WREN, Sir Christopher (1632-1723), of Scotland Yard, Whitehall
Available from Boydell and Brewer
Family and Education
b. 20 Oct. 1632, 2nd but 1st surv. s. of Dr Christopher Wren, dean of Windsor 1635, by Mary, da. and h. of Robert Cox of Fonthill, Wilts. educ. privately (Rev. William Shepheard, MA); Westminster 1641–6; Wadham, Oxf. 1649, BA 1651, MA 1653, DCL 1661; Camb. Univ. MA 1664; L. Inn 1676. m. (1) 7 Dec. 1669, Faith (d. 1675), da. of Sir John Coghill of Bletchingdon, Oxon., 2s. (1 d.v.p.); (2) 24 Feb. 1677, Jane (d. 1680), da. of William Fitzwilliam†, 2nd Baron Fitzwilliam of Lifford [I], sis. of Hon. Charles† and William Fitzwilliam†, 3rd Baron Fitzwilliam of Lifford [I], 1s. 1da. d.v.p. suc. fa. 1658; kntd. 20 Nov. 1673.1
Fellow, All Souls, Oxf. 1653–61; prof. of astronomy, Gresham Coll. London 1657–61; Savilian prof. of astronomy, Oxf. Univ. 1661–73.
FRS 1663, pres. 1680–2.
Commr. to report on rebuilding St. Paul’s May 1666; surveyor of St. Paul’s 1666–d.; royal commr. surveying fire damage Oct. 1666–7; surveyor for rebuilding parochial churches 1670–d.; dep. surveyor-gen. of works Mar. 1669, surveyor-gen. 1669–1718; comptroller of works, Windsor Castle 1684–1716; commr. Chelsea Hosp. 1691–1715; surveyor, Greenwich Hosp. 1694–1716; surveyor-gen. Westminster Abbey 1698–d.; commr. building 50 new churches 1711–15.2
Curator, Sheldonian theatre 1670–d.; vice-pres. Sons of the Clergy 1678–83, 1722–d.; council, Hudson’s Bay Co. 1679–83; trustee, Friendly Soc. 1687–?1704.3
Freeman, Winchester 1683, Plympton 1685, New Windsor by 1689.4
Although Wren was not primarily a parliamentary figure he was active in public affairs and no doubt had a keen appreciation of the value of a seat in the Commons. In this he would seem to parallel Sir Isaac Newton*, who also managed to fit parliamentary service into a myriad of activities. However, it seems probable that Wren had a specific reason for seeking a seat, namely the influencing of parliamentary opinion over the planning and financing of St. Paul’s and related projects.5
As the son of a clergyman, and nephew of the bishop of Ely (who was incarcerated in the Tower for 18 years for his Laudian beliefs), Wren was probably at home in the Anglican circles which eventually gave rise to the Tory party. His building plans brought him into contact with other Anglican clerics, such as Archbishop Sheldon (for whom he designed the Sheldonian theatre) and William Sancroft, dean of St. Paul’s and Sheldon’s successor as archbishop. Wren first stood for Parliament at the Cambridge University by-election of 1667, fresh from completing Pembroke College chapel, and probably in the hope of influencing the Lower House’s discussions on the rebuilding of London. In January 1674, this time as the Court candidate for Oxford University, he was thwarted by Thomas Thynne†, later Lord Weymouth. It should be noted that by this date the plans for St. Paul’s were at an advanced stage. Wren at last secured election in 1685, at a time when there was a need to renew the duties being used to finance St. Paul’s. He was not dismissed from any of his posts by James II, and was obviously considered sufficiently malleable to be recommended in 1688 as a Court candidate for Plympton. Wren was returned to the Convention for New Windsor and was successful again in 1690. Lord Carmarthen (Sir Thomas Osborne†) classed him as a Tory and probable Court supporter, a plausible assessment given Wren’s long association with the Court. The only incident of note during this part of his parliamentary career was a complaint which he laid before the House on 16 May 1690. This led to an attorney being ordered into custody for breach of privilege. The very next day the House unseated him on petition.6
