Wren was born in East Knoyle in Wiltshire, the only surviving son of Christopher Wren Sr. (1589–1658) and Mary Cox, the only child of the Wiltshire squire Robert Cox from Fonthill Bishop. Christopher Sr. was at that time the rector of East Knoyle and later Dean of Windsor. It was while they were living at East Knoyle that all their children were born; Mary, Catherine, and Susan were all born by 1628 but then several children were born who died within a few weeks of their birth. Their son Christopher was born in 1632 then, two years later, another daughter named Elizabeth was born. Mary must have died shortly after the birth of Elizabeth, although there does not appear to be any surviving record of the date. Through Mary Cox, however, the family became well off financially for, as the only heir, she had inherited her father's estate.
As a child Wren "seem'd consumptive." Although a sickly child, he would survive into robust old age. He was first taught at home by a private tutor and his father. After his father's royal appointment as Dean of Windsor in March 1635, his family spent part of each year there, but little is known about Wren's life at Windsor. He spent his first eight years at East Knoyle and was educated by the Rev. William Shepherd, a local clergyman.
Little is known of Wren's schooling thereafter, during dangerous times when his father's Royal associations would have required the family to keep a very low profile from the ruling Parliamentary authorities. It was a tough time in his life, but one which would go on to have a significant impact upon his later works. The story that he was at Westminster School between 1641 and 1646 is substantiated only by Parentalia, the biography compiled by his son, a fourth Christopher, which places him there "for some short time" before going up to Oxford (in 1650); however, it is entirely consistent with headmaster Doctor Busby's well-documented practice of educating the sons of impoverished Royalists and Puritans alike, irrespective of current politics or his own position.
Wadham College, Oxford, where Wren was a student in 1650-51
Some of Wren's youthful exercises preserved or recorded (though few are datable) showed that he received a thorough grounding in Latin and also learned to draw. According to Parentalia, he was "initiated" in the principles of mathematics by Dr William Holder, who married Wren's elder sister Susan (or Susanna) in 1643. His drawing was put to academic use in providing many of the anatomical drawings for the anatomy textbook of the brain, Cerebri Anatome (1664), published by Thomas Willis, which coined the term "neurology." During this time period, Wren manifested an interest in the design and construction of mechanical instruments. It was probably through Holder that Wren met Sir Charles Scarburgh whom Wren assisted in his anatomical studies.
On 25 June 1650, Wren entered Wadham College, Oxford, where he studied Latin and the works of Aristotle. It is anachronistic to imagine that he received scientific training in the modern sense. However, Wren became closely associated with John Wilkins, the Warden of Wadham. The Wilkins circle was a group whose activities led to the formation of the Royal Society, comprising a number of distinguished mathematicians, creative workers and experimental philosophers. This connection probably influenced Wren's studies of science and mathematics at Oxford. He graduated B.A. in 1651, and two years later received M.A.
Receiving his M.A. in 1653, Wren was elected a fellow of All Souls College in the same year and began an active period of research and experiment in Oxford. His days as a fellow of All Souls ended when Wren was appointed Professor of Astronomy at Gresham College, London in 1657. He was provided with a set of rooms and a stipend and was required to give weekly lectures in both Latin and English to all who wished to attend; admission was free. Wren took up this new work with enthusiasm. He continued to meet the men with whom he had frequent discussions in Oxford. They attended his London lectures and in 1660, initiated formal weekly meetings. It was from these meetings that the Royal Society, England's premier scientific body, was to develop. He undoubtedly played a major role in the early life of what would become the Royal Society; his great breadth of expertise in so many different subjects helping in the exchange of ideas between the various scientists. In fact, the report on one of these meetings reads:
Memorandum November 28, 1660. These persons following according to the usual custom of most of them, met together at Gresham College to hear Mr Wren's lecture, viz. The Lord Brouncker, Mr Boyle, Mr Bruce, Sir Robert Moray, Sir Paule Neile, Dr Wilkins, Dr Goddard, Dr Petty, Mr Ball, Mr Rooke, Mr Wren, Mr Hill. And after the lecture was ended they did according to the usual manner, withdraw for mutual converse.
