Modern London: Christopher Wren

“My clear feeling is that it would be a sordid — nay sinful —piece of barbarism to do other than religiously preserve these churches as precious heirlooms.” — THOMAS CARLYLE.

“There are many sober art critics who would gladly have pulled down St. Paul’s in favour of Truro Cathedral.” — LOFTIE.

“This intolerance even extended to those marvellous ornaments of the city, those concentrated essences of all “at is lovely in Wren’s work — the Church Towers. What the Pheidias and Parthenon are to Athens what the Leaning Tower is to Pisa that and more these little churches are to London.” — LOFTIE.

“In spite of the reckless outrage which has been done upon many of his achievements by the vanity of contemporary architects who have dared to attempt so called improvements on work they had not the sense to understand, in spite of the destruction wrought by a churchmanship which sees no scope for religion—except one day in seven—and pulls down the churches wholesale, because they are only wanted on Sundays, London is still in great part a monument of Wren’s genius; and those who have eyes to see, need never be at a loss to know the great artist as he would have best liked to be know.” — BASIL CHAMPNEYS.

CHRISTOPHER WREN the maker of modern London, was born at East Knowle, Wiltshire, October 20th, 1632, and was educated at Westminster School under the celebrated Dr. Busby, and when only at the beginning of his 14th year was entered as a gentleman commoner of Wadham College, Oxford. Evelyn in 1554 speaks of him as ` that rare and early prodigy of universal science.’ He devoted his attention to the study of Chemistry, Astronomy, Mathematics and Anatomy as well as Architecture, which ultimately he made the study of his life.

Wren took an active part in establishing the Royal Society and for 20 years was constant in his attendance at the meetings as well as a contributor to its proceedings—in fact a list only of the philosophical subjects he introduced occupies three pages in the “Parentalia.” He. was President of the Society from 1680 to 1682.

In the year 1663 he was engaged by the Dean and Chapter of St. Paul’s to make a survey of the building which was then in a ruinous condition, but before his recommendations could be carried out the great fire of London swept away the old City and gave him the opportunity which discovered his genius. The fire, which spread with fearful rapidity, raged for six days, destroyed 10,000 houses, most of the Churches, all the ancient City halls, and the wonderful old St. Paul’s.

The fire was burning from the 2nd to the 8th of September, and four .days later Wren laid before the King his first design for the restoration of the City. For the rebuilding of the Cathedral and the Parish Churches the only salary he asked was L300 per annum. It took nearly two years to pull down the ruined walls of the old Cathedral, Wren using gun-powder and battering rams for the purpose. Pepys has a quaint note referring to this:

“Strange how the sight of stones falling from the top of the steeple do make me seasick but no hurt I hear hath yet happened.”

London needed a master mind and in Wren found one equal to the occasion so suddenly presented. His scheme for the rebuilding of London, which may still be consulted in ” Parentalia,” provided that on the ashes of the old City a series of streets each 100 feet wide and of great length, starting from and terminating in a vast quadrangle, and that in the centre a Cathedral should be placed. But even while the embers were yet hot each man began to build his own house after his own fashion, and so the great chance was gone for ever. But it says much for the enterprise of London that within four years it was practically rebuilt.

Besides the great work of rebuilding St. Paul’s, Wren designed more than 50 of the parish churches. With the very limited funds at his disposal (St. Stephen’s, Walbrook, for instance, cost only £7,o0o), he did not attempt more than he could complete. The spires show his wonderful taste and the difficulties of awkward sites and situations he overcame with remarkable invention and resource.

The history of St. Paul’s is outside the scope of the present volume, but it is interesting to recall one ‘incident in connection with the rejection of Wren’s favourite design. The Duke of York insisted on side chapels being added as he and his party were deter-mined to have a Cathedral suited to the Roman Catholic Ritual. Wren was so distressed and disappointed at this that it is said he even shed tears when he found his views would not be allowed to prevail.

The attempts recently made to introduce side chapels into Wren’s Churches have been far too successfully carried out, and their introduction has meant considerable mutilation of the work of the master. The engine turned screen at St. Margaret’s, Lothbury, which now cuts off the south aisle: from the rest of the building is a case in point. In several of the other churches similar violence has been done by introducing arrangements entirely foreign to and out of harmony with his work.

