All Souls College in Oxford

All Souls College Photography by Carlos Dorce

All Souls College
Photography by Carlos Dorce

This is the All Souls College in Oxford. It’s next to Radcliffe camera and very near the Bodleian Library. The College of All Souls of the Faithful Departed was founded by Henry VI and Henry Chichele (fellow of New College and Archbishop of Canterbury), in 1438. Sir Christopher Wren studied here and the big sundial (1658) in its main garden is attributed to him:

Photography by Carlos Dorce

Photography by Carlos Dorce

A former screen in the chapel is also attributed to Wren although it was replaced by a newer one designed by Sir James Thornhill in 1716.

Why are we taliing about the All Souls College? The only reason is Sir Christopher Wren (20 October 1632 – 25 February 1723), a very important figure who will appear more times in these Holidays. According to Wikipedia:

Sir Christopher Wren was born in East Knoyle in Wiltshire, the only surviving son of Christopher Wren Sr. (1589–1658) and Mary Cox, the only child of the Wiltshire squire Robert Cox from Fonthill Bishop. Christopher Sr. was at that time the rector of East Knoyle and later Dean of Windsor. It was while they were living at East Knoyle that all their children were born; Mary, Catherine, and Susan were all born by 1628 but then several children were born who died within a few weeks of their birth. Their son Christopher was born in 1632 then, two years later, another daughter named Elizabeth was born. Mary must have died shortly after the birth of Elizabeth, although there does not appear to be any surviving record of the date. Through Mary, however, the family became well off financially for, as the only heir, she had inherited her father’s estate.

As a child Wren “seem’d consumptive”. Although a sickly child, he would survive into robust old age. He was first taught at home by a private tutor and his father. After his father’s royal appointment as Dean of Windsor in March 1635, his family spent part of each year there, but little is known about Wren’s life at Windsor. He spent his first eight years at East Knoyle and was educated by the Rev. William Shepherd, a local clergyman.

Little is known of Wren’s schooling thereafter, during dangerous times when his father’s Royal associations would have required the family to keep a very low profile from the ruling Parliamentary authorities. The story that he was at Westminster School between 1641 and 1646 is substantiated only by Parentalia, the biography compiled by his son, a fourth Christopher, which places him there “for some short time” before going up to Oxford (in 1650); however, it is entirely consistent with headmaster Doctor Busby’s well-documented practice of educating the sons of impoverished Royalists and Puritans alike, irrespective of current politics or his own position. Some of Wren’s youthful exercises preserved or recorded (though few are datable) showed that he received a thorough grounding in Latin and also learned to draw. According to Parentalia, he was “initiated” in the principles of mathematics by Dr William Holder, who married Wren’s elder sister Susan (or Susanna) in 1643. During this time period, Wren manifested an interest in the design and construction of mechanical instruments. It was probably through Holder that Wren met Sir Charles Scarburgh whom Wren assisted in his anatomical studies.

Portrait of Sir Christopher Wren painted by G.Kneller (1711) Sorce: Wikimedia Commons

Portrait of Sir Christopher Wren painted by G.Kneller (1711)
Source: Wikimedia Commons

On 25 June 1650, Wren entered Wadham College, Oxford, where he studied Latin and the works of Aristotle. It is anachronistic to imagine that he received scientific training in the modern sense. However, Wren became closely associated with John Wilkins, the Warden of Wadham. The Wilkins circle was a group whose activities led to the formation of the Royal Society, comprising a number of distinguished mathematicians, creative workers and experimental philosophers. This connection probably influenced Wren’s studies of science and mathematics at Oxford. He graduated B.A. in 1651, and two years later received M.A.

Receiving his M.A. in 1653, Wren was elected a fellow of All Souls College in the same year and began an active period of research and experiment in Oxford. His days as a fellow of All Souls ended when Wren was appointed Professor of Astronomy at Gresham College, London in 1657. He was provided with a set of rooms and a stipend and was required to give weekly lectures in both Latin and English to all who wished to attend; admission was free. Wren took up this new work with enthusiasm. He continued to meet the men with whom he had frequent discussions in Oxford. They attended his London lectures and in 1660, initiated formal weekly meetings. It was from these meetings that the Royal Society, England’s premier scientific body, was to develop. He undoubtedly played a major role in the early life of what would become the Royal Society; his great breadth of expertise in so many different subjects helping in the exchange of ideas between the various scientists. In fact, the report on one of these meetings reads:

Memorandum November 28, 1660. These persons following according to the usual custom of most of them, met together at Gresham College to hear Mr Wren’s lecture, viz. The Lord Brouncker, Mr Boyle, Mr Bruce, Sir Robert Moray, Sir Paule Neile,Dr Wilkins, Dr Goddard, Dr Petty, Mr Ball, Mr Rooke, Mr Wren, Mr Hill. And after the lecture was ended they did according to the usual manner, withdraw for mutual converse.

In 1662, they proposed a society “for the promotion of Physico-Mathematicall Experimental Learning.” This body received its Royal Charter from Charles II and “The Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge” was formed. In addition to being a founder member of the Society, Wren was president of the Royal Society from 1680 to 1682.

In 1661, Wren was elected Savilian Professor of Astronomy at Oxford, and in 1669 he was appointed Surveyor of Works to Charles II. From 1661 until 1668 Wren’s life was based in Oxford, although his attendance at meetings of the Royal Society meant that he had to make occasional trips to London.