In 1662, they proposed a society "for the promotion of Physico-Mathematicall Experimental Learning." This body received its Royal Charter from Charles II and "The Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge" was formed. In addition to being a founder member of the Society, Wren was president of the Royal Society from 1680 to 1682.
In 1661, Wren was elected Savilian Professor of Astronomy at Oxford, and in 1669 he was appointed Surveyor of Works to Charles II. From 1661 until 1668 Wren's life was based in Oxford, although his attendance at meetings of the Royal Society meant that he had to make occasional trips to London.
The main sources for Wren's scientific achievements are the records of the Royal Society. His scientific works ranged from astronomy, optics, the problem of finding longitude at sea, cosmology, mechanics, microscopy, surveying, medicine and meteorology. He observed, measured, dissected, built models and employed, invented and improved a variety of instruments. It was also around these times that his attention turned to architecture.
It was probably around this time that Wren was drawn into redesigning a battered St Paul's Cathedral. Making a trip to Paris in 1665, Wren studied the architecture, which had reached a climax of creativity, and perused the drawings of Bernini, the great Italian sculptor and architect, who himself was visiting Paris at the time. Returning from Paris, he made his first design for St Paul's. A week later, however, the Great Fire destroyed two-thirds of the city. Wren submitted his plans for rebuilding the city to King Charles II, although they were never adopted. With his appointment as King's Surveyor of Works in 1669, he had a presence in the general process of rebuilding the city, but was not directly involved with the rebuilding of houses or companies' halls. Wren was personally responsible for the rebuilding of 51 churches; however, it is not necessarily true to say that each of them represented his own fully developed design.
Wren was knighted 14 November 1673. This honour was bestowed on him after his resignation from the Savilian chair in Oxford, by which time he had already begun to make his mark as an architect, both in services to the Crown and in playing an important part in rebuilding London after the Great Fire.
Additionally, he was sufficiently active in public affairs to be returned as Member of Parliament for Old Windsor in 1680, 1689 and 1690, but did not take his seat.
By 1669 Wren's career was well established and it may have been his appointment as Surveyor of the King's Works in early 1669 that persuaded him that he could finally afford to take a wife. In 1669 the 37-year-old Wren married his childhood neighbour, the 33-year-old Faith Coghill, daughter of Sir John Coghill of Bletchingdon. Little is known of Faith's life or demeanour, but a love letter from Wren survives, which reads, in part:
I have sent your Watch at last & envy the felicity of it, that it should be soe near your side & soe often enjoy your Eye. ... .but have a care for it, for I have put such a spell into it; that every Beating of the Balance will tell you 'tis the Pulse of my Heart, which labors as much to serve you and more trewly than the Watch; for the Watch I beleeve will sometimes lie, and sometimes be idle & unwilling ... but as for me you may be confident I shall never...
This brief marriage produced two children: Gilbert, born October 1672, who suffered from convulsions and died at about 18 months old, and Christopher, born February 1675. The younger Christopher was trained by his father to be an architect. It was this Christopher that supervised the topping out ceremony of St Paul's in 1710 and wrote the famous Parentalia, or, Memoirs of the family of the Wrens. Faith Wren died of smallpox on 3 September 1675. She was buried in the chancel of St Martin-in-the-Fields beside the infant Gilbert. A few days later Wren's mother-in-law, Lady Coghill, arrived to take the infant Christopher back with her to Oxfordshire to raise.
In 1677, 17 months after the death of his first wife, Wren married once again. He married Jane Fitzwilliam, daughter of William FitzWilliam, 2nd Baron FitzWilliam and his wife Jane Perry, the daughter of a prosperous London merchant.
She was a mystery to Wren's friends and companions. Robert Hooke, who often saw Wren two or three times every week, had, as he recorded in his diary, never even heard of her, and was not to meet her till six weeks after the marriage. As with the first marriage, this too produced two children: a daughter Jane (1677–1702); and a son William, "Poor Billy" born June 1679, who was developmentally delayed.
