Today (February 25) in London History – Sir Christopher Wren

Christopher Wren died on February 25, 1723. He’s the subject of today’s Today in London History podcast.


It’s February 25th. So the only thing for it is to read that Auden poem.

And, yes, goes without saying, there are a couple of anachronisms.

What’s more, I’m going to edit it. Change just a couple of words. 

Here’s how it goes. Here’s the only way you can start a Today in London History podcast if today if February 25th.

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone, 

Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,

Silence the pianos and with muffled drum

Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead

Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead,

Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,

Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was our North, our South, our East and West,

Our working week and our Sunday rest,

Our noon, our midnight, our talk, our song;

I thought that he would last forever: I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;

Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;

Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;

For nothing now can ever come to any good. 

Well, yes and no. He died on February 25th, 1723.

But I think he will forever. Or near enough to


And nothing now can ever come to any good?

No, that’s not true. We can come to good – go 

to good in Greenwich and Chelsea 

and the West End and Lincoln and Windsor and

Longleat in Wiltshire and Appleby Magna in

Leicestershire and Oxford and Cambridge and 

Hampton Court and Kensington and Westminster 

and all over the City of London.

Ok, I’ve pretty well given the game away, haven’t I?

Christopher Wren – Sir Christopher Wren – died

299 years ago today. February 25, 1723.

And he lives on in all of those wonderful

buildings – wonderful buildings in that great

long list of special English places he graced.

And blessed.

This is one of those podcasts it’s impossible 

not to do – despite my vow that for the most

part I’d give the achingly obvious anniversaries

a miss. Go for the arcane and undiscovered as

opposed to rounding up the usual suspects.

But it is simply impossible to hopscotch to

February 23rd and not pay your respects to

Christopher Wren. Not in a London podcast

at any rate.

Tell you what, though – I’ll steer it down some

of the byways of his life. A few of the particulars

that aren’t very well known. For the big, 

glaringly obvious stuff you don’t need me –

you can Wikipedia away to your heart’s content.

So here are a few of the byways of Christopher

Wren’s life and death. 

He was born in Wiltshire but he had London 

roots. His paternal grandfather was a London

mercer. The Wrens believed they came 

originally from Denmark. Thank you very

much, Denmