Sir Christopher Wren - Britain's Greatest Architect?

Sir Christopher Wren is widely believed to be Britain's greatest architect. Simon Thurley, Wren expert and former CEO of English Heritage, says: "... if most people were stopped in the street and were asked to name a famous architect, they would say Sir Christopher Wren. This man, who lived over 300 years ago, has somehow captured the imagination, not only as the archetypal architect, but as England’s greatest and most successful architect." 1

In this blog we intend to investigate whether the public are right (note that Thurley slickly avoids saying that he agrees). We also check out some of Wren's many other talents, then go on a tour of the places he lived and worked.

Thurley went on to comment about Wren's reputation, "I am afraid to say it is essentially [based] upon one building – St Paul’s Cathedral". Right again. Most of the British public, at least those that live outside London, do not even realise that Wren was involved in more than 50 London churches and dozens of secular buildings. 47 of his buildings have Grade I listings, more than anyone bar George Gilbert Scott, whose style is not universally popular.

Still, if your reputation has to hang on one building, it would be difficult to find one better than St Paul's. It was the clear winner in a recent nationwide poll of Britain's favourite buildings.2 And, uniquely among British buildings, it is admired by foreigners. Prestigious 'drum and dome' buildings the world over borrow from its design, not least the U.S. Capitol Building, Paris' Pantheon, Berlin's Neue Kirche and Mebourne's St Paul's. There is no point in us describing St Paul's many merits when experts have done a far better job than we ever could, but we can point out how it towered over the Lilliputian Renaissance London landscape, as depicted on Wren's £50 banknote above.

Wren the student

Most of the facts about Wren's life come from Parentalia, the Wren family memoirs. Ok, it is biased, having been written by Wren's son. It glorifies Wren's achievements, it overstates his involvement in his successes and it employs some poetic license. It is selective, omitting any mention of Wren's many failings. For instance, there is not a word about his theory that thrush infections can be cured by hanging a bag of live boglice around the neck. Despite all this, we are fairly confident that it is accurate about his important inventions and discoveries, because they are independently corroborated.

Parentalia can be difficult to understand, not least because much of it is in Latin. It has caused a lot of confusion about Wren's teenage years. Wikipedia and most Wren biographies say that he attended Westminster School between 1641 and 1646 (i.e. aged 9 to 15), then went up to Wadham College, Oxford on 25th June 1650, aged 18. The exact date suggests that it must be right. The Wadham College website agrees3, and one would have thought that they should know.

But Wikipedia explains that Parentalia is the only source of this information. It is ambiguous: "In 1650 he proceeded Bachelor of Arts at Wadham College; in 1653, Master of Arts". Wiki and the rest interpret 'proceed' to mean 'proceed into tuition for'. We think it means 'proceed into graduation for'. In other words, he graduated BA in 1650 and MA in 1653.

Our main reason to think Wiki is wrong is that Parentalia specifically says that Wren went up to Oxford as a gentleman-commoner aged 14. Beforehand it says that Wren was under a private home tutor, "excepting that for some short time before his admission to university, he was placed under Dr. Busby at Westminster School". Wiki says he was there for 6 years, which would be about right if he went to university aged 18, but it could hardly be described as "some short time". Elsewhere Parentalia has an extract of a Latin book by William Oughtred (who invented the slide rule) which says: "Christopher Wren, Collegii Wadhamensis commensalis generosus admirando prorsus ingenio juvenis, qui nondum sexdecim annos natus ...". We translate this as: "Christopher Wren, generous and admirable young genius of Wadham College who has not yet reached 16 years of age ...", which proves Wren was at Oxford long before he was 18.

Parentalia's description of Wren's schooling is clear to us. Schools only had two terms in the 17th century, the breaks coming in mid-summer and Christmas (this is why Eton College still refers to its terms as 'halves', even though they have had three terms a year since the 18th century). The Oxford year started in the summer. Wren turned 14 in October 1646. Parentalia is therefore saying that Wren was home tutored until he reached 14, that he attended Westminster School for first calendar half of 1647, then he went up to Oxford in the summer of 1647, still aged 14. This might seem too young but Jeremy Bentham went up to Oxford aged 12, graduated BA at 15 and MA at 18. We will lobby Wikipedia to get this corrected.

