THE rebuilding of the City churches was begun four years after the Great Fire of London, in which four-fifths of the City was destroyed, including 80 parish churches.
The second Rebuilding of London Act, passed in 1670, enacted: that the number of parish churches in the City should be reduced to 52 (though not the number of parishes, about 30 of which were forced to share a rebuilt church with another parish); that the rebuilding of the churches was to be financed by a tax on coal entering the City; and that the rebuilding programme was to be overseen by a commission of two senior clerics — the Archbishop of Canterbury (by now Gilbert Sheldon), and the Bishop of London (initially Humphrey Henchman) — and the Lord Mayor of London.
As the latter changed from year to year, authority was in effect vested with the episcopate of the Church of England, and this is one reason why the rebuilt churches assumed a degree of aesthetic and liturgical uniformity, since the parishioners themselves — notoriously diverse in their theological outlook — were in effect disempowered by the organisational structure in which the churches were rebuilt. The City churches, then, represented a top-down solution to what a purpose-built Anglican church should look like.
THE Commissioners appointed Wren to take charge of the rebuilding at their first meeting, in May 1670. That they did so is hardly surprising; for, by 1670, he was Surveyor-General of the King’s Works, and architect of the new St Paul’s. The rebuilding of the churches was organised from within the Office of Works at Whitehall, where Wren lived and worked, but it was administratively distinct from his other public offices.
Where the churches were concerned, he was appointed “to direct and order the dimensions, forms, and Modells of the said Churches”, while two assistants were appointed to assist “in all . . . surveighs, Contracts, Accompts and Propositions”. The latter posts went to Robert Hooke, the Gresham Professor of Geometry, and to Edward Woodroofe, the surveyor of Westminster Abbey and a skilled architectural draughtsman. The latter died in late 1675, to be replaced by the surveyor and glazier John Oliver.
THE cost of the churches was met by the coal tax. The dues, however, were slow in accumulating, and the commission devised a kind of “Private Finance Initiative” whereby any parish able and willing to advance £500 (or multiples thereof) to the Chamber of London would see work commenced on its church. These deposits were subsequently repaid (with interest) in exactly the order they were proffered. Market forces, then, prevailed, although a handful of poor parishes were financed up front by the coal tax.
Having deposited £500 in the Chamber of London, the parish officers then travelled to London to see Wren at Scotland Yard, when they usually treated him to lunch at an inn and/or gifts (the parish records are full of such payments). Wren then entered the name of the church on a list, and he, too, was duty bound to rebuild the churches according to this predetermined sequence.
A dozen or so were begun in 1670-71, including St Mary-le-Bow, St Mary-at-Hill, St Edmund the King, St Lawrence Jewry, St Magnus the Martyr, and St Bride’s, Fleet Street. In 1671, the Commissioners decided to limit the rebuilding programme to churches already commenced, and the Chamber of London was accordingly shut to the remaining parishes.
By the mid-1670s, this first batch of churches was nearing completion, and the Chamber was re-opened, precipitating a second batch of churches begun in c.1676-78, including St Anne and St Agnes; St James Garlickhythe; St Peter’s, Cornhill; and St Antholin’s, Budge Row. Thereafter, two or three churches were begun a year, with the very last churches begun in 1686. The rebuilding of the City churches was officially complete in 1693, although work continued on the steeples until as late as 1717, when the coal tax was officially deployed elsewhere.
SO HOW did Wren go about designing the churches? This question is best answered by reference to the extant architectural drawings, about 100 of which survive. I would like to focus on one very telling example, for which a handful of drawings survive in Wren’s own hand. This is the church of All Hallows’ the Great, Thames Street, which was begun in 1677. Regrettably, the church was demolished in the 19th century.
The first drawing is a survey plan of the old church, made on site by one of Wren’s draughtsmen. Back in the office, Wren began to sketch ideas for the new church over the top of this plan. These sketches show him retaining the footprint of the old church, but knocking out as many internal supports as possible, and recasting the architecture in the classical style. Having worked out the design of the new church by reference to the old, he then produced two handsome drawings of the new church: a plan, and a section.
THE footprint of the old church, then, prompted Wren’s design, and this was true of many others. Yet, for all their pragmatism, the City churches conform to standardised types. In addition to flat-ceiled halls with a single aisle, such as All Hallows’ the Great (and St Lawrence Jewry, begun 1671, and St Margaret’s, Lothbury, begun 1686), there were basilican churches — that is, churches with a tall central nave (usually barrel-vaulted), lit by clerestory windows and flanked by aisles, as at St Bride’s, Fleet Street, begun 1671; St Magnus the Martyr, begun 1671; St George’s, Botolph Lane, begun 1671 (demolished 1903-04); St Mary Aldermanbury, begun 1670 (and now at Fulton, Missouri, in the United States); Christ Church, Newgate Street, begun 1677; and St Peter’s, Cornhill, begun 1675.
