New York Times
His Invention So Fertileby Adrian Tinniswood
Tinniswood writes with insight
In His Invention So Fertile, Adrian Tinniswood offers the first biography of Christopher Wren in a generation. It is a book that reveals the full depth of Wren's multifaceted genius, not only as one of the greatest architects who ever lived -- the designer of St. Paul's Cathedral -- but as an influential seventeenth-century scientist.
Tinniswood writes with insight and flair as he follows Wren from Wadham College, Oxford, through the turmoil of the English Civil War, to his role in helping to found the Royal Society the intellectual and scientific heart of seventeenth-century England. The reader discovers that the great architect was initially an astronomer, who was also deeply interested in medicine, physics, and mathematics. Family connections pulled him into architecture, with a commission to restore the chapel at Pembroke College, Cambridge. Tinniswood deftly follows Wren's rise as architect, capturing the atmosphere of Restoration London, as old Royalists scrambled for sinecures from Charles II and Wren learned the art of political infighting at court, finally becoming Surveyor of the Royal Works -- the King's engineer. Most important, the author recounts the intriguing story of the building of St. Paul's. The Great Fire of 1666 -- vividly recreated in Tinniswood's narrative -- left London a smoldering husk. Wren played a central role in reshaping the city, culminating with St. Paul's, his masterpiece, though he had to steer between King and cathedral authorities to get his radical, domed design built. As the Enlightenment dawned in England, Wren's magnificent dome rose above London, soon to become an icon of London and world architecture. One of the most influential architects in history, Christopher Wren comes vividly to life in this fittingly grand biography.
New York Times
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Read an Excerpt
The Beauty of Holiness
Christopher Wren once told his friend, the antiquary and folklorist John Aubrey, that he was born in his father's parsonage house at East Knoyle in Wiltshire on Thursday 20 October 1631. He was wrong on both counts.
He was actually born in a tiny stone cottage down in the village: his parents had moved there temporarily after fire damaged their rectory. And the year of his birth was 1632, not 1631. This in itself was a common enough slip for the time. The antiquary Anthony Wood also replied to an enquiry from Aubrey (who was trying to compile an astrological collection): `My nativity I cannot yet retrieve; but by talking with an ancient servant of my father's I find I was born on the 17 of December, but the year when I am not certain: 'twas possibly about 1647.' But the error caused confusion among Wren scholars for centuries, and the natal waters were muddied by two more points. A Christopher Wren really was born at East Knoyle in 1631 he was the architect's brother, who according to their father was `born, baptised and dead in the same hour'. (It was common practice in an age of high infant mortality to reuse forenames the family also christened two daughters Elizabeth, for example.) And, as well as recording the baptism of this first Christopher, the East Knoyle parish registers contain an entry on 10 November 1631 for the christening of `Christopher sonne of Christopher Dtr in Divinitie et rector'. This was the result of a simple mistake. The first volume of parishregisters begins in 1538 and continues for nearly a hundred years, yet it is all in the same hand. It was obviously copied out at some point, and along the way the copyist missed a year, so that all subsequent entries, including that of Christopher's baptism, are one year out.
Wren had nine sisters and a second brother, stillborn in 1638. Only six girls survived into adolescence: Mary (born 1624); Katherine (born 1626); Susan (born 1627); the second Elizabeth (born 1633); Anne (born 1634); and Rachel (born 1636). Five were still alive in the early 1650s, when their father, Christopher Wren senior, wrote down a list of his children's birthdays; Elizabeth, he recorded, had died of consumption in 1649.
If an informed outsider had been asked to predict young Christopher's future as his mother went into labour that evening in October 1632, they would have said without hesitation that if the child was a boy, he was bound to enter the Church.
At the time, his father was forty-three and a rising figure in the Anglican establishment. That rise had begun at the beginning of the seventeenth century when, as pupils at the Merchant Taylors' School in London, he and his older brother Matthew attracted the attention of Lancelot Andrewes, the Dean of Westminster and an old boy of the school. As a result of his patronage, Matthew went to Pembroke Hall, Cambridge, where the Dean was also Master. Andrewes became Bishop of Ely in 1609; Matthew became his chaplain six years later, to follow this in 1621 with an appointment as chaplain to Charles, Prince of Wales and future King of England.
Christopher Wren senior had a less spectacular but equally trouble-free start to his career. After St John's College, Oxford and ordination he was appointed chaplain to Andrewes, now Bishop of Winchester, in succession to Matthew. The Bishop presented him in 1620 to the living of Fonthill Bishop in Wiltshire, where he met Mary, the only child and heiress of a local landowner, Robert Cox. They were married in 1623, when Wren was thirty-four and his bride was twenty; in the same year Andrewes made him rector of the neighbouring parish, East Knoyle.