Wren the inventor

Wren was a high achiever long before he started designing buildings. According to his pre-school tutor, he was a mathematics genius. And prodigiously inventive. At the age of 13 he invented a pneumatic engine, an instrument to improve astronomy observations, an instrument for writing in the dark and a new method for calculating spherical trigonometry.

As we say above, we think that Wren went up to Wadham College aged 14. It provided the most progressive science education in Britain, if not the world, at the time. His scientific activities were as part of an elite group of experimentalist scientists directed by John Wilkins, Warden of Wadham College. It is now known as the Oxford Group.

Parentalia lists the "Theories, Inventions, Experiments and Mechanical Improvements" that Wren devised and presented to the Oxford Group. An analysis of the mathematical theories can be found in J. A. Bennett's excellent book 'The Mathematical Science of Christopher Wren'. Other inventions include:

  • A model showing a hypothesis of the moon's liberation
  • An illumination of the moon and planets in a dark room
  • A new projection gonioscope
  • A simple way to observe whether the earth moves
  • A theory explaining the expansion of air (forerunner of Boyle's law)
  • A weather-wheel
  • A weather-clock
  • A perpetual motion device made of a weather-wheel and weather-clock
  • A balance to weigh without weights
  • A respirator ('strainer of the breath, to make the same air serve in respiration')
  • A working model of the human eye
  • An instrument to copy a document
  • A survey instrument to copy a picture (design above)
  • A survey instrument to measure perspective
  • New ways of engraving and etching
  • Device that weaves many ribbons by turning a single handle
  • Diverse improvements to animal husbandry
  • A new engine to raise water
  • A pavement that is harder, more beautiful and cheaper than marble
  • A new way to grind glass
  • A cheap way to embroider blankets and hangings
  • New ways of printing
  • New designs for strong, convenient and beautiful buildings
  • New ways to project architectural perspective (sciography)
  • Diverse new musical instruments
  • A speaking organ that articulates sounds
  • New ways of sailing
  • An analysis of ways to calculate time, direction and longitude at sea.
  • Possible ways to make fresh water at sea
  • Armour for warships
  • A novel way to build sea forts
  • Inventions for better dredging sandbanks, making and fortifying sea havens
  • Ways to stay under water for long periods
  • Ways of submarine navigation
  • Easier ways of whale-fishing
  • New offensive and defensive engines
  • Secure and speedier ways of attacking forts
  • New ways of sending intelligence with cyphers
  • Some inventions in fortification
  • A new way of drilling into rock
  • A way to purge the stomach by injection into the blood
  • Some anatomical experiments
  • A way to measure the width and height of a mountain only by journeying over it
  • A way to measure crow-flying distance from a meandering route
  • A compass that can be used by a moving horse-rider or coachman
  • A way to make coaches safe, strong and light

In addition to devising his own experiments within the Oxford Group, Wren contributed to some of those devised by his fellows. This is probably how he came to make the world's first transparent apiary to study bees for Wilkins, to devise an advanced corn sowing machine for Petty, to record the oldest known finger-spelling system for Dalgarno, to perform the first known operation to remove a spleen in which the patient (a dog) survived, and to perform the world's first known intravenous injection.

Still only 25, Wren was appointed Professor of Astronomy at Gresham College in London. During his tenure he made improvements to the microscope and the telescope, and he improved his 'magnetic variation' method of measuring longitude. It would have worked too, more than 100 years before John Harrison came up with H4, if only he had had access to more accurate data on the earth's magnetic field. In 1661, aged just 29, Wren got the illustrious position of Savilian Professor of Astronomy back at Oxford. It was here that he devised a mathematical method to calculate the length of the cycloid arc.

Some members of the Oxford Group went on to found the Royal Society in 1662. Wren was one of them. Splitting his time between London and Oxford, the Royal Society allowed him to vent his insatiable curiosity alongside some of the greatest scientists that have ever lived. He extended some of the experiments and theories that he had devised at Oxford and he worked on new theories and inventions. These are recorded in the Royal Society's Philosophical Transactions and summarised in Parentalia. There are two highlights for us. 