Like the first, this second marriage was also brief. Jane Wren died of tuberculosis in September 1680. She was buried alongside Faith and Gilbert in the chancel of St Martin-in-the-Fields. Wren was never to marry again; he lived to be over 90 years old and of those years was married only nine.
Bletchingdon was the home of Wren's brother-in-law William Holder who was rector of the local church. Holder had been a Fellow of Pembroke College, Oxford. An intellectual of considerable ability, he is said to have been the figure who introduced Wren to arithmetic and geometry.
Wren's later life was not without criticisms and attacks on his competence and his taste. In 1712, the Letter Concerning Design of Anthony Ashley Cooper, third Earl of Shaftesbury, circulated in manuscript. Proposing a new British style of architecture, Shaftesbury censured Wren's cathedral, his taste and his long-standing control of royal works. Although Wren was appointed to the Fifty New Churches Commission in 1711, he was left only with nominal charge of a board of works when the surveyorship started in 1715. On 26 April 1718, on the pretext of failing powers, he was dismissed in favour of William Benson.
The Wren family estate was at The Old Court House in the area of Hampton Court. He had been given a lease on the property by Queen Anne in lieu of salary arrears for building St Paul's. For convenience Wren also leased a house on St James's Street in London. According to a 19th-century legend, he would often go to London to pay unofficial visits to St Paul's, to check on the progress of "my greatest work". On one of these trips to London, at the age of ninety, he caught a chill which worsened over the next few days. On 25 February 1723 a servant who tried to awaken Wren from his nap found that he had died.
Wren was laid to rest on 5 March 1723. His remains were placed in the south-east corner of the crypt of St Paul's beside those of his daughter Jane, his sister Susan Holder, and her husband William. The plain stone plaque was written by Wren's eldest son and heir, Christopher Wren, Jr. The inscription, which is also inscribed in a circle of black marble on the main floor beneath the centre of the dome, reads:
“SUBTUS CONDITUR HUIUS ECCLESIÆ ET VRBIS CONDITOR CHRISTOPHORUS WREN, QUI VIXIT ANNOS ULTRA NONAGINTA, NON SIBI SED BONO PUBLICO. LECTOR SI MONUMENTUM REQUIRIS CIRCUMSPICE Obijt XXV Feb: An°: MDCCXXIII Æt: XC. ”
which translates from Latin as:
“Here in its foundations lies the architect of this church and city, Christopher Wren, who lived beyond ninety years, not for his own profit but for the public good. Reader, if you seek his monument – look around you. Died 25 Feb. 1723, age 90.”
His obituary was published in the Post Boy No. 5244 London 2 March 1723:
Sir Christopher Wren who died on Monday last in the 91st year of his age, was the only son of
Dr. Chr. Wren, Dean of Windsor & Wolverhampton, Registar of the Garter, younger brother of Dr. Mathew(sic)
Wren Ld Bp of Ely, a branch of the ancient family of Wrens of Binchester in the Bishoprick [sic] of Durham
1653. Elected from Wadham into fellowship of All Souls
1657. Professor of Astronomy Gresham College London
1660. Savilian Professor. Oxford
After 1666. Surveyor General for Rebuilding the Cathedral Church of St.Paul and the Parochial
Churches & all other Public Buildings which he lived to finish
1669. Surveyor General till April 26. 1718
1680. President of the Royal Society
1698. Surveyor General & Sub Commissioner for Repairs to Westminster Abbey by Act of Parlia-
ment, continued till death.
His body is to be deposited in the Great Vault under the Dome of the Cathedral of St. Paul.
One of Wren's friends, another great scientist and architect and a fellow Westminster Schoolboy, Robert Hooke said of him "Since the time of Archimedes there scarce ever met in one man in so great perfection such a mechanical hand and so philosophical mind."
When a fellow of All Souls, Wren constructed a transparent beehive for scientific observation; he began observing the moon, which was to lead to the invention of micrometers for the telescope. He experimented on terrestrial magnetism and had taken part in medical experiments while at Wadham College, performing the first successful injection of a substance into the bloodstream (of a dog).
