Wren Supervises the Rebuilding of St. Paul’s Cathedral Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Christopher Wren overcame financial, political, and religious obstacles to create one of the great architectural monuments in history, St. Paul’s Cathedral, and introduced the Renaissance and Baroque styles into British architecture.

Summary of Event

Within days of the Great Fire of 1666 Great Fire of London (1666) that devastated London, Christopher Wren submitted rebuilding plans to the British monarch, King Charles II Charles II (king of England);architecture and . Wren’s father had served as chaplain to the king’s father, Charles I, at Windsor Castle, where young Christopher and Charles II, then prince, played together as children. This lifelong friendship gave Wren access to the innermost circle of Charles II and secured for Wren the coveted position of surveyor general to the Crown. Unable to finance the rebuilding of an entire city, Charles II instead commissioned Wren to rebuild more than fifty of the city’s churches, among them St. Paul’s Cathedral. Architecture;England [kw]Wren Supervises the Rebuilding of St. Paul’s Cathedral (1675-1708) [kw]Cathedral, Wren Supervises the Rebuilding of St. Paul’s (1675-1708) [kw]St. Paul’s Cathedral, Wren Supervises the Rebuilding of (1675-1708) Architecture;1675-1708: Wren Supervises the Rebuilding of St. Paul’s Cathedral[2580] Religion and theology;1675-1708: Wren Supervises the Rebuilding of St. Paul’s Cathedral[2580] England;1675-1708: Wren Supervises the Rebuilding of St. Paul’s Cathedral[2580] St. Paul’s Cathedral[Saint Pauls Cathedral] Wren, Sir Christopher

Wren came to his career in architecture late in life. He had originally trained in science and mathematics at Oxford, where he excelled in astronomy and anatomy. Wren later served as a professor of astronomy at Oxford, and he was a founding member (1661) and later president (1681-1683) of the Royal Society. This interest in scientific inquiry and practicality served Wren well when he eventually turned his attention to the study of architecture.

In 1663, Wren visited Rome, where he studied the classical architecture of the ancients and the Renaissance and Baroque masters, which inspired Wren to pursue a career in architecture. By 1666, the year of London’s Great Fire, Wren had received only two architectural commissions, one for the Pembroke College chapel in Cambridge and the other for the Sheldonian Theater in Oxford. Thus, it was in spite of Wren’s lack of experience that the king commissioned him in 1668 to rebuild the city’s churches and the city’s cathedral, St. Paul’, seat of the bishop of London.

From the start, Wren encountered obstacles to his plans for St. Paul’. With the entire city in ruins, the government was in a dire financial situation. The governmental officials eventually raised a portion of the rebuilding funding by levying a tax on coal, but financing problems were to face Wren throughout the building of the great cathedral. In addition, there were political challenges. Every architectural design proposal required the approval of Parliament, a body of men from various political and social camps, each one of whom had his own vision for the style and scale of London’s most important church. Buildings dedicated to St. Paul had graced Ludgate Hill in central London since 604; each had been destroyed and subsequently rebuilt. Therefore, there was great governmental and public interest in the plans for the newest St. Paul’s on this important site.

The St. Paul’s that had stood on the site until the Great Fire of 1666 was a timber-framed, medieval Gothic style building with a tall but unstable spire over the crossing. Even before the fire, Wren had proposed replacing the spire with a classical dome. Following the fire, the medieval style cathedral was so badly damaged that Wren was asked to design an entirely new structure for the site.

Wren’s first design for St. Paul’s was submitted in 1669 and is now referred to as the First Model. Based on the scale of the previous St. Paul’, the plan was judged too modest for a new cathedral. In 1672, Wren submitted a second plan, the Greek Cross Design, calling for a monumental church with a huge classical dome rising over the crossing. This plan was radical in both its classical Italian Renaissance detailing and its centralized plan. The powerful and conservative Anglican clergy balked at a design so reminiscent of Catholic Italy and successfully argued that the Anglican liturgy called for a basilica plan with an elongated nave in the Gothic tradition. Wren’s Greek Cross Design was abandoned.

In 1675, Wren submitted a third design, referred to as the Warrant Design, in which he addressed the concerns of the Anglican clergy by elongating the nave and the choir and adding spire-like elements to the exterior reminiscent of the earlier Gothic structure. Charles II quickly approved this design and included a provision that Wren had the freedom to change his design elements during construction. Wren took full advantage of this provision, making substantial alterations to the Warrant Design as construction progressed. Wren eliminated three bays in the nave, removed the spire and expanded the dome, and heightened the aisles. By the time the cathedral was declared complete on October 20, 1708, on the occasion of his 76th birthday, Wren had introduced a fully classical religious building into Anglican England.