Andrewes died in 1626, but by this time Matthew Wren was manoeuvring into a position in which he would be well able to further his brother's ecclesiastical career. Their connection with the Bishop of Winchester had brought both Wrens into contact with that faction of the Anglican Church which saw radical Protestantism and Puritan piety as a direct threat not only to the Church, but to the stability of the monarchy itself. Bishops such as Andrewes, William Laud (then at St David's) and Richard Neile (Durham) thought that James I was far too tolerant of Puritanism, while the King's inept attempt to marry his son and heir Prince Charles to the Spanish Infanta in 1623 threatened to drive the more militantly anti-Catholic churchgoers into the Puritan camp.
An indication of the circles in which Matthew Wren was moving can be found in his own account of a meeting held late in 1623, a few months after the Prince had been packed off to Spain for the abortive attempt to win the Infanta's hand. As Charles's chaplain, Matthew was ordered by King James to accompany him, partly to see that Charles was not seduced by the Papists and partly to make sure that the Prince's other travelling companion, the wild Duke of Buckingham, didn't cause a diplomatic incident. The party returned that October without disgracing themselves unduly but also without the Infanta. Shortly afterwards, Matthew was called at short notice to a clandestine meeting with Bishop Andrewes at Winchester House on the Thames. There, he recalled later, `I found the Steward at the water-gate, waiting to let me in ... I asked where his Lordship was? He answered, "In his great gallery" (a place where I knew his Lordship scarce came once in a year) and thither I going, the door was locked; but upon my lifting the latch, my Lord of St David's opened the door, and letting me in, locked it again.'
Once inside, Matthew found himself confronted by not one, but three bishops Andrewes, Laud and Neile. They immediately began to interrogate him about the Prince of Wales:
`We must know of you [said Neile], what your thoughts are concerning your master the Prince. You have now been his servant above two years, and you were with him in Spain; we know he respects you well; and we know you are no fool, but can observe how things are like to go.'
`What things, my Lord?' quoth I.
`In brief,' said he, `how the Prince's heart stands to the Church of England, that when God brings him to the Crown, we may know what to hope for.'
Matthew answered that as far as he could tell, Charles was sound: `I know my master's learning is not equal to his father's; yet, I know his judgement to be very right; and as for ... upholding the doctrine and discipline, and the right estate of the Church, I have more confidence of him, than of his father, in whom they say (better than I can) is so much inconstancy.'
As far as this went, Matthew's assessment proved correct. `The neglect of punishing Puritans breeds Papists,' declared Charles; and within months of his succession to the throne in 1625 he had promised the Archbishopric of Canterbury to Laud on the death of the Calvinist George Abbot.
Laud had to wait eight years to step into Abbot's shoes, although as the King's right-hand man after Buckingham's assassination in 1628 he wasted no time in punishing Puritans and promoting absolutist values in church and state. In the meantime, Matthew Wren was making steady progress up the ecclesiastical ladder. In 1626 he was elected Master of Peterhouse, where he was a Fellow; in 1678 the King appointed him Dean of Windsor and Registrar of the Order of the Garter; and in 1634, the year after Laud became Archbishop, he was made Bishop of Hereford. The following year he was moved to Norwich, and that March his brother Christopher succeeded him as Dean of Windsor, keeping the living of East Knoyle and adding that of Great Haseley in Oxfordshire to it soon after his appointment to the Deanery.
The two brothers now found themselves at the heart of a battle that was splitting the Church of England in the 1630s. In essence, that battle was both an ideological struggle between the forces of conservatism, as represented by Archbishop Laud and his followers, and the progressive Puritans who sought to democratize the institutions of the Church and wrest power from the establishment; and a theological dispute in which a predominantly Calvinist clergy and educated laity reacted to the challenge of Charles I's bishops, who rejected predestination and argued for divine grace freely available through the sacraments.
The practical consequences for the Anglican liturgy were profound, and can still be seen today in parish churches all over England. For Laudians like the Wren brothers, a church was not simply a meeting place where sermons were preached and business transacted. It was `the place where our Lord God most holy doth inhabit', as Robert Skinner declared in a sermon preached before the King in 1634; `his proper mansion or dwelling house'. Any object within it was `holy in relation to the holy use whereto it is assigned'. This meant everything the bread, the oil, the chalice, even the cloth bags that were used to bring communion bread into the church.
Holiest of all was the altar. It was no longer acceptable to regard it, as the Puritans did, as simply a wooden table which stood in the middle of the chancel (usually on an east-west axis), to be dragged out into the nave for parish meetings or school lessons; it was, in Laud's words, `the greatest place of God's residence upon earth ... yea, greater than the pulpit'. The Puritans must be made to honour it, and to conform, outwardly at least, to the rituals of respect that accompanied the new movement. `We are now well nigh fallen into an hatred of the true worship,' declared Matthew Wren, `and into contempt of all things divine and holy.'