Our favourite is Wren's meteorological vision. He described it as 'A diary to record the history of seasons'. This hardly does it justice. The Medici's had started recording daily weather readings in 1654. Wren's plan was far more ambitious. He wanted to record many more weather variables, more often, at many fold more places, and then correlate the trends against the seasons, crops yields, crop diseases, crop pests and the like. It was nothing less than the invention of the science of phenology. In order to gather as much data as possible, Wren devised a sophisticated weather station (above) that would automatically record continuous readings on paper. This device encompassed his inventions of the modern barometer and the automatically resetting rain gauge, as well as a much improved anemometer. Amazing. It was 100 years ahead of its time.

Meanwhile, Wren tried to further improve telescopes. He had already invented the micrometre to make and record tiny adjustments. The major outstanding issue was optical distortions caused by the standard spherical section lenses of the day. Kepler and Descartes had shown that the ideal lens form was parabolic, only no one knew how to make them. Wren started work on aspherical lenses in the Oxford Group, inspired by his colleagues Neile and Goddard. He came up with a theoretic manufacturing technique, which he discussed with the Royal Society and Huygens. His machine would probably have worked but proved impossible to build using the technologies of the day. Years later, it was the technique used to make the first high quality lenses for telescopes and microscopes, leading to countless scientific advances. According to Bennett, Wren adapted his technique to create one of his most important mathematical discoveries, that the hyperboloid of revolution is a ruled surface. 

Perhaps the two best known scientific discoveries made at the Royal Society during this time were Boyle's law and Hooke's law, which governed the expansion of gases and elasticity of springs respectively. Boyle and Hooke both said that the impetus for their experimental proofs came from theories invented by and proposed by Wren.

Wren also provided the impetus for one of the greatest advances in human history. He retired to a coffee house after a Royal Society meeting in January 1684 along with Robert Hooke and William Halley. They speculated that there might be an inverse square law of attraction between planets and the sun. Wren offered up a reward for anyone that could provide proof. Halley posed the question to Isaac Newton: "What path would a planet would take around the sun if they had an inverse square attraction?" Newton immediately replied that it would be an ellipse and that he had solved the mathematics to prove it some years previously. This led him to write Principia, the foundation of modern physics.

Wren the architect

Wren had been dabbling with building design before the Great Fire. Between 1663 and 1666, he had designed and managed the construction of Pembroke College Chapel for his uncle Matthew Wren, Bishop of Ely. He had also submitted a design for the Sheldonian Theatre at Oxford. Both designs showed his inexperence. Perhaps hoping to improve his technique, Wren spent some time in Paris and Rome, studying Bernini's architecture, especially at the Palace of Versailles. On his return, he worked with King Charles II on a design for the renovation of old St Paul's and for the renovation of Whitehall Palace, bothof which got scuppered by the Great Fire.

King Charles appointed Wren to the Royal Commission for the rebuilding of London. Wren commissioned himself to rebuild 55 churches. It was an interesting challenge because nearly all the plots were small and irregularly shaped. This work was largely finished by 1669 when John Denham, 'Surveyor of the King's Works', fell ill. He was a hopeless architect anyway; a politically appointed poet in the wrong job and very far from his best by the late 1660s. The King installed Wren as his deputy, then promoted him to the top job when Denham died a few weeks later. In effect, Wren took responsibility for all the royal palaces and buildings.

One of Wren's first jobs was to submit a plan for a new City of London road layout, with wide boulevards and rond-point junctions, based on what he had seen in Paris. A copy is held at the British Library (above). Famously, Wren's plan had been accepted but was ignored by greedy City merchants, who went ahead rebuilding on their original plots. At least this is the story told in Parentalia. It is less than accurate ... or perhaps less than honest.

In practice, there were lots of competing plans for the rebuilding of London, none of which were ever accepted. Wren's plan was effectively made on behalf of the King. But it was City merchants that would choose the plan and foot the bill. There was close to zero chance that they would accept an elaborate plan proposed on behalf of the King. If they accepted any plan not based on the previous demenses, it would have been a much more modest affair they commissioned from Robert Hooke. Even that proved too expensive, so they did indeed go ahead rebuilding on their previous plots.

The rejection of new road layouts was not a total disaster. As Thurley notes, the Royal Commission bought land adjacent to the original roads on the cheap. This land was used to widen London's main roads. They might not be as wide as the boulevards of Paris, but they are at least usable today thanks to the fire.