In Gresham College, he did experiments involving determining longitude through magnetic variation and through lunar observation to help with navigation, and helped construct a 35-foot (11 m) telescope with Sir Paul Neile. Wren also studied and improved the microscope and telescope at this time. He had also been making observations of the planet Saturn from around 1652 with the aim of explaining its appearance. His hypothesis was written up in De corpore saturni but before the work was published, Huygens presented his theory of the rings of Saturn. Immediately Wren recognised this as a better hypothesis than his own and De corpore saturni was never published. In addition, he constructed an exquisitely detailed lunar model and presented it to the king. Also his contribution to mathematics should be noted; in 1658, he found the length of an arc of the cycloid using an exhaustion proof based on dissections to reduce the problem to summing segments of chords of a circle which are in geometric progression.
A year into Wren's appointment as a Savilian Professor in Oxford, the Royal Society was created and Wren became an active member. As Savilian Professor, Wren studied mechanics thoroughly, especially elastic collisions and pendulum motions. He also directed his far-ranging intelligence to the study of meteorology: in 1662 he invented the tipping bucket rain gauge and, in 1663, designed a "weather-clock" that would record temperature, humidity, rainfall and barometric pressure. A working weather clock based on Wren's design was completed by Robert Hooke in 1679.
In addition, Wren experimented on muscle functionality, hypothesizing that the swelling and shrinking of muscles might proceed from a fermentative motion arising from the mixture of two heterogeneous fluids. Although this is incorrect, it was at least founded upon observation and may mark a new outlook on medicine: specialisation.
Another topic to which Wren contributed was optics. He published a description of an engine to create perspective drawings and he discussed the grinding of conical lenses and mirrors. Out of this work came another of Wren's important mathematical results, namely that the hyperboloid of revolution is a ruled surface. These results were published in 1669. In subsequent years, Wren continued with his work with the Royal Society, although after the 1680s his scientific interests seem to have waned: no doubt his architectural and official duties absorbed more time.
It was a problem posed by Wren that serves as an ultimate source to the conception of Newton's Principia Mathematica Philosophiae Naturalis. Robert Hooke had theorised that planets, moving in vacuo, describe orbits around the Sun because of a rectilinear inertial motion by the tangent and an accelerated motion towards the Sun. Wren's challenge to Halley and Hooke, for the reward of a book worth thirty shillings, was to provide, within the context of Hooke's hypothesis, a mathematical theory linking the Kepler's laws with a specific force law. Halley took the problem to Newton for advice, prompting the latter to write a nine-page answer, De motu corporum in gyrum, which was later to be expanded into the Principia.
Mentioned above are only a few of Wren's scientific works. He also studied other areas, ranging from agriculture, ballistics, water and freezing, light and refraction, to name only a few. Thomas Birch's History of the Royal Society is one of the most important sources of our knowledge not only of the origins of the Society, but also the day to day running of the Society. It is in these records that most of Wren's known scientific works are recorded.
First steps to architecture
In Wren's age, the profession of architect as understood today did not exist. Since the early years of the 17th century it was not unusual for the well-educated gentleman, (virtuosi), to take up architecture as a gentlemanly activity; a pursuit widely accepted as a branch of applied mathematics. This is implicit in the writings of Vitruvius and explicit in such 16th century authors as John Dee and Leonard Digges. When Wren was a student at Oxford, he became familiar with Vitruvius's De architectura and absorbed intuitively the fundamentals of the architectural design there. In English Medieval tradition, buildings were constructed to the needs of the patron and the suggestions of building professionals, such as master carpenters or master bricklayers.
Through the Royal Society and his use of optics, the King noticed Wren's works. In 1661 he was approached by his cousin Matthew with a royal commission, as "one of the best Geometers in Europe", to direct the re-fortification of Tangier. Wren excused himself on grounds of health. Although this invitation may have arisen from Charles II's casual opportunism in matching people to tasks, Wren is believed to have been already on the way to architecture practice. Before the end of 1661 Wren was unofficially advising the repair of Old St Paul's Cathedral after two decades of neglect and distress; his architectural interests were also evident to his associates at the time. Two years later, he set his only foreign journey to Paris and the Île-de-France, during which he acquired the firsthand study of modern design and construction. By this time, he had mastered and thoroughly understood architecture. Unlike several of his colleagues who took it up as a set of rules and formulas for design, he possessed, understood, and exploited the combination of reason and intuition, experience and imagination.