So in the face of bitter opposition from a broad spectrum of radical Protestants, Laud and his followers sought to impose their particular brand of Anglicanism on clergy and laity. In Norwich, Matthew Wren made sure that preaching licences went to ritualists and opponents of Nonconformity; at Winchester, Bishop Walter Curle suspended recalcitrant clergy and encouraged reverence in divine service, `so God may be worshipped not only in holiness, but in the beauty of holiness'; and, with a few exceptions, episcopal appointments and promotions all went to anti-Calvinists. The Laudian faction was also close to the monarch. Unlike his father, who had been careful to keep both camps happy, Charles I chose only ritualists and anti-Calvinists as his clerical intimates, from privy councillors to clerks of the closet and royal almoners.
It was against this background that in many dioceses the emphasis of Anglican worship shifted from the Word of Christ, as exemplified by the sermon, to the Body of Christ represented by the celebration of Holy Communion at the altar. The Puritans' predilection for receiving Communion as they sat in their pews was actively discouraged: now they were required to kneel before an altar placed firmly against the east wall of the chancel. And that chancel was in all probability newly railed partly, as one bishop put it in 1638, `to keep out dogs from going in and profaning that holy place, from pissing against it or worse', but also to accentuate the sense of separateness from the main body of the church. Many of the High Church radicals saw the architecture of a church building as a metaphor for the spiritual life, with its progress from baptism in the font (which stood at the west end of the church), through nave and instruction, to chancel and the holy mystery of the Eucharist:
Some are unworthy to come within the doors of the church and therefore are to stand without. Some are fit to be received in, to be baptised; some to be instructed in the grounds of religion and to repair with the rest of the congregation. All which is done in the nave and body of the church. And as men profit in knowledge and a working faith, to discern the Lord's body, they are admitted into a higher room, where the sacrament of the body and blood of Jesus Christ is to be administered at the holy table in the chancel, which divideth it from the rest of the church.
Dean Wren was determined to put Laudian principles into practice at his own church of St Mary's at East Knoyle. In 1639, when Inigo Jones was modernizing the medieval cathedral of St Paul's, Charles I and his bishops were battling with the Scottish Covenanters and Christopher was six or seven years old, he commissioned the complete redecoration of the church chancel in a style which must have seemed to his neighbours and parishioners a startlingly direct ideological statement.
The result is still dramatic today, when much of his work has been defaced or over-restored. The dark, undistinguished nave, full of Victorian stained glass and florid memorials to long-dead local dignitaries, suddenly gives way to a bright, white chancel alive with plaster figures. Angels climb ladders up to heaven. Jacob dreams his dream of God beneath them. Abraham makes ready to sacrifice his son Isaac. The mutilated remains of an Ascension scene decorate the chancel arch, with Apostles and angels gazing up at a blank space where Christ once hovered in the clouds, until Roundhead soldiers removed him as a Popish icon. Strapwork panels around the walls are filled with urgent texts exhorting the congregation to ponder on the holy nature of the building in which they worshipped: `Dread is this place. This is noe other but the howse of God and the gate of heaven'; `My howse shalbe called the howse of prayer to all nations'. And in a corner there is the kneeling figure of the Dean himself, dressed in the robes of a Stuart clergyman and holding up his arms as he is divinely inspired by the dove of the Holy Ghost.
Dean Wren's new chancel was much more than mere decoration. In the Laudian scheme of things it was a fit and proper setting for the high point of Christian worship, and the texts and images which covered its walls were coded declarations of support for a particular and controversial brand of Anglicanism. It was also a particularly personal statement of faith, in that the Dean designed it himself. Years later, in May 1647, Robert Brockway of Frome St Quintin in Dorset, who had carried out the work, explained its genesis:
[The Doctor] did invent and make a model or draught thereof in paper, which he gave to this examinant and caused him to make it, viz, the picture of the Ascension, with the twelve Apostles, and Christ ascending in the clouds ... Further, on each side of the window there was set up the picture of Jacob's dream and his sacrifice [in fact, a depiction of Abraham and Isaac]; clouds above; Jacob sleeping below, and a ladder let down to the earth. On the one side of the window, angels holding crowns of laurel in their hands, ascended, and on the other side of the window they descended; and underneath were these words written, `Let prayers ascend that grace may descend.'
Brockway also testified that Dr Wren paid for the work himself, `and used to come every day to overlook it, and give directions therein'.
I say `testified', because Brockway was giving evidence before a Parliamentary Commission at Longford Castle, where Dr Wren stood accused of `heretical practices'. In the eight years that passed between the decoration of the chancel and Brockway's statement to the Commission, the power struggle between High and Low Church had spilled over into war between Charles I and his Parliament. In December 1640, Parliament impeached Archbishop Laud on the grounds of treason and sent him to the Tower. Charged with `endeavouring to subvert the laws, to overthrow the Protestant religion, and to act as an enemy to Parliament', he was found guilty and beheaded on 10 January 1645.