The reconstruction of St Paul's was Wren's first and most important commission after his appointment as Surveyor of the King's Works. Work started in 1675. The Cathedral opened for services without its dome and towers in 1697. It was eventually finished in 1720. In the meantime, Wren was responsible for the construction of The Monument (1677), the extension of Kensington Palace (1689), the Royal Hospital at Chelsea (1692), the Pavilion and facades at Hampton Court (1700), and the Royal Hospital for Seamen at Greenwhich (1712).

Wren was knighted in 1673, in principle as recognition for his services to astronomy, following his resignation from the job as Savilian Professor of Astronomy. In practice, we suspect that the title was to give him more clout as Surveyor of the King's Works.

Wren somehow managed to find time for other interests. He was an active freemason throughout his adult life. He was an elected Westminster MP between 1685 and 1702. And he remained an active member of the Royal Society, serving as President between 1680 and 1682.

Wren's greatness and momentousness

If all of the above is accurate, Wren might not only have been Britain's greatest and most momentous architect, but also one of our greatest inventors, polymaths and scientists. We had never previously doubted he was all of these. Wren's architectural achievements are famous. His innovations, discoveries and scientific achievements are recorded in the Royal Society's journals and/or Parentalia, and by and large, are corroborated in the diaries and correspondence of Wilkins, Petty, Hooke, Hawksmoor and others. Seeds of doubt crept in when we heard Thurley's lecture and then read the Wren biographies by Lisa Jardine and Adrian Tinniswood.

Jardine, Tinniswood and Thurlay trawled through Wren's building designs and associated papers. They conclude that the vast majority of Wren's design and engineering work was done by his assistants, especially Nicholas Hawksmoor and Robert Hooke. Wren's technical contribution was probably limited to the original design concepts, most of which were cobbled together from parts of baroque buildings he had seen in Paris. Thurley reckons that Wren's main role was as salesman. We are convinced he is right. But how and why did he turn himself from world class astronomer to a construction salesman?

One clue is that he was elected three times to parliament but seldom sat. We think he was driven by social climbing, in the royal court and in the freemason's lodge. Being an MP gave him access to the Lords of the Treasury, who had their fingers on the national purse strings. Being Surveyor of the King's Works would guarantee getting commissions for the most prestigous building projects in the land. And it gave him regular personal contact with the king, which would elevate his status in court. Big building projects gave him the power to employ lots of assistants and to appoint lots of subcontractors. He tended to chose freemasons, thereby elevating his status in the lodge. There is some evidence that Wren ended up as Grand Master of the lodge next to St Paul's.

If Wren coveted social status, it is understandable why he would want the job as Surveyor of the King's Works. But why did King Charles give it to him? Indeed, why was Charles working with Wren on the renovation of Old St Paul's and Whitehall Palace before the Great Fire, when Wren had no useful experience as an architect? He had not completed a single building at this time. And there were at least two far better qualified candidates in John Webb, former assistant to Inigo Jones, and Hugh May, who had already completed half a dozen grand houses before the fire.

Thurley argues that the King's liking for Wren and his appointment as Surveyor of the King's Works derived from the close relationship of their fathers: Dean Wren worked with Charles I on Order of the Garter services at Windsor. This might explain why the King shunned Webb, who was not a Royalist, but not Hugh May who was a staunch Royalist who had fought alongside Charles I in the Civil War. May had at least as high a position in court as Wren.

We suspect that Castells has the right answer in that he argues that Charles II was also a freemason. If so, he would be inclined to choose fellow mason Wren for major projects and job opportunities. King Charles clearly knew that Hugh May had been shabbily treated, because he was bought off with a generous pension and some commissions out of London.

Frankly, Charles might have secretly wished that he had given the job to May. Wren not only lacked much enthusiasm for building design, but he wasn't very good at it. The buildings he designed before the Great Fire were amateurish. His oversight of the construction process was so lax that two of his churches fell down. The guidence he gave his architects after the fire was so misguided that hardly anyone liked his buildings. Their baroque style, which derived from the opulent cathedrals and palaces of Catholic Europe, was too ornate and too gaudy for austere Protestant tastes. No less than 24 were demolished during Victorian times. Those that survive are revered now, but mainly because of their history, their survival of the Blitz and their tasteful restorations, none of which has anything to do with Wren.

Perhaps it does not matter how Wren got the job, or that he was not very good at it, or even that he only had minimal involvement in the design of the buildings that carry his name. Wren's buildings all had to be sold and financed. This was his strength. He was well connected, intelligent, numerate, articulate and charming. As Thurley says, he was the consummate salesman.

