Sir Christopher Wren Churches in London
The multitalented Christopher Wren helped to rebuild London after the Great Fire of 1666. Many churches were destroyed during this conflagration. Overseeing the rebuilding of these sanctuaries, Wren created beautiful and unique buildings. Let’s look at a few of them.
Sir Christopher Wren was known by many titles in his lifetime—mathematician, astronomer, scientist, university professor.
Most people today know Wren as “architect,” and some consider him Britain’s greatest architect. His statue joins 31 other great British architects on the exterior of the Victoria and Albert Museum in South Kensington.
Wren’s best known work, St. Paul’s Cathedral, is also considered his masterpiece covered with a full page following this one.
Wren’s handiwork and innovation can be found throughout the City of London. Appointed Surveyor General by King Charles II, he shouldered much of the responsiblity for the City’s rebuilding after the Great Fire of 1666. Wren did much more than supervise; the records and designs show that he was personally involved in much of the rebuilding and new construction projects. Since this work included St. Paul’s and 51 other churches in the City, Wren must have been one of the great multitaskers of his age.
St. Martin Ludgate
St. Martin Ludgate is just a short walk down the hill from St. Paul’s; the church’s tapered spire is a marked contrast with the cathedral’s large dome. The church is sometimes called (and some signage displays) St. Martin within Ludgate. The original medieval church on the site was dedicated in honor of St. Martin of Tours in 1174. Admiral Sir William Penn and Margaret Jasper married here in 1643; their son, William, founded the American colony of Pennsylvania.
Wren’s rebuilding efforts were mostly completed by 1680, but the work that began in 1677 continued until 1703. The church’s interior offers a good example of Wren’s objective of creating a sanctuary space that enables all worshipers to see and hear the service. The large brass chandelier came from St. Vincent’s Cathedral in the West Indies in 1777, but church officials do not know the details of its journey or donation to this London church.
St. Martin has been a Guild Church—it does not have a parish—for more than 50 years and serves the people, especially those in law firms, working in the City area.
Free music recitals are held in the church most Wednesday afternoons.
St. Dunstan-in-the-East is unusual in that it serves primarily as a haven of tranquilityin the form of a beautiful walled garden in the ruins of the original church. Built around 1100 and severly damaged in the Great Fire of London the church was initally patched and a tower designed by Wren was added 30 years later. Unusual in that it was designed by Wren in the Gothic style to match the church, the steeple was retained when the building was rebuilt in 1817–21. Damaged in the Blitz of 1941—only the north and south walls, tower and steeple survive—St. Dunstan-in-the-East was eventually turned into a public garden opening in 1971.
St. Mary-at-Hill is located quite near (about a two-minute walk) Pudding Lane, where the Great Fire of 1666 broke out. The photo to the right—taken from St. Paul’s Cathedral dome—shows the St. Mary-at-Hill in the left foreground, the spire to St. Dustan-in-the-East to the right and the All Hallows by the Tower steeple and the Tower of London in the background.
Wren crafted the new church space by building a barrel-vaulted ceiling with a dome in the center and creating a Greek-cross interior. The church, which often hosts concerts, caboast that Thomas Tallis, one of England’s greatest early composers, served as its organist from about 1537-1539. While the Wren-era St Mary-at-Hill structure came through the Blitz unharmed, a fire in the 1980s and later damage from an IRA bomb necessitated extensive rebuilding.
St Magnus-the-Martyr may have been the first church destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666 as it is less than 300 yards from Pudding Lane. Rebuilt in 1676 under the direction of Christopher Wren its steeple was added about 30 years later and is copied from the church of St. Charles Borromée in Antwerp. St Magnus-the-Martyr can be seen from the Thames when looking toward the tower known simply as Monument designed by Wren as a symbol of London’s rebirth from the fire.
St. James Garlickhythe
St. James Garlickhythe’s second name comes from the church’s location, Garlick Hill, and a Saxon word, hythe, which means landing place or jetty. Light is the “magic” ingredient that Wren used for this church. Its 40-foot high ceilings allow so much natural light to fill the space that the church was called “Wren’s Lantern.”
Six years of construction (1676 to 1682) were needed to rebuild the church. Its tower, which was not completed until 1717, is one of the best examples of Wren’s “wedding cake” steeples. The ascending tiers and columns, made out of lovely white Portland stone, show how Wren was influenced by and incorporated elements of classical Roman architecture.
St. Nicholas Cole Abbey
St. Nicholas Cole Abbey was one of the first churches rebuilt after the Great Fire, reopening in 1678.
The original church dated back to the 12th Century (the “Cole” comes from a medieval word “coldharbour,” a shelter from the cold) and served the fishermen and fishmongers who lived and sold their catch on a nearby street that was then called Old Fish Street.
The Wren church combined that parish and another, St. Nicholas Olave, which was not rebuilt. St. Nicholas Cole was severely damaged by a German bombing raid in May 1941, leaving only the shell of the building Wren had designed. Rebuilt in 1961-1962, plans call for the building to become a national center for religious education, under the auspices of the Church of England’s Culham Institute.
St. Stephen Walbrook
Wren’s mastery of space and his architectural artistry are on view at St. Stephen Walbrook, a church that historian Nicholas Pevsner included in his list of the ten most important buildings in England. Don’t be fooled by St. Stephen’s rather plain-looking exterior; the interior of the church, with its 63-foot dome (a precursor to St. Paul’s), is stunning. Wren, who juggled so many simultaneous projects, may have provided a little more attention and care to the rebuilding of St. Stephen Walbrook—it was his own parish church (he lived at No. 15 Walbrook).
In 1953, a vicar at St. Stephen Walbrook began a mission that would grow into an international organization called Samaritans. The church displays a telephone in a glass box, commemorating the 24-hour phone line always open to people in distress or at risk of suicide. Keeping up with the times, the organization now also offers support via email and text messaging.
St. Mary Abchurch
The simple red brick facade of St. Mary Abchurch belies the ornate sanctuary and a dome that is not visible from the exterior. Most evident inside is the large wooden altar. Carved from limewood by Grinling Gibbons (the master woodcarver and Wren would work together on several commissions), the reredos was greatly damaged during a World War II bombing raid that also destroyed the dome. Five years were required to repair Gibbons’s work; the angelic worshipers painted on the restored dome give no evidence of their wartime injuries.
St. James’s Church, Piccadilly
Unlike many of Wren’s London churches, St. James’s Church, Piccadilly, was not destroyed in the Great Fire, but was a new church built in an area that was then the outskirts of London. The foundation stone was laid in 1676 and the church, which can hold about 2,000 worshipers, was consecrated in 1684.
Grinling Gibbons worked in wood to produce the beautiful altar screen and the carvings at the front of the organ. His baptismal font, carved out of marble and depicting the Garden of Eden, is one of the church’s treasures.
Severely damaged by bombing in 1940, St. James’s required major restoration work from 1947 to 1954. As with many of Wren’s churches, restoration work is ongoing. The church’s spire was replaced with a fiberglass replica in the 1960s. In a move that probably would have delighted scientists Wren and Robert Hooke (who assisted in the design and construction of St. James’s), church administrators installed photovoltaic solar panels on the roof in 2005.
In addition to this article you may also want to visit our related illustrated articles:
London Churches (non-Wren churches including Southwark Cathedral — London’s oldest Gothic building and The Brompton Oratory — also known as the London Oratory) and Monument (designed by Wren and built to commemorate the Great Fire of 1666)
by Katie Calvert
Next: St Paul’s Cathedral (Wren’s most famous church design)