Christopher Wren and The London He Gave Us

August 15, 2019 4:07 pm

All things change. London’s iconic buses have grown flashier, more modern, more economical and environmentally sound, bendier and distinctly less red over the years. Those recognisably red telephone boxes we’re so desperate to take a selfie with are disappearing at great pace. Mobiles make their whole MO a little archaic. Some get so badly defaced and dismantled, it’s not worth the time or money required to refurb or replace them. But one aspect of London that possesses a longevity and a permanence that often outstrips concepts of use and progress is its architecture. Yes, bombs broke many during the Blitz. Time has made the upkeep of some too costly. But few things have reined as icons of the city and its people for as long as its architectural landmarks. And many of them came from the mind of just one man: Sir Christopher Wren.

christopher wren

Christopher Wren

Strange as it may seem, considering the impact he had on the architectural history of a nation, it’s not as though Christopher Wren was born to be an architect. Born in 1632, he belongs to an esteemed, exclusive tribe of British polymaths: men and women of prodigious intellect who can seemingly direct their talents into whichever field of study holds their interest the longest. As a teen he liked to spend his time making sun dials. Oxford University appointed him Savilian Professor of Astronomy before he turned 30. A founding member of the Royal Society, Wren is credited with conducting anatomical research which helped pave the way for pioneering blood transfusions. Turning his attention to architecture, in 1664 he was commissioned to design the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford, then a chapel in Cambridge a year later.

However, the real impetus behind Wren’s architectural work came from two cataclysmic moments of great change: the plague of 1665 and the Great Fire of London in 1666.

The plague led him to flee the country for Paris, where he became greatly inspired by the Baroque architecture of the city. And the fire a year later encouraged him to return to London, where he presented his ambitious building plans for a city so devastatingly damaged during the disaster. While many of his plans for the rebuilding of the city were too ambitious to be put into practice, he was tasked with rebuilding 52 churches in the City of London, including his best known work and the centrepiece of his initial plans, St. Paul’s Cathedral. The work he went on to complete during the course of his life has left an indelible mark on London.

Sir Christopher Wren died in March 1723, his remains placed in the crypt of St. Paul’s. The plaque marking the spot reads:

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.

The Masterpieces of Christopher Wren

christopher wren

St. Paul’s Cathedral

Undoubtedly Christopher Wren’s crowning achievement, St. Paul’s Cathedral became the first cathedral built in Britain since Medieval times. It is also the country’s first such building completed within the lifetime of its chief architect. It stands firstly as a testament to Wren’s dedication to his work. But it means so much more to so many others.

The English Baroque-style cathedral holds many important ceremonies each year. Past events include the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer, and the funerals of Sir Winston Churchill, the Duke of Wellington and Admiral Nelson. During the Blitz, it became a symbol of the resilience of London and Londoners. The image of it standing stoically as a firestorm whips around it, refusing to be consumed by flames akin to those that birthed it is just as powerful today as it was when first published on Tuesday 31 December 1940.

christopher wren

The Monument

Many see St. Paul’s Cathedral as Sir Christopher Wren’s great gift to a London grieving following the Great Fire of 1666. In fact, he built a direct tribute to who lost their homes, livelihoods and lives during the horrendous blaze. Built between 1671 and 1677, The Monument is a Doric column that rises proudly out from the City of London. It stands where the first church razed by the fire – St. Margaret’s, Fish Street – once stood.

The 62m tall Portland stone column looks magnificent from street level, though a trip up the 311 steps of its curling, tight staircase is definitely worth it. You get an exceptional view of the City at the top.

christopher wren

Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich

Designed and built by Wren and his assistant Nicholas Hawksmoor as a home for retired Royal Navy sailors, this architectural gem takes pride of place on the banks of the Thames. It is one of the highlights of the highlight-heavy Maritime Greenwich World Heritage Site. Its riverside placement and the pleasing symmetry of its two main domes ensure that, while its use has changed over the years – it was a training college for the Royal Navy from 1873 to 1998 – its looks have been well-maintained. A look around the grounds and visit to the impressive Painted Hall and Chapel are a particular treat.

christopher wren

Hampton Court Palace

In 1689, William III and Mary II commissioned Wren to replace Hampton Court with a Baroque-style palace. He scrapped initial plans to totally demolish and rebuild it, and set about updating it a section at a time. Wren’s East and South Facades, along with the inner Fountain Court, feature bold baroque elements. Such features stand out because of the contrast between the white Portland stone and pink brick.

William III fell out of love with the project when Mary II died in late 1694. Building ceased and the palace remained a mix of Tudor and baroque styles. Today, this allows visitors to step into two distinct historical periods. Hampton Court Palace also displays many important works of art, cherry-picked from the Royal Collection. It is also famed for its late 17th-century hedge maze.

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