Christopher Wren was a 17th-century Englishman of diverse talents, but he is best remembered as one of England’s greatest architects. A talented mathematician with an interest in physics, Wren was initially a professor of astronomy and helped found England’s Royal Society. Wren made his greatest mark on English history, however, following the devastating 1666 Great Fire of London. Some of London’s most recognizable landmarks were designed by Wren in the aftermath of the fire. By the time he died in 1723, Wren had secured a knighthood and his legacy was secure. Although Wren had many intellectual passions, this guide will focus specifically on his architectural achievements.
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ST. PAUL’S CATHEDRAL Wren led the reconstruction of St. Paul’s Cathedral following the Great Fire of London. The old cathedral, dating back to the early Middle Ages, was destroyed by the flames, giving Wren a unique opportunity. St. Paul’s sits on Ludgate Hill, the highest point in London. Wren’s architectural plan combined Baroque, Neoclassical, and Gothic elements. The cathedral’s famous dome dominated London’s skyline for centuries, and the Cathedral was the tallest building in the city until the early 1960s.
ROYAL OBSERVATORY AT GREENWICH
Wren is best known for St. Paul’s, but that was far from the only building he designed. In 1676 King Charles II commissioned Wren to construct the Royal Observatory at Greenwich, a project which joined Wren’s architectural skill with his passion for astronomy. The oldest part of the observatory, The Octagon Room, was designed to allow astronomers a panoramic view of the sky.
Wren wasn’t able to take every commission he was offered. King Charles II had inherited the Moroccan city of Tangier by marriage. Wishing to protect this new territory of English Tangier, the monarch asked Wren to design fortifications for the city. Wren declined the offer, but did provide advice on fortifying the city.
HAMPTON COURT RENOVATIONS
Wren was a favorite of several English kings. William III and Mary II, the famous William and Mary, commissioned Wren to redesign the old Tudor palace of Hampton Court. Wren initially planned to demolish Hampton Court entirely but later adopted more modest plans, designing a new outdoor garden space surrounded by royal apartments known as the Fountain Court.
MEMORIAL Christopher Wren was buried the crypt of St. Paul’s Cathedral. His memorial contains an understated stone plaque. The words on the plaque, however, are one of the most famous epitaphs of all time. When translated from Latin the words read: “Reader if you seek his memorial – look around you,” a testament to the lasting impression Wren left on London.
Quizbowl is about learning, not rote memorization, so we encourage you to use this as a springboard for further reading rather than as an endpoint. Here are a few things to check out:
Visit this website to learn more about Hampton Court’s stunning gardens.
Christopher Wren was approached about building fortifications in “British Tangier.” A related question: how did the British come to control Tangier in the first place?
Check out the website of the Royal Society to learn more about this organization Wren helped to found.
London after the Great Fire of 1666 was a chaotic place. Learn all about it in this video:
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