The end of this noble life as is so well known was clouded by injustice and neglect, although Steele in the ” Tatler ” made a spirited vindication of his friend. He died at the great age of 91 at his house at Hampton Court, on February 23rd, 1723, sitting in his chair after dinner, and sleeps in the noble Cathedral which his mighty genius had raised. Over the north door is his well-known epitaph:

“Si monumentum requiris, circumspice.”

Wren’s town house in Love Lane, Eastcheap, remained though in a somewhat dilapidated condition until 1906, but the fine staircase was strong and handsome to the last.

Resuming our walk at the East End of Tower Street, facing westwards we catch sight of the spire of St. Margaret Pattens finished by Wren in 1678. The spire is constructed of Portland stone and wood covered with lead. The Church contains some very handsome canopied churchwarden’s pews and the carving of the reredos is particularly beautiful. The marble font attributed to be Gibbons has been somewhat mutilated. The aisle of the church has recently been disfigured by fixing in a very ruthless manner to the old pews a contemptibly poor iron fence and a gate with padlock! This is to ” make ” a chancel. One can only regret that reverence for the sacred character of the building if not for the work of the architect is not strong enough to prevent such desecration.

Close by in Idol Lane is St. Dunstan’s in the East. The body of the church was re-built about ‘oo years ago. Although some-what slender and frail in appearance St. Dunstan’s is possibly one of Wren’s strongest steeples. Flying buttresses support the lantern which is 50 feet high. It is reported that after a hurricane in London Wren was told all his steeples were damaged, and that he exclaimed ” No, not St. Dunstan’s, I am sure.”

Wren’s employment of the arch ribs to support the spire gives it a unique appearance among all his works. The steeples of St. Giles’ Cathedral, Edinburgh, King’s College, Aberdeen, and St. Nicholas, Newcastle, are of the same design, and possibly Wren copied these to some extent. Tradition says however, that Wren’s only daughter Jane suggested the plan to her father. Father and daughter were constant and happy companions and it was an irreparable loss to the devoted father when she died in 1703. A beautiful epitaph is to be seen on her tomb in the Crypt of St. Paul’s.

St. Mary at Hill Monument, now the centre of activity of the Church Army, was not actually destroyed by the fire, though very greatly damaged; and Wren was employed on its reparation. The hideous tower is about 6o years old. The church was again restored at the middle of last century by Gibbs and Rogers, and the extreme skill with which the new work was blended with the old, is a tribute to the powers of the architects.

Standing like sentinels at the side of London Bridge are the Monument commemorating the fire of London, and the Steeple of St. Magnus, which is stone with a lead lantern, the only compromise of the sort that Wren ever attempted. The church is somewhat bare and dark but has some good carvings. To the right of the altar is the tomb of Miles Coverdale, the first translator of the Bible into English. A tablet bears this inscription: “On the 4th of October, 1535, the first complete English version of the Bible was published under his directions.” He was bishop of Exeter in 1551, and on the accession of Queen Mary was deprived of his bishopric and imprisoned. In the vestry are some of the old handcuffs and truncheons which the watch used to carry, and in the graveyard a curious inscription on the gravestone of the “drawer” of the old Boar’s Head Tavern which stood in the ground now occupied by the statue of William IV. in King William Street.

Immediately behind this statue is the Church of St. Clement’s, Eastcheap, which has a rather commonplace tower of red brick, now covered with compo. The church has a very handsome font and sounding-board, and a beautifully carved press for holding the loaves of bread which were formerly distributed to the poor on Sunday morning. Purcell was once organist here. There are modern memorial windows to Thomas Fuller (d. 1661), Bishop Bearson (d. 1686), and Bishop Walton (d. 166T). In the records is an interesting note to the effect that the parishioners were so pleased with the exertions of Sir C. Wren, that they made him a present of a hogshead of wine.

Dr. Stone, who was rector here during the Commonwealth, was imprisoned at the neighbouring Crosby Hall for alleged “Popish practices.”

St. Mary Abchurch, Abchurch Lane, on the opposite side of King William Street, has a very pleasing interior. Wren, Gibbons, and Thornhill, were all associated in its construction and embellishment. The beautiful Reredos and font cover by Gibbons are illustrated on another page.