Wren revised this type in the mid-1670s, primarily to integrate the galleries better into the architectural composition. At the same time, the aisles were vaulted, and the longitudinal arches of the nave were groined into the main vault. We see this attractive formula at St James’s, Piccadilly (begun 1676), St Andrew’s, Holborn (begun 1684), St Andrew by the Wardrobe (begun 1685), and St Clement Danes (begun 1680).
Where he inherited a squarer footprint, Wren normally opted for centralised-plan types, including a dome over an uninterrupted square or rectangle, as at St Mary Abchurch (begun 1681), St Mildred’s, Bread Street (begun 1681), and St Swithin’s London Stone, in Cannon Street (begun 1677); the latter two were destroyed by bombing in 1941.
Related to this trio of domed churches is a second group of churches that adopt a so-called cross-in-square design: St Mary-at-Hill (1670), where the central space is surmounted by a dome; and St Anne and St Agnes, and St Martin’s, Ludgate, both begun in 1677, where the central space is groin vaulted.
Elsewhere, Wren combines elements of the centralised- and basilican-plan types. Thus St Benet Fink, begun 1670, and St Antholin’s, begun 1678, were polygonal ovals, in both cases because the site was dog-clipped at one corner owing to road improvements. At St Antholin’s, the oval cupola on columns was contained within a partial rectangle, but at St Benet Fink the ten-sided plan was given external expression. Both churches were demolished in the 19th century.
This studied ambiguity between longitudinal and latitudinal emphasis finds its most celebrated expression at St Stephen’s, Walbrook, which, being the Lord Mayor’s church, was singled out for particular attention. Here, Wren introduced double aisles flanking the nave on the main east-west axis, but towards the far end of the church the aisles are gradually peeled away to reveal the 12 columns needed to support the dome. The cross axis of the dome was determined by a side door, long closed up, from the adjacent Stocks Market (now the site of the Mansion House). The design of St Stephen’s also relates to Wren’s concurrent design for St Paul’s Cathedral, which likewise combines the centralising force of the dome with the directional nature of the basilica.
WE CAN deduce certain key features, then, from this fleeting analysis of Wren’s plan types. While keen to retain as much of the original foundations as possible, Wren was in no way seeking to perpetuate the memory of the old churches. In fact, the footprint of the old churches became the basis for a radically different architectural conception, for two interrelated reasons: first, because Wren sought to unify the internal space of the churches by removing aisles and screens.
His reasons for doing so can be discerned from a document he prepared for a later church-rebuilding campaign, the so-called Fifty New Churches, begun from 1711. “The Churches”, Wren argued, “must be large; but still, in our reformed Religion it would seem vain to make a Parish church larger than that all who care are present can both hear and see. The Romanists, indeed, may build larger Churches, it is enough if they hear the Murmer of the Mass, and see the Elevation of the Host, but ours are to be fitted for Auditories.”
Wren, then, makes an important distinction between Anglican and Roman Catholic church design (ex-amples of which he had seen in Paris in 1665-66): that, in an Anglican church, the congregation had to be able to hear as well as see. As the son of a dean and the nephew of a bishop, Wren was given free reign to devise an architectural solution to these requirements, and it was a solution that defined Anglican church design down to the age of A. W. N. Pugin.
The second characteristic feature of the rebuilt churches is their uncompromising adoption of the classical style. Wren was not the first architect to build Anglican churches in the classical style. Inigo Jones had remodelled and extended the exterior of Old St Paul’s Cathedral in 1633-42, providing the repertoire of forms that Wren adopted on the exteriors of the City churches. And St Katharine Cree, which was consecrated in 1631 and survived the Fire, had introduced Corinthian columns to the London church interior.
Wren did occasionally depart from the classical style, as at St Alban’s, Wood Street (begun 1682), and at St Dunstan-in-the-East (begun in 1697). But in both these cases he did so because a substantial portion of medieval fabric had survived the Fire comparatively intact, and because he sought to avoid a mixture of architectural styles where ever possible. Everywhere else, he built in the classical style.
IF WE want to understand the uncompromising modernity of the City churches, we need to revisit Wren’s early career as a mathematical practitioner, and the Vitruvianism that underpinned it; for Wren’s commitment to classicism is best understood in this context. Vitruvius supplied the basic system by which he designed: the deft integration of strength, utility, and beauty.
And, as a scientist, Wren had a deep understanding of which architectural forms were inherently strong, and which were inherently weak. He believed that the forms inherited from the classical world were stronger than those bequeathed by the medieval, and that, being stronger, they were also more beautiful to anyone who cared to look.
This structural efficacy was aligned with the physical world, which is why he termed it natural. And for Wren, like Vitruvius before him, nature was the primary cause of beauty.
Professor Anthony Geraghty teaches History of Art at the University of York. He is a specialist on Sir Christopher Wren and the architecture of the English Baroque.
This material originally formed part of a Gresham Lecture, given at the City of London Festival in 2015, www.gresham.ac.uk.