

1653: Wren is granted an MA by Oxford University.

1653-57: He lives in College as a Fellow of All Soul’s College, Oxford.

1657: Wren is appointed Professor of Astronomy, Gresham College, London.

1661: He is appointed Savilian Professor of Astronomy at Oxford. He was asked to work on the designs for fortifications at Tangiers harbour but turned it down.

1662: The foundation of the Royal Society of London of which Wren was a founder Member.

1663: Wren visits Rome to study the Theatre of Marcellus amongst other things. He works on repairs to the old St Paul’s Cathedral.

1664: He sends designs for the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford to the Royal Society. This was to first of his projects to include a dome.

1665: He visits Paris to study the buildings.

1666: Wren is appointed Commissioner for Rebuilding the City of London after the great fire.

Great Fire of London Plaque
Plaque Commemorating the site of the Great Fire of London in 1666 which started in Pudding Lane (copyright Anthony Blagg)

1669: Wren is appointed Surveyor of St. Paul’s Cathedral and Surveyor General of the King’s Works. On 7th December he marries Faith Coghill at Temple Church, London.

1668: Building of his designs for Emmanuel College Chapel in Cambridge begin.

1669: Wren is now working extensively on optics.

1670: He becomes the Surveyor for the rebuilding of fifty one of the City’s churches.

1671: Beginning of the construction of The Monument to the Great Fire of London of 1666. It took six years to build and was completed in 1677.

The Monument, London
The Monument to the Great Fire of London designed by Christopher Wren (copyright Anthony Blagg)

1672: Birth of his son Gilbert.

1674: Second plan and model for St Paul’s Cathedral is unveiled as the first designs were not felt grand enough by the City of London Council. This was Greek in inspiration and was rejected by the clergy for not being Christian enough. He set to work on a third design based on a Latin cross with a dome.

1675: The foundation stone for St. Paul’s Cathedral, London is laid. Wren receives a commission from King Charles the Second to build a Royal Observatory for the new Astronomer Royal, Flamstead. King Charles was keen for his officials to solve the longitude problem for safe navigation at sea which would make his navy and maritime traders more successful than other world rivals. Birth of his son, also called Christopher followed by the death of his wife Faith in September.

St Paul's Cathedral
St Paul’s Cathedral. Wren’s towering masterpiece. (copyright Anthony Blagg)

1676: His designs for Trinity College, Cambridge are completed.

1677: On the 24th February he marries Jane Fitzwilliam at Chapel Royal, Whitehall. Birth of his daughter Jane with his new wife.

1679: Birth of his son William. Death of his second wife.

1680-82: Christopher Wren becomes the President of the Royal Society of London.

1682: He works on designs for the Royal Hospital, Chelsea.

Royal Hospital Chelsea
The Royal Hospital Chelsea, designed by Christopher Wren for ex-servicemen
and now the home of the Chelsea Pensioners. 
The statue is of the founder King Charles the Second. (copyright Anthony Blagg)

1696: Wren is appointed Surveyor of the Royal Naval Hospital in Greenwich, now the National Maritime Museum.

1699: Wren is appointed Surveyor of Westminster Abbey.

1703: Death of his daughter Jane.

1716: He resigns as Surveyor of the Royal Naval Hospital in Greenwich.

When and Where did he Die?

25th February 1723. St. James’s Street, London, England.

Age at Death:

91.

Marriages:

1. 7th December 1669 to Faith Coghill at Temple Church, London. (died 1675).
2. 24th February 1677 to Jane Fitzwilliam at Chapel Royal, Whitehall, (died 1679).

Site of Grave:

St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, England.

Wren Plaque St Pauls
Wren’s Plaque St Paul’s Cathedral, London (copyright Anthony Blagg)

The latin inscription on the plaque reads as:

"Underneath lies, this church and city's founder, Christopher Wren, who has lived for over ninety years, not only himself but the good public reader, if you ask where his monument is look around".
Wren's Grave
Wren’s Grave in St Paul’s Cathedral  (copyright Anthony Blagg)

PLACES OF INTEREST:

LONDON:

St. Paul’s Cathedral.
National Maritime Museum, Greenwich.
Greenwich Observatory.
Kensington Palace State Apartments.
St Nicholas Cole Abbey

St Nicholas Cole Abbey
St Nicholas Cole Abbey, one of the many London churches rebuilt by Wren after the Great Fire of London (copyright Anthony Blagg)

St. Mary-Le-Bow, Cheapside.
St. Stephen, Walbrook.
St. Anne’s and St Agnes, Gresham Street.
St. Mary, Abchurch.
The Royal Hospital Chelsea.
The Monument. (Commemorating the Great Fire of London).
Marlborough House, Pall Mall.
Hampton Court Palace (Part of).
The Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich.

Old Royal Naval College
Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich looking towards Canary Wharf. Wren designed most of the buildings including the chapel on the right and the painted Hall on the left where Nelson’s body lay in state after Trafalgar. (copyright Anthony Blagg)

OXFORDSHIRE:

Fawley Court, Henley-on-Thames.
Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford.

Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford
The Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford. Designed by Wren  and now used for university degree ceremonies amongst other things (copyright Anthony Blagg)