Wren’s completed design for St. Paul’s was based on a combination of Renaissance and Baroque styles that were popular in France and Italy but specifically rejected by the Anglican clergy in England. By changing his design slowly during the building process and by hiding most of the construction under scaffolding, Wren introduced his innovative classical design elements slowly. By the time potential critics became aware of a radically new classical element, it was too late to change. Little by little, by perseverance, tenacity, and clever manipulation, Wren created the first fully classical Anglican building in England.

The facade of St. Paul’s was based on the east facade of the Louvre, with two tall stories, topped by a classical balustrade and flat roof. Pediments crown the two projecting transept porticoes on the north and south sides. The elongated nave and choir run east to west for a total of 596 feet (182 meters) and are of equal length. The magnificent dome, designed after Michelangelo’s dome of St. Peter’s in Rome, rises 365 feet (111 meters) to the top of the cross (one foot for each day of the year) and spans 112 feet (34 meters) in diameter.

St. Paul’s Cathedral.


Although appearing as one monumental whole, the dome actually consists of three domes: an outer dome, an inner dome, and an inner structural cone between. The arrangement provides for three circular galleries, the internal Whispering Gallery and the external Stone and Golden Galleries. A classical lantern caps the top of the great outer dome, which appears to be held aloft by a classical colonnaded drum of Corinthian columns, reflecting the influence of Donato Bramante’s Tempietto in Rome.

Stones from the old St. Paul’s were used in the foundation of the new St. Paul’. During construction, one stone caught Wren’s attention; it was marked in Latin “resurgam,” meaning, “I shall rise again.” Wren had the word, along with a phoenix, carved on the pediment above the south portal. The remainder of the cathedral was built of Portland stone, a limestone from the Isle of Portland, in Dorset. Wren himself placed the first foundation block when construction began, and he set the last stone upon the cathedral’s completion.

Wren was appointed royal architect in 1669, a post he held for more than forty-five years. He was knighted Sir Christopher in 1675. During his career, Wren designed over fifty churches in London, twenty-three of which still stand, as well as many significant secular buildings and residences. Upon his death in 1723, Sir Christopher Wren was interred in the crypt he had designed within St. Paul’s Cathedral, the first person to be entombed there. Wren’s Latin epitaph translates as, “Reader, if you seek a monument, look around you.”


Out of London’s tragedy, the Great Fire of 1666, came one of the world’s greatest architectural monuments, St. Paul’s Cathedral. Christopher Wren’s brilliant vision for this magnificent cathedral took over a decade to design and more than thirty years to bring to fruition. In his design for St. Paul’, Wren introduced classical elements into the British architectural vocabulary and brought about what architectural historians refer to as the English “Wrenaissance.” His architectural style is sometimes categorized as English Baroque, but Wren’s extensive use of purely classical Renaissance elements, in conjunction with carefully selected Baroque flourishes, places St. Paul’s on the cusp of these two great architectural styles. Baroque style;England

Since its completion, St. Paul’s has served as the site of most of the important royal events in British history, including the funerals of Horatio Nelson, the duke of Wellington, and Winston Churchill, and the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana. Surviving the ravages of war and the effects of time for three hundred years, St. Paul’s stands tall against the London skyline, a symbol of the amazing intellect and tenacity of Christopher Wren and the profound faith and endurance of the British people.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hart, Vaughan. St. Paul’s Cathedral: Sir Christopher Wren, London, 1675-1710. London: Phaidon, 2003. Wren’s classical design incorporated principles of natural and timeless beauty. Illustrated.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jardine, Lisa. On a Grander Scale: The Outstanding Life and Tumultuous Times of Sir Christopher Wren. New York: Harper Collins Perennial, 2004. Wren’s life and careers within the context of the late seventeenth century.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Keene, Derek, Arthur Burns, and Andrew Saint. St. Paul’: The Cathedral Church of London, 604-2004. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2004. Traces the religious, political, and social history of St. Paul’. Lavishly illustrated.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Levine, Joseph M. Between the Ancients and the Moderns: Baroque Culture in Restoration England. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1999. Discussion of the tension between classicism and creativity during the late seventeenth century.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Saunders, Ann, and Sampson Lloyd. St. Paul’: The Story of the Cathedral. London: Collins & Brown, 2003. Concise overview of the history of the cathedral.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Smart, David H. “Christopher Wren and the Architectural Context of Anglican Liturgy.” Anglican Theological Review 77, no. 3 (Summer, 1995): 290-307. Wren’s theological bases for his church designs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tinniswood, Adrian. His Invention So Fertile: A Life of Christopher Wren. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. Wren’s life as noted scientist, mathematician, astronomer, inventor, and architect.
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Categories: History