Wren's first architectural project was the chapel of Pembroke College in Cambridge, which his uncle, the Bishop of Ely, asked him to design in 1663. The second was the design of the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford, completed in 1668. This, the gift of Archbishop Sheldon to his old university, was influenced by the classical form of the Theatre of Marcellus in Rome, but was a mixture of this classical design with a modern empirical design.
St Paul's has always been the highlight of Wren's reputation. His association with it spans his whole architectural career, including the 36 years between the start of the new building and the declaration by parliament of its completion in 1711.
Wren had been involved in repairs of the old cathedral since 1661. In the spring of 1666, he made his first design for a dome for St Paul's. It was accepted in principle on 27 August 1666. One week later, however, the Great Fire of London reduced two-thirds of the City to a smoking desert and old St Paul's to a ruin. Wren was most likely at Oxford at the time, but the news, so fantastically relevant to his future, drew him at once to London. Between 5 and 11 September he ascertained the precise area of devastation, worked out a plan for rebuilding the City and submitted it to Charles II. Others also submitted plans. However, no new plan proceeded any further than the paper on which it was drawn. A rebuilding act which provided rebuilding of some essential buildings was passed in 1667. In 1669, the King's Surveyor of Works died and Wren was promptly installed.
It was not until 1670 that the pace of rebuilding started accelerating. A second rebuilding act was passed that year, raising the tax on coal and thus providing a source of funds for rebuilding of churches destroyed within the City of London. Wren presented his initial "First Model" for St Paul's. This plan was accepted, and demolition of the old cathedral began. By 1672, however, this design seemed too modest, and Wren met his critics by producing a design of spectacular grandeur. This modified design, called "Great Model", was accepted by the King and the construction started in November 1673. However, this design failed to satisfy the chapter and clerical opinion generally; moreover, it had an economic drawback. Wren was confined to a "cathedral form" desired by the clergy. In 1674 he produced the rather meagre Classical-Gothic compromise known as the Warrant Design. However, this design, called so from the royal warrant of 14 May 1675 attached to the drawings, is not the design upon which work had begun a few weeks before.
The cathedral that Wren started to build bears only a slight resemblance to the Warrant Design. In 1697, the first service was held in the cathedral when Wren was 65. There was still, however, no dome. Finally in 1711 the cathedral was declared complete, and Wren was paid the half of his salary that, in the hope of accelerating progress, Parliament had withheld for 14 years since 1697. The cathedral had been built for 36 years under his direction, and the only disappointment he had about his masterpiece was the dome: against his wishes the commission engaged Thornhill to paint the inner dome in false perspective and finally authorised a balustrade around the proof line. This diluted the hard edge Wren had intended for his cathedral, and elicited the apt parthian comment that "ladies think nothing well without an edging".
Major architectural works in the 1670s and 1680s
Hampton Court (1689–1702) by Wren
During the 1670s Wren received significant secular commissions which manifest both the maturity and the variety of his architecture and the sensitivity of his response to diverse briefs.
Among many of his remarkable designs at this time, the monument (1671–76) commemorating the Great Fire also involved Robert Hooke, but Wren was in control of the final design, the Royal Observatory (1675–76), and the Wren library at Trinity College, Cambridge (1676–84) were the most important ones.
Cambridge University, Wren Library, Trinity College
By historical accident, all Wren's large-scale secular commissions dated from after the 1680s. At the age of 50 his personal development, as was that of English architecture, was ready for a monumental but humane architecture, in which the scales of individual parts relates both to the whole and to the people who used them. The first large project Wren designed, the Chelsea Hospital (1682–92), does not entirely satisfy the eye in this respect, but met its brief with distinction and such success that even in the 21st century it fulfills its original function. The reconstruction of the state room at Windsor Castle was notable for the integration of architecture, sculpture and painting. This commission was in the hand of Hugh May, who died in February 1684, before the construction finished; Wren assumed his post and finalised the works.
