Following the Great Fire of 1666, King Charles II of England appointed Christopher Wren as chief architect in charge of rebuilding the city. In this Insights series video, Approach Guides’ founder Jennifer Raezer introduces Christopher Wren, offers insight into his distinctive style that defined London architecture during the early 18th century and points out her favorite London churches.
This video was created in conjunction with our travel guidebook to London.
Oftentimes out a great tragedy is born great beauty and such is the case for the City of London’s churches.
The Great Fire of London, 1666
On an early September morning in 1666, a fire that began in a bakery and Pudding Lane raged throughout the center in London. The fire destroyed everything in its path including St. Paul’s Cathedral and 87 parish churches. After the fire, Christopher Wren was appointed chief architect by King Charles II and was tasked with rebuilding what had been lost. It was a project that consumed him for the rest of his life, The fruits of his labor are on full view today — marvels of architecture wedged among modern city.
Wren’s Churches: Characteristics
As you explore Wren’s churches you will notice that although each church is unique in its architecture, there are some very consistent characteristics that carry through from church to church. The first thing you’ll notice is that his churches were designed to admit abundant natural light. He used clear glass windows with round tops, breaking from the standard stain glass windows have earlier Gothic churches. Given his preference for natural light Wren’s architectural decoration is conservative, favoring clean-lined stone colored walls and whitewash ceilings. Finally his church is typically have a square or rectangular plan tower on the west side. These towers often topped by an elaborate spire which is unique enough to differentiate the church from others in the city.
St Paul’s cathedral
Wren’s most famous works Saint Paul’s Cathedral. The two most defining features of this massive cathedral are its stunning facade and its enormous dome, which was very dear to Wren’s heart. The facade is defined by a two-story arrangement with two tiers of paired Corinthian columns. These columns form a pyramid topped by sharply angled triangular pediment which points towards the dome above. In addition the two towers on either side of the facade support Wren’s most advanced spire design.
Wren’s dome is a wonder of eighteenth-century engineering: at the time that’s completion there are only four downs in the world that were larger. When viewed from the inside you will see that the dome’s primary illumination is from the drums clear glass rectangular windows.
Wren’s City Parish Churches
Among Christopher Wren’s other churches, there are several that stand out, including Saint Brides, which is easily identifiable by its wedding-cake-like spire. Consisting of five levels this is one Wren’s most iconic spires and is his tallest in the city. Once inside you’ll find a space that is both impressive and intimate. The church is filled with natural light and showcases some of the best preserved black and white marble flooring that was favored by Wren.
St Stephen Walbrook
Another outstanding churches Saint Stephen Walbrook. This church likely held a very special place in Wren’s heart: it with his parish church. One of the most notable features of this church is its dome. In fact it was England’s first dome and most likely served as a prototype for St. Paul’s.
This church is generally regarded as being Wren’s most well-conceived architectural space. When you walk inside, you will see that light floods into the interior from numerous windows and the dome lantern. In addition, although it has a rectangular plan, you’ll notice that the interior communicates a highly centralized organization.
St Mary Aldermary
Another highlight church is Saint Mary Aldermary, which is unique for its Gothic aesthetic. Its tower is a masterpiece and one of Wren’s most formidable designs. Aanyone who knows Wren’s architecture is bound to be a little surprised when they see the interior of Saint Mary Aldermary. Upon entering, you notice the high ceiling which features plaster fan vaulting. Shallow saucer like domes run the length of the nave and fill the entire ceiling with elegant tracery.
These churches represent just a small sample of Wren’s masterpieces and the great thing about these churches is that they are located in a very small area in the center of London and can be easily visited in just a few hours.
The city ravaged by the Great Fire of 1666, Christopher Wren was tasked with rebuilding the city’s cultural nexus, St Paul’s and 51 city churches. We invite travelers to explore Wren’s legacy with our latest travel guide.