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Christopher Wren

Sir Christopher Wren was born at East Knoyle in Wiltshire. He was the son of the Reverend Christopher Wren, Rector of Knoyle and later the Dean of Windsor. He was brought up in various places although attended Westminster School and started at Wadham College, Oxford, as a ‘Gentleman Commoner’ in 1649. At Oxford he met a number of eminent scholars including John Wilkins, the Warden of Wadham, Dr Charles Scarborough and John Boyle. These men later formed the nucleus of the Royal Society. Lisa Jardine’s recent biography has postulated that Wren may have visited Holland shortly after the Regicide of 1649. If this was the case then it is likely that the trip would have served as his first experience of continental architecture taking in the towns of The Hague and Leiden.

During Wren’s B.A. degree and M.A. degree taken in 1650/1 and 1653 respectively, his knowledge of astronomy, scientific experiment (notably in dissection) and physics grew rapidly. He became a fellow of All Souls 1653 and later became a Professor of astronomy at Gresham College, London.

By 1661, and following his family’s troubles during the Commonwealth, Wren started to look towards architecture. The King, Charles II, began to pay particular attention to his work and even offered Wren the office of Surveyor of the King’s Works. Wren declined the job on the grounds of health. Exhibits from contemporary scientific meetings show that he was already contemplating architectural designs. A number of small commissions followed that were mainly located in Oxford. In 1663 Wren built the chapel of Pembroke College for his father. His second building was the Sheldonian Theatre at Oxford, and his third was a new building at Trinity College, Oxford. In 1665 Wren left for the continent and most notably Paris, which was to provide much inspiration for later work.

On his return to England, London became the subject of the Great Fire in 1666. Wren immediately presented his reconstruction designs to the King. These featured a Utopian street plan that was later deemed inappropriate for the short-term rebuilding of the commercial capital. Despite this setback Wren was appointed as one of the three Commissioners of London with Roger Pratt and Hugh May to oversee the rebuilding. He became the principal architect responsible for the city churches of which there were over fifty. During this period he also redesigned and built St. Paul’s Cathedral in a medieval design preserved beneath a Baroque exterior.

In March 1668/9 Wren became Surveyor-General of the King’s Works in succession to Sir John Denham. It has been argued that this appointment was due to his personal favour of Charles II. On 14th November 1673 Wren was knighted. In 1696 he decided to complete Hugh May’s palace at Greenwich and create Greenwich Hospital for Able Seamen. He was also a promoter and designer of the Military Hospital at Chelsea.

After 1714 Wren’s career began to curtail and this was partly due to the reforms of the Office of Works. Lord Halifax, First Lord of the Treasury, restructured the office and Wren’s responsibilities as Surveyor were greatly reduced. Sir John Vanbrugh, a contemporary and colleague on many projects, was Comptroller and became the leading figure of the Office. Wren gave up both the Surveyorship of Greenwich Hospital and his Comptrollership at Windsor in 1716. Only his surveyorships at St. Paul’s and Westminster were in his possession when he died on the 25th February 1723 at the age of 90. He was buried in the crypt of St. Paul’s Cathedral where a monument was laid to his memory.

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