Wren, again as Thurley says, captured the public's imagination as a great building designer. He was the flamboyant front-man, the equivalent to Steve Jobs, where Hawksmoor, Hooke and Talman did Steve Wozniak's backroom work. Wren's buildings still had to be constructed. Wren appointed his assistants, commissioned the subcontractors and oversaw the construction. Any of this could have gone wrong. In general, it went well. Wren's palmarés includes St Paul's, Chelsea Hospital, the Royal Observatory, Greenwich Naval Hospital, and 43 churches all of which have Grade I listings. It is a hugely impressive achievement, just not an architectural one.

This raises the interesting question of how Wren became famous as an architect, when he only designed two amateurish buildings in his entire life. We think it is because of the evolution of job titles. In Wren's era, buildings were designed by an architect under high-level guidance from a 'surveyor'. These were not surveyors in the modern sense. Rather they raised finance and then managed the construction process, like a prime contractor might today. This was Wren's role. He appointed an architect, typically Hawksmoor, Hooke or Talman, to design his buildings. From the turn of the 19th century, surveying became a discipline in its own right. The prime contractor role became known as the architect, so Wren, Vanbrugh and their like were recategorised as architects.

It would be wrong to say that Wren was not an architect. He designed the Sheldonian Theatre and Pembroke College Chapel. He was a brilliant draftsman and mechanical engineer who was perfectly capable of being a superb architect. But artistic creativity was not his strength and his attention span was virtually non-existant. He would have lost interest before finishing a complicated detailed design.

Ironically, the changing role of the surveyor was indirectly driven by Wren. The modern discipline of surveying developed in the late 18th century following Jesse Ramsden's development of the first accurate theodolites. Ramsden was a member of the Royal Society. We have no doubt that his advances were only possible thanks to discoveries he heard about at the Royal Society, originally made by Wren and Hooke.

Britain has not been overly blessed with great design architects. Jones, Hawksmoor, Pugin, Scott, Lutyens, Foster and Rogers are probably the best of a mediocre bunch. Wren was barely an architect at all, let alone Britain's greatest. That soubriquet has to be given to one these others. We will discuss it in a separate blog.

Our interest here is in momentousness, by which we mean lasting impact. Wren's protégés Hooke, Hawksmoor and Talman designed most of the buildings that carry Wren's name. All of them went on to design fine buildings on their own. Hawksmoor teamed up with John Vanbrugh to finish the Royal Naval Hospital and to design and build some of the most famous country houses in Britain. Between them, these five created the English Baroque style which dominated grand architecture in England for fifty years around the turn of the 18th century. Between them, they account for Britain's greatest post-medieval cathedral, the largest public buildings of the Stuart era and four of our greatest country houses in Chatsworth, Blenheim, Castle Howard and Stowe. When our descendants in the year 3000 look at buildings that have survived since the year 2000, barring catastrophe, Wren and his protégés will have as many as the rest put together. Wren has to be Britain's most momentous 'architect'.

What then of Wren's mathematic, scientific, invention and astronomy skills? We mention above that we believe some of Wren's collaborators gave him credit for their inventions and discoveries. In the case of John Wilkins, who devised many of the Oxford Group's experiments, his motivation was for the Group to be successful. He was happy to assign the scientific credit for his experiments to group members. We suspect that some of Wren's college colleagues gave him credit for their discoveries because his father was well connected and influential in court. It was probably much the same after he had graduated, because some of his collaborators were freemasons, who might have been inclined to help him up the career ladder.

This raises the possibility that Wren did not devise some of the famous inventions and discoveries that are attributed to him. We think he did. Before going up to Oxford, Wren was a brilliant mathematician (for a 14 year old), a polyglot, a wonderful draftsman and great with his hands. It seems to us that others liked to involve him in their projects because he had the practical skills to make models and prototypes, or the drawing skills to make designs and blueprints, or the language skills to translate papers, or the maths skills to analyse results. None of this applies to the best known inventions, discoveries and theories that are ascribed to Wren. And after he graduated, most of his inventions, discoveries and theories are reliably documented in the Royal Society papers.