Christopher Wren's uncle Matthew, who was by now Bishop of Ely, fared little better. He was accused by Parliament in 1641 of `setting up of idolatry and superstition in divers places and acting the same in his own person', and on 5 July a committee of the House of Commons met to consider nine charges, including `causing the communion-table to be placed altar-wise, and to be railed in; and kneeling, and consecrating the bread and wine, at the west side of the communion-table, with his back towards the people, and bowing to, or before the same'; and `causing all the pews or seats to be so contrived, as that the people must of necessity kneel with their faces towards the east'. The debate that followed resulted in a call for the King to dismiss the Bishop as unfit to hold any church office: nothing came of it until the Civil War broke out, but within days of Charles I raising his standard at Nottingham on 22 August 1642, Parliamentary troops broke into Matthew Wren's London house and carted him off to the Tower of London. He languished there, untried and unconvicted of any offence, for eighteen years.
The Wren family's fall from grace didn't end with Matthew's imprisonment, although after Archbishop Laud's impeachment and Bishop Wren's troubles the Dean took hasty steps to avoid confrontation. In the early 1640s, with the plaster on the walls of his new chancel scarcely dry, he wrote from Windsor to his East Knoyle churchwarden, Randall Dominick. If anyone had taken offence from the new images, he said, Dominick had full authority to pull them down. Nothing happened, so perhaps the parishioners either subscribed to Wren's brand of Anglicanism or didn't dare to complain. Or then again, perhaps they simply didn't care.
When war broke out in 1642, Windsor Castle was held for Parliament. At first the Governor, Colonel Venn, did nothing to bother Dr Wren, who was allowed to remain in his medieval Deanery tucked away behind the soaring buttresses of St George's Chapel. But, convinced that this wouldn't last, the Dean buried the jewel-encrusted George and Garter of Gustavus Adolphus, the most precious of the Order of the Garter's possessions, underneath the floor of his Treasury. His fears were well-founded. In October 1642 a Captain Fogg turned up at the door of the Deanery, claiming to hold a warrant from the King and demanding the keys to the Treasury. If the Dean and prebends wouldn't give them up, he said, he would pull the chapel down about their ears. Either by accident or by design, the keyholders were away from Windsor at the time, so a smith was called and the doors prised open with iron bars. The Parliamentarians took all the plate they could find, together with all the Order's records and register-books. They also ransacked the Chapel Royal. And just for good measure, they sacked the Deanery itself. Books, furniture, pictures and plate were all carried away; the only items Dr Wren managed to recover were a harpsichord, which was finally returned to him six years later, and three of the Order's register-books, which he kept with him until his death in 1658, handing them on to his son to return at the Restoration. The troops missed the concealed George and Garter, but they were found three years later and sold by order of Parliament.
The Wrens decided that the Deanery at Windsor was not a safe place to be quite understandably, in the circumstances. Mary Wren was pregnant with their eleventh and last child (Frances, who was born in April 1643 and died eight months later); and so the family decamped to the relative safety of East Knoyle. At least in Wiltshire `gentlemen of ancient families and estates [were] for the most part well-affected to the King', even if `people of an inferior degree ... were fast friends to the Parliament'. There is an unauthenticated story that they spent some time in the Royalist stronghold of Bristol between the summer of 1643, when Charles's nephew Prince Rupert, the `Mad Cavalier', took the city for the King, and September 1645, when he surrendered it to the Parliamentarian general, Thomas Fairfax.
During a Parliamentarian sweep through south Wiltshire in 1644, Sir Edward Hungerford extracted £25 from Christopher Williams and Henry Marshman, rents due to the Dean as part of the East Knoyle parsonage. A few months later, when the Parliamentarian forces were safely under siege in Wardour Castle, Dean Wren set out with a troop of the King's Horse to collect his overdue rents including those of Williams and Marshman, whom he forced to pay a second time.
Despite this dubious act of profiteering, the Dean went out of his way to help the Royalists. In the spring of 1645 a troop of the King's men was routed by Cromwell at Devizes, twenty miles north, and remnants were trying to escape from the Parliamentary forces by running south. One night an East Knoyle alehouse keeper named George Styles was woken by the arrival of a large company of Royalist soldiers accompanied by Dean Wren. Styles's wife found a bed for Wren and one of the commanders: `and in the morning as they lay in bed, the Doctor spake these words to his friend, "Sir, all is well, there is no danger, for I left word with my wife that if there were, she should send word."'
Excerpted from His Invention So Fertile by Adrian Tinniswood. Copyright © 2001 by Adrian Tinniswood. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Meet the Author
Adrian Tinniswood is the author of several books on social and architectural history. He lives in Bath.
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