After the death of Charles II in 1685, Wren's attention was directed mainly to Whitehall (1685–87). The new king, James II, required a new chapel and also ordered a new gallery, council chamber and a riverside apartment for the Queen. Later, when James II was removed from the throne, Wren took on architectural projects such as Kensington Palace (1689–96) and Hampton Court (1689–1700).
Wren did not pursue his work on architectural design as actively as he had before the 1690s, although he still played important roles in a number of royal commissions. In 1696 he was appointed Surveyor of Greenwich Naval Hospital, and in 1698 he was appointed Surveyor of Westminster Abbey. He resigned the former role in 1716 but held the latter until his death, approving with a wavering signature Burlington's revisions of Wren's own earlier designs for the great Archway of Westminster School.
Achievement and reputation
At his death, Wren was 91. Even the men he had trained and who owed much of their success to Wren's original and leadership were no longer young. Newer generations of architects were beginning to look past Wren's style. The Baroque school his apprentices had created was already under fire from a new generation that brushed Wren's reputation aside and looked back beyond him to Inigo Jones. Architects of the 18th century could not forget Wren, but they could not forgive some elements in his work they deemed unconventional. The churches left the strongest mark on subsequent architecture. In France, where English architecture rarely made much impression, the influence of St Paul's Cathedral can be seen in the church of Sainte-Geneviève (now the Panthéon); begun in 1757, it rises to a drum and dome similar to St Paul's, and there are other versions inspired by Wren's dome, from St Isaac's (1840–42) in St Petersburg to the US Capitol at Washington, D.C. (1855–65).
In the 20th century the potency of the influence of Wren's work on English architecture was reduced. The last major architect who admitted to being dependent on him was Sir Edwin Lutyens, who died in 1944. With the purposeful elimination of historic influences from international architecture in the early 20th century, Wren's work gradually stopped being perceived as a mine of examples applicable to contemporary design.
Since at least the 18th century, the Lodge of Antiquity No. 2, one of the four founding Masonic Lodges of the Grand Lodge of England in 1717 has claimed Christopher Wren to have been its Master at the Goose and Gridiron at St. Paul's churchyard. Whilst he was rebuilding the cathedral: he is said to have been "adopted" on 18 May 1691 (that is, accepted as a sort of honorary member or patron, rather than an operative). Their 18th-century maul with its 1827 inscription claiming that it was used by Wren for the foundation stone of St. Pauls, belonging to the Lodge and on display in the Freemasons' Grand Museum, corroborates the story, which is debatable mainly because it would have been in the interests of the Lodge and the Craft to fabricate it. Anderson made the claims in his widely circulated Constitutions while many of Wren's friends were still alive, but he made many highly creative claims as to the history or legends of Freemasonry. There is also a clear possibility of confusion between the operative workmen's lodges which might naturally have welcomed the boss, and the "speculative" or gentlemen's lodges which became highly fashionable just after Wren's death. By the standards of his time a gentleman like Wren would not generally join an artisan body; however the workmen of St Paul's cathedral would naturally have sought the patronage or "interest" of their employer, and within Wren's lifetime there was a predominantly gentlemen's Lodge at the Rummer and Grapes, a mile upriver at Westminster (where Wren had been to School).
In 1788 the Lodge of Antiquity thought they were buying a portrait of Wren which now dominates Lodge Room 10, in the same building as the Museum; but it is now identified with William Talman, not Wren. Nevertheless, this recorded event and many old records attest the fact that Antiquity thought that Wren had been its Master, at a time when it still held its minute books for the relevant years (which were lost by Preston at some date after 1778)
The evidence whether Wren was a speculative freemason is the subject of the Prestonian Lecture of 2011, which concludes on the evidence of two obituaries and Aubrey's memoirs, with supporting materials, that he did indeed attend the closed meeting in 1691, probably of the Lodge of Antiquity, but that there is nothing to suggest that he was ever a Grand Officer as claimed by Anderson.