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Was Sir Christopher Wren the Steve Jobs of the 17th century?

 By Hannah Silverman

Find out about our guest blogger at the end of this article. You can follow her on Instagram @Silvers_screen

© St Paul's Cathedral
© National Portrait Gallery

Pick a London landmark and there's a good chance you can link it to Sir Christopher Wren. From St Paul's Cathedral to Hampton Court, Wren's name is attached to more 17th century buildings than Steve Jobs is to digital technology. Sure, Wren didn't revolutionise computers, launch a ground-breaking animation studio or invent the iphone, iCloud and idon'tknowwhatelse, but he was certainly one of the most talked about entrepreneurs of the day.

However, beyond acknowledging Wren's hands were behind some of the most notable buildings in the country, how much is actually known about this great architect? 

Which buildings did Christopher Wren design?

It's overwhelming to think Wren designed 51 churches alone, rebuilding much of the city of London that was lost in the Great Fire of 1666. He can put his name to parts of Westminster Abbey, 10 Downing Street and the Royal Observatory Greenwich and for a time was even on the British 50 pound note for his contribution to British architecture. Wren was also held in high regard for his scientific endeavours by the likes of Isaac Newton, but beyond this his personal profile overall is somewhat shadowed by his iconic creations. Surprisingly, mainstream curiosity in his profile seems minimal, but this is the man credited with building most of the City of London.

The personal life of Christopher Wren

I can tell you that Wren was husband to two 17th century ladies, the first Faith Coghill, died six years into the marriage and the second, Jane Fitzwilliam who was the daughter of a baron, for just three. He remained a bachelor thereafter until his death in 1723. Altogether he had four children.

We know that since Wren was a child he mixed in high circles. He was good mates with diarist Samual Pepys and fellow architect Robert Hooke and he was childhood pals with Charles I son, the Prince of Wales. Wren even lived close to Hampton Court in the Old Court House, a dwelling that was gifted to him by Queen Anne in 1708 (for overdue fees for St Paul's, no less). These relationships would prove to be a huge advantage throughout his life.

Christopher Wren and the quarter life career crisis

Wren was born into middle-class society in 1632. Small and frail as a child, Wren was riddled with medical ailments which fortunately did little to hamper his potential and later successes. He was the only surviving son of a dean who was recruited to Windsor in the court of Charles I, only to relocate to Oxford during the English Civil War.

Wren is said to have first showed interest in mathematics during his time in Windsor but, like many of history's scholarly superheros and literary legends, it was Oxford that seems to have impacted his career the most. He graduated with a degree in mathematics, became a founding member of the Royal Society and a Fellow of All Souls but his passion was astronomy and at 28-years-old he became Professor of Savilian Astronomy at Oxford (as you do)!

Not until 1663 did Wren turn his mind to architecture and was commissioned to design the Pembroke College Chapel. It helped that Wren's uncle, Matthew, was involved in the project, giving him his professional introduction into architecture. He then worked on Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford before eying his next big project and rapidly climbing the career ladder with his blockbuster of a big break.

Christopher Wren and The Great Fire of London

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Monument to the Great Fire of London © City of London

Enter, St Paul's. Wren already wanted to be involved in rebuilding St Paul's in 1666, but it was the Great Fire in the autumn that served as a blessing in disguise, making him probably the greatest beneficiary of the tragedy.

When the Great Fire of London broke out on a Pudding Lane bakery early on 2 September no one, not even the Lord Mayor initially, considered its potential impact. Four days later at least six Londoners were dead, 65,000 people were displaced and a quarter of London was in charred ruins. I'd say there were a few high-flyers face-palming that day.

As London fell, Wren saw opportunity. Every bit the entrepreneur, the up-and-coming architect proposed plans to rebuild the city, many of which were rejected, but eventually he was given the green light. St Paul's was no easy feat. It took almost 35 years to complete and certainly became the pearl in his portfolio, with Wren regularly visiting his greatest work until he died at 90.

The Great Fire presented such potential for Wren that being the star performer of the London skyline, he presided over the group of architects and designers who rebuilt 51 of the city's churches that perished in the fire. That's rebuilding more than half of the number of churches that went up in flames. In some ways it was an opportunity to shape his own reputation from the ashes of the city, and like the mythological reference, he rose like the phoenix. You can visit these sites by following British History Tour's Great Fire of London Trail (link).

Wren's reimagined St Paul's Cathedral, the fifth to be built on the site, bears the famous dome and is a far cry from the previous versions. Not much remains in London pre-fire, but the Great Fire of London trail will lead you to some of the few surviving buildings.

Suddenly, Wren was everywhere. He later went on to create The Monument, Tom Tower at Christ Church, the east and south front of Hampton Court Palace, south front of Kensington Palace and parts of the Royal Hospital Chelsea, among other British icons.

Wren was knighted in 1673 and is buried, in proud irony, in St Paul's. His epitaph, written in Latin by his son, powerfully translates to:'Reader, if you seek his monument, look around'. Indeed Wren lives on through his architectural masterpieces across the country.

Friends in high places

We know Wren is credited for rebuilding London, but how did an academic of polarising fields become one of the most celebrated architects in English history? To provide context, back in the 17th century it wasn't unusual for other academics with scientific or mathematic backgrounds to create buildings of great importance. Architecture to many was a beloved hobby.

We need to remember, Wren had more on his side than just mathematics and an understanding of science, he had contacts. Not only did Uncle Matthew give him a leg-up into architecture at Cambridge, but he grew up with and around royalty as a young courtier thanks to his father's post as Dean of Windsor. Even in Oxford, the circles the Wrens mixed in had loyal associations, which no doubt helped Wren in his later endeavours. In many ways it was a matter of who he knew, not what he knew, at least initially, although there is no doubt he had the brains to back it all up.

Wren was a revolutionary. He saw gaps in the market and he proposed solutions; beautiful, workable solutions. Wren's interpretation of the Baroque style was very much on trend, tapping into architectural fashion and talking to the people through his buildings, which they continue to do today. 

Comparing apples with... churches: Wren's legacy in London

Steve Jobs will certainly be remembered for his contribution to society, but not many entrepreneurs can say their impact is as prevalent as Wren's on a city like London. While of course we will continue to celebrate the Jobs of this world today, remarkably Wren remains as talked about now as he was in the 17th century. Even if we turn on the evening news or open the newspaper there's a strong chance you can see his stamp in the background as a daily reminder of his influence.

Wren's designs are timeless and continue to serve the people as relevantly as any modern day entrepreneur can hope to do today. London is Wren's enduring legacy and, until we see a St Paul's 7 Plus in the city's choice of rose gold, jet black or silver, his name remains as much a part of the capital of any of his creations.

About the Author

Hannah is a freelance writer, history aficionado and daydreaming time traveller. Formerly an Australian news journalist, Hannah adores British history and is committed to research and exploration. With so much available on our doorsteps, she loves making history accessible and relatable for travellers, finding links between the old world and the new. Well-travelled and adventurous, you can find Hannah telling stories of historic travel on Instagram by following her 'Instablog' @Silvers_screen

Follow the Great Fire of London as it ravages the city, find out where the only building to survive can still be found and how London rebuilt itself and chose to commemorate the fire in our informative, easy to read and fun to follow travel trail - 'THE GREAT FIRE OF LONDON'
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