If Wren did devise all the innovations and devices attributed to him in Parentalia and the Royal Society papers, he has to be Britain's most prolific inventor. The breadth, quantity and brilliance of his innovations is mind-boggling. They percolated down through the Royal Society to influence nearly all aspects of 17th and 18th century science, and thence through to the modern day. In terms of greatness and momentousness, which is our main interest, it is tough to compare the impact of Wren's many minor inventions plus his influence on the Royal Society against single monumental inventions, such as Faraday's dynamo, Trevithick's steam engine or Bessemer's converter. We will investigate this in another blog.

Wren's status as a scientist has gone down a little in our estimation. There is more to being a scientist than proposing innovative theories that turn out to be right. Before reading Jardine and Tinniswood, we had not realised that Hooke, Boyle and others developed most of Wrens devices and proved most of his scientific discoveries. We now think that Hooke and Boyle were better scientists than Wren, and they were not in the Premier League of British scientists. On the other hand, Wren did invent the science of phenology and he did provide the impetus for Newton to write Principia. If Wren had never lived, the January 1684 coffee shop meeting would not have taken place and Newton might never have written Principia.

Wren was an exceptional polymath. The only obvious way to assess how exceptional is to compare him to Leonardo da Vinci, the de facto epitome of a polymath. Like Leonardo, Wren had an enormous range of interests that encompassed the physical, natural and military worlds. They were both extraordinarily talented draftsmen, inventors, engineers, scientists and musicians. Leonardo was the better draftsman and musician. Wren was the better engineer and, anatomy and fluid mechanics aside, the better scientist. Leonardo conducted hundreds of brilliant experiments and devised hundreds of innovative devices, but the experiments reached no useful conclusions, none of the devices were made, and hardly any of them would have worked. Wren 'only' devised a few dozen devices, but they nearly all worked, albeit some not in his lifetime. Leonardo was one of the greatest still life artists that has ever lived. Wren was not artistically creative. Conversely, Wren was an exceptional mathematician, astronomer, polyglot and businessman, which were among Leonardo's biggest weaknesses. In our opinion, Leonardo was the most brilliant polymath that has ever lived, but Wren was not far behind, more effective, and well ahead of any other Britons.

Our idea of momentousness means lasting benefit. Leonardo's inventions and discoveries were private, having to be re-discovered, sometimes centuries later. Only his handful of finished paintings were available to his immediate successors. Revered as they are now, they had relatively little influence at the time. Wren also failed to develop most of his inventions and failed to prove most of his scientific theories. But his Royal Academy colleagues, especially Robert Hooke and Robert Boyle, developed his most important inventions into working devices and proved his most important scientific theories. Wren also left some popular and influential buildings, most notably St Pauls, and some influential proteges. He had a lasting beneficial impact on the Royal Academy, on British architecture and on the creation of Newton's Principia. In our opinion, Wren was a more momentous polymath than Leonardo, perhaps more momentous than anyone.

The irony then is that Wren will probably always be remembered as Britain's greatest architect, even though the sum total of his designs was two amateurish buildings, and even though he was a far better astronomer, mathematician, scientist, engineer and businessman, as well as being the greatest polymath and perhaps the most brilliant inventor that Britain has ever produced.

Wren Tour

Christopher Wren's father, Dr Christopher Wren, was rector of St Mary's, East Knoyle in Wiltshire. The church in which he preached - and where our Christopher would have sat - is still there. It has no Wren memorabilia that we could find. It has a rare Saxon arcade, but no other interests we would expect of a 700-year-old building. The Wrens, needless to say, lived in the rectory, at the junction of Church Rails and Church Road. Wren's rectory building was replaced and it has now passed into private hands under the name Knoyle Place.

Our Christopher Wren was not born there anyway. The family had temporarily relocated 300m up the road because of a fire in the rectory. The house where he was born was demolished fairly recently. There is a huge plaque (right) outside the playground to mark where it used to be. It agrees with Parentalia that Wren was born on the 20th October 1632. Wiki and some other references say he was born on the 30th October, because they post-date the Gregorian calendar change in 1752.

Dr Christopher Wren was appointed Dean of Windsor in 1635. The family moved into the Deanery which was in the north-east corner of the Lower Ward inside Windsor Castle. Christopher Wren grew up here.