Although now out of the House, Wren’s position as surveyor-general of the works ensured that he was often involved in the affairs of the Chamber, if only in relation to the fabric of St. Stephen’s Chapel. Thus, in the 1691–2 session he was brought in by the King to report on the condition of the ceiling and the roof of the Commons, and on 18 Jan. was actually named to an inspection committee. In both 1700 and 1701 he made minor adjustments to the structure of the building. Furthermore, he had to arrange for the erection of stands in Westminster Hall for important trials, such as that of the Earl of Warwick in 1699, and for parliamentary impeachments, such as the abortive trials of the Whig peers in 1701, and of Dr Sacheverell in 1710. On the latter occasion he was called before the Lords to explain the limited seating arrangements for peers, noting that some space remained unfilled as ‘the Queen was positive she would have nobody over her head’. It is also apparent that Wren felt unable to keep out of the debate over the coinage in 1695–6, as in November 1695 the lord keeper, Sir John Somers*, asked Sir William Trumbull* for ‘copies of papers relating to the coin by Sir Christopher Wren’ among others. Possibly because doubts were being expressed about the cost of completing St. Paul’s, Wren was reported to have been making an interest in December 1700 at Weymouth and Melcombe Regis, although he appears to have desisted in favour of Lord Weymouth’s son (Hon. Henry Thynne*). It seems likely, therefore, that his success in the general election of December 1701 was due to Weymouth’s support, a somewhat ironical outcome in the light of Wren’s defeat in 1674. However, Wren had worked at Longleat for Sir James Thynne† as early as 1670 and was consulted by Weymouth in 1683 when Longleat was altered. Wren’s election caused some confusion among political commentators, Lord Spencer (Charles*) marking him as a ‘gain’ for the Whigs. Robert Harley* was more cautious, classing him as doubtful or absent in his analysis of the new Parliament. Wren’s name appears on only one list, of those Members who favoured the motion on 26 Feb. 1702 vindicating the Commons’ proceedings in impeaching William III’s ministers, suggesting that Wren’s sympathies still lay with the Tories. Wren retired from the Commons in 1702 and did not stand again, although he must have exerted influence at Windsor on his son’s behalf in 1713 and 1715. His involvement in work at St. Paul’s required him to keep a close eye on the Commons where necessary, and in 1711 he managed to secure a clause in the supply bill financing the construction of 50 new churches, allowing him to be paid that moiety of his salary as surveyor which had been suspended by an Act of 1697 until St. Paul’s had been completed. By this date Wren was approaching 80, and although he remained in office after George I’s accession, the office of surveyor-general was placed in commission, and he eventually lost his titular post to William Benson†. Wren retired to Hampton Court, where he died on 25 Feb. 1723.7
Ref Volumes: 1690-1715
Author: Stuart Handley
- 1. C. Wren, Parentalia, 181; M. S. Briggs, Wren, 13; Genealogists’ Mag. iii. 83–84; Recs. Old Westminsters, ii. 1024; H. F. Hutchinson, Wren, 22; info. from Dr D. F. Lemmings; Temple Church (Harl. Soc. Reg. n.s. i), 62; Wren Soc. xix. 153; L. Phillimore, Wren, 300.
- 2. H. Colvin, Biog. Dict. Brit. Architects, 919–20; Briggs, 42, 44, 47, 64, 67; CSP Dom. 1668–9, p. 224; Cal. Treas. Bks. xxii. 322; C. G. T. Dean, Chelsea Hosp. 125, 168, 178; Boyer, Pol. State, xxv. 231–2; E. G. W. Bill, Q. Anne Churches, p. xxiii.
- 3. Wood, Life and Times, ii. 197; Hearne Colls. viii. 51; E. H. Pearce, Sons of the Clergy, 286–7; E. E. Rich, Mins. Hudson’s Bay Co. 1679–82, p. 345.
- 4. Hants RO, Winchester corp. recs. ass, bk. 5, f. 152; R. R. Tighe and J. E. Davis, Annals of Windsor, ii. 442.
- 5. BL, Dept. of Printed Bks. 695, l. 14(5).
- 6. Briggs, 23, 33–34, 64, 76–77; K. Downes, Wren, 68; CSP Dom. 1687–9, p. 276; CJ, x. 132.
- 7. CJ, x. 605; xiii. 156, 413; Luttrell, Brief Relation, iv. 497, 193; Wentworth Pprs. 110; HMC Downshire, i. 582; Downes, 68; HMC Portland, iii. 639, 641; x. 99–100, 116; Colvin, 925; Cal. Treas. Pprs. 1714–19, pp. 448–9.