When London rose from the ashes

London in flames, September 1666

In the summer of 1666, the Great Fire of London raged for three days and burnt down the homes of nearly 90% of the city’s half million residents. No one knows how many people perished in the inferno.

The astronomer Christopher Wren helped survey the wreckage. He and his colleagues mapped 13,200 destroyed houses, the loss of most municipal buildings and the gutting of St. Paul’s Cathedral and 73 parish churches.

Wren, who had previously dabbled in architecture, devoted the rest of his life to redesigning and directing the rebuilding of the cathedral and 52 of the razed churches. Ultimately, he won acclaim as one of England’s greatest and most prolific architects.

Wren with St. Paul’s Cathedral

Born today in 1632, Wren was a sickly child. Several of his siblings died in infancy, but he survived. At age 10, the English Civil War broke out, forcing his family to lay low due to their unfashionable political and religious loyalties. During Cromwell’s reign of terror, Wren quietly applied himself to his studies and eventually became a professor of astronomy.

After the Restoration, Wren reaped the rewards of his family’s Royalist and Anglican allegiances. He and his colleagues obtained a charter from Charles II to found the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge, an organization to promote scientific study, which continues to advise the British government today. Wren’s interests extended beyond astronomy to encompass anatomy, mathematics, physics, engineering and, of course, architecture.

His design for St. Paul’s Cathedral stands as a testament not just to his individual creativity, but also to the power of the process we now know as peer review. Royal and ecclesiastical authorities rejected Wren’s first few designs, forcing him to make repeated revisions until he had produced a plan grandiose enough to merit approval. The resulting building is a masterpiece of world architecture.

Wren also designed theaters, libraries, hospitals, the Royal Naval College and Royal Observatory (both at Greenwich), and one building in North America: Wren Hall at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia.

Wren Hall in Williamsburg, Virginia

As his architectural career took off, Wren felt financially secure enough to marry and start a family. Their first son died as a toddler; a second (Christopher) was born in February 1675, but after his mother died of smallpox that September, he went to live with his mother-in-law. Wren remarried the following year. His second wife bore him a daughter and an intellectually disabled son before dying of tuberculosis in 1680. In 1702, Wren buried his daughter before her 26th birthday.

It took more than four decades to finish St. Paul’s. Few cathedral designers in the medieval or early modern period lived long enough to see their work completed. However, Wren lived to witness its consecration in 1697. At the age of 76 — in 1708 — he saw his son Christopher lay the final topstone.

St. Paul’s Cathedral in London

When he died, Wren’s remains were laid to rest inside his masterpiece, St. Paul’s Cathedral. The Latin inscription on his tomb proclaims,

“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 91.”

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