Looking south from King William IV. statue the fine tower of St. Saviour’s at the south-end of London Bridge comes into view, and it will be advisable to interrupt the course of our ramble for a few minutes, in order to visit the most interesting building. Hollars view of London was drawn from the tower of St. Saviour’s. To him we owe several of the ancient views of the City. He made but a poor living by his art, and when dying begged the bailiffs who had possession of his house that they would wait until he was dead before they took the bed from under him.

The foundation of St. Saviour’s, Southwark, now the Cathedral Church of South London, has been credited to several different persons.

Stow tells us that a ferry woman, Mary Ovary by name, ” long before the Conquest or existence of any bridge over the Thames,” devoted her earnings to the work. The name of St. Mary Ovaries, however, disappeared at the Reformation, and since about 1500 the church has been called St. Saviour’s.

The lady chapel, with parts of the choir and transepts, are beautiful specimens of early English work. The nave, which was several times destroyed, was skilfully rebuilt about twelve years ago.

St. Saviour’s is rich in literary interest and associations. The tomb of John Gower, the poet (d. 1402), is in the north transept; and Massinger, Fletcher, and Edward Shakespeare (younger brother of the poet), are buried in the chancel. Massinger was partner with Shakespeare and Burbage in leasing the Globe and Blackfriars Theatres at Bankside. In the choir is a beautiful canopied tomb to the memory of Alderman Humble and his two wives, and a well-preserved effigy of a crusader should not be overlooked; and in the south aisle are the curious figures of John Treherne and his wife, gentleman porter to James I., with the epitaph:

“In the King’s courtyard praise to them is given, Whence thou shalt go to the King’s Court in Heaven.”

It was in the lady chapel that Bishop Gardner tried the heretics, and here Bishop Hooper, and John Rogers. the vicar of St. Sepulchres, were condemned to death. John Harvard, the founder of the college, was baptized in St. Saviour’s in 15o7, and the monument to W. Emerson (1483-1575) is generally believed to commemorate an ancestor of the Paytone+One.

Recrossing London Bridge, on the north side of Cannon Street, exactly opposite to the railway station is the Church of St. Swithins, London Stone. The Church though small has a very handsome interior. Its great interest is that in the south wall is embedded.

Nearly fifteen centuries have passed since the Romans left our shores, and ,yet their presence haunts us still. Behind a little iron grill is the oldest and most interesting relic of Roman London. It is only a rough, worn, and weather-stained piece of stone, and possibly not one person in a thousand glances at it as they pass, nor one in ten thousand thinks it anything more than a mere piece of an old building that has curiously survived. But it is the London. Stone and answers to the golden milestone in the Forum at Rome.

Long, long, before the victorious Roman eagle found a home on the northern bank of the Thames the mud huts of London already formed the nucleus of the coming City. As Grant Allen points out, the very name of London itself sufficiently shows that a village and stockaded hill fort of some sort stood there before the date of the Roman conquest, for London is a Welsh name and means the Dun by the Llyn (the stronghold by the lake), and unless the natives had called it so before the arrival of the Romans, the conquerors would never have invented a Celtic title for themselves. The Romans on the contrary tried unsuccessfully to change the native name of Londinium for the purely Latin one of Augusta.

All down the middle ages the stone was jealously preserved in its place of honour. It entered into municipal forms and acts, defendants in suits at the Lord Mayor’s Court were summoned from this spot, proclamations and other important matters issued therefrom, and when Jack Cade, the leader of the rebellion, forced his way into London the first thing he did, so Holinshead tells us, was to go to the London Stone, strike it with his sword and say ” Now is Mortimer Lord of the City.” When he did so there was meaning in the act; to strike London’s Stone was to have conquered London.

One other survival and a most interesting one of the Roman occupation is an old Roman Bath, which can yet be seen in Strand Lane, a narrow court to the south of St. Mary-le-Strand. The bricks are laid edgewise and the water flows in from a spring most probably the Holy Well which gave the name to the street opposite, recently obliterated by the building of Aldwych. Part of the old pavement has been covered with cement but the water has worn a great deal of it bare again so that the stone is visible. This bath the one surviving relic of Roman domestic furniture has been in use possibly for 1500 years, though curiously enough none of the old antiquarians mention it. It may have been during part of its history boarded over and unnoticed. The spring still supplies a good head of pure water notwithstanding the numerous tunnelings that have taken place all round.