The main sources for Wren’s scientific achievements are the records of the Royal Society. His scientific works ranged from astronomy, optics, the problem of finding longitude at sea, cosmology, mechanics, microscopy, surveying, medicine and meteorology. He observed, measured, dissected, built models and employed, invented and improved a variety of instruments. It was also around these times that his attention turned to architecture.

It was probably around this time that Wren was drawn into redesigning a battered St Paul’s Cathedral. Making a trip to Paris in 1665, Wren studied the architecture, which had reached a climax of creativity, and perused the drawings of Bernini, the great Italian sculptor and architect. Returning from Paris, he made his first design for St Paul’s. A week later, however, the Great Fire destroyed two-thirds of the city. Wren submitted his plans for rebuilding the city to King Charles II, although they were never adopted. With his appointment as King’s Surveyor of Works in 1669, he had a presence in the general process of rebuilding the city, but was not directly involved with the rebuilding of houses or companies’ halls. Wren was personally responsible for the rebuilding of 51 churches; however, it is not necessarily true to say that each of them represented his own fully developed design.

Wren was knighted 14 November 1673. This honour was bestowed on him after his resignation from the Savilian chair in Oxford, by which time he had already begun to make his mark as an architect, both in services to the Crown and in playing an important part in rebuilding London after the Great Fire.

Additionally, he was sufficiently active in public affairs to be returned as Member of Parliament for Old Windsor in 1680, 1689 and 1690, but did not take his seat.

By 1669 Wren’s career was well established and it may have been his appointment as Surveyor of the King’s Works in early 1669 that persuaded him that he could finally afford to take a wife. In 1669 the 37-year-old Wren married his childhood neighbour, the 33-year-old Faith Coghill, daughter of Sir John Coghill of Bletchingdon. Little is known of Faith’s life or demeanour, but a love letter from Wren survives, which reads, in part:

I have sent your Watch at last & envy the felicity of it, that it should be soe near your side & soe often enjoy your Eye. … .but have a care for it, for I have put such a spell into it; that every Beating of the Balance will tell you ’tis the Pulse of my Heart, which labors as much to serve you and more trewly than the Watch; for the Watch I beleeve will sometimes lie, and sometimes be idle & unwilling … but as for me you may be confident I shall never …

This brief marriage produced two children: Gilbert, born October 1672, who suffered from convulsions and died at about 18 months old, and Christopher, born February 1675. The younger Christopher was trained by his father to be an architect. It was this Christopher that supervised the topping out ceremony of St Paul’s in 1710 and wrote the famous Parentalia, or, Memoirs of the family of the Wrens. Faith Wren died of smallpox on 3 September 1675. She was buried in the chancel of St Martin-in-the-Fields beside the infant Gilbert. A few days later Wren’s mother-in-law, Lady Coghill, arrived to take the infant Christopher back with her to Oxfordshire to raise.

In 1677, 17 months after the death of his first wife, Wren married once again. He married Jane Fitzwilliam, daughter of William FitzWilliam, 2nd Baron FitzWilliam and his wife Jane Perry the daughter of a prosperous London merchant.

She was a mystery to Wren’s friends and companions. Robert Hooke, who often saw Wren two or three times every week, had, as he recorded in his diary, never even heard of her, and was not to meet her till six weeks after the marriage. As with the first marriage, this too produced two children: a daughter Jane (1677–1702); and a son William, “Poor Billy” born June 1679, who was developmentally delayed.

Like the first, this second marriage was also brief. Jane Wren died of tuberculosis in September 1680. She was buried alongside Faith and Gilbert in the chancel of St Martin-in-the-Fields. Wren was never to marry again; he lived to be over 90 years old and of those years was married only nine.

Bletchingdon was the home of Wren’s brother-in-law William Holder who was rector of the local church. Holder had been a Fellow of Pembroke College, Oxford. An intellectual of considerable ability, he is said to have been the figure who introduced Wren to arithmetic and geometry.

Wren’s later life was not without criticisms and attacks on his competence and his taste. In 1712, the Letter Concerning Design of Anthony Ashley Cooper, third Earl of Shaftesbury, circulated in manuscript. Proposing a new British style of architecture, Shaftesbury censured Wren’s cathedral, his taste and his long-standing control of royal works. Although Wren was appointed to the Fifty New Churches Commission in 1711, he was left only with nominal charge of a board of works when the surveyorship started in 1715. On 26 April 1718, on the pretext of failing powers, he was dismissed in favour of William Benson.

He was married to 3 different women but only had children with 2 of them.

The Wren family estate was in the area of Hampton Court. It had been bought by Wren many years before as part of a legacy for his son Christopher Wren, Jr. For convenience Wren also leased a house on St James’s Street in London. According to a 19th-century legend, he would often go to London to pay unofficial visits to St Paul’s, to check on the progress of “my greatest work”. On one of these trips to London, at the age of ninety, he caught a chill which worsened over the next few days. On 25 February 1723 a servant who tried to awaken Wren from his nap found that he had died.

Wren was laid to rest on 5 March 1723. His remains were placed in the south-east corner of the crypt of St Paul’s beside those of his daughter Jane, his sister Susan Holder, and her husband William. The plain stone plaque was written by Wren’s eldest son and heir, Christopher Wren, Jr.

Therefore, I think that Wren will be a very used tag in this blog!

Location: All Souls College (map)

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