We grew up nearby in Datchet. We passed the castle on our way to school every day. We went into the Lower Keep to look at St Georges Chapel almost every day on our way home (it was free in those days). In the rare moments when our Wren-obsessed former headmaster was not beating one or other of us, he liked to research Wren's life in Windsor. He was signally unsuccessful. Wren's Deanery building is long gone, although the current Deanery (above) is on the same spot. Wren House, a hotel near the bridge, claims to have been designed by Wren, but there is no supporting evidence and the building looks too late. Windsor Guildhall is often said to have been designed by Wren. Our entire school used to decant underneath - it is on stilts - to wave Union flags whenever the Queen passed by. Alas, its association is with our Christopher Wren's son - author of Parentalia - who commissioned it when he was Windsor's MP.

As Dean of Windsor, Dr Wren was chaplain of St Georges Chapel, home to the Order of the Garter. The Order was important to King Charles I. He and Dean Wren developed Order of the Garter ceremonies together. Dean Wren gave blessings over the Order whenever they met. He was close to the King, to the Order, and was a staunch Royalist. When Cromwell came to power the Wrens were exiled back to their country parsonage in East Knoyle. Our Christopher Wren would have been 8 or 9. This is where he was tutored in mathematics, natural philosophy and languages, and where his talents first blossomed.

East Knoyle is close to Stonehenge. The letters I WREN are inscribed on Stone 52 (above). It is widely supposed that Christopher Wren is the culprit for the vandalisation. There is a bar across the I that makes it look like a cross, which might be an abbreviation of 'Christo'. Stone 52 is the second easternmost of the giant central sarsons. The inscription is at eye-level. It is worth checking out for anyone that gets inside the barriers on a tour or solstice.

Wren briefly attended Westminster School (entrance above), we think for the first half of 1647. The building is still there, although it is now a private school that can only be viewed from the outside. One of the school houses is named after him. It is interesting that Robert Hooke went to Westminster School too. We think that Wren left for Oxford in 1647 whereas Hooke could not have started before his father died in 1648, so we doubt that they met at school. But perhaps their common background or their mutual friendship with headmaster Dr. Richard Busby pushed them together in later life.

Wren was an undergraduate at Wadham College, Oxford. The college buildings, dorms, chapel and quads that would have been used by Wren are still there. The outer quad and chapel are open to the public on most afternoons. The college clock is thought to have been donated to the college by Christopher Wren in 1671. It is of huge historical importance as the first clock to use the anchor escapement which became standard for tower clocks and grandfather clocks for the next 200 years. It is so important that the mechanism has been moved to the Museum of Science History over the road. The original clock face remains over the chapel entrance in the public outer quad (pointed to above).

After receiving his MA, Wren was elected a Fellow of All Souls, Oxford. Again, the college buildings, dorms, chapel and quads that would have been used by Wren are still there. Again, the quads and chapel are open to the public on most afternoons. Wren made a sundial (above) which is now installed over the entrance to Codrington Library. It didn't always tell such poor time: it was moved from the south side of quad during Victorian times. The Codrington Library acquired Wren's death mask and many of Wren's design documents when he died. The library is not open to the public but the documents are available online, both through the Codrington Library website here and the Bodleian Library.

Wren was appointed Professor of Astronomy at Gresham College, London in 1657. Then, as now, Gresham College had no full-time students. It was established to give free lectures to anyone that wanted to attend. Wren gave weekly lectures on astronomy. In Wren's time, the college was still in Thomas Gresham's mansion in Bishopsgate. This was also the venue for Royal Society meetings for most of Wren's life, the exception being a short period after the Great Fire when they moved into Arundel House. Both buildings were demolished long ago.

In 1661, Wren returned to Oxford as Savilian Professor of Astronomy. As far as we know there is no evidence where he lived but 6-7 New College Lane, just 30m from the Bridge of Sighs, was rented as part of the Savile bequest for the use of Savilian professors. It has a plaque outside saying that it was Edmund Halley's residence and observatory when he was Savilian Professor of Geometry. We presume Wren was there before him.

Wren lived the rest of his life at Old Court House in Hampton Court (above with plaque). He is buried in the crypt of St Paul's. The plaque below is fixed to the wall above his tomb. It says in English, "Beneath lies Christopher Wren, the builder of this church and of this city, who lived upwards of 90 years, not for himself but for the public good. If you seek his monument, look around you." Very witty.


1 Transcript
2 Conducted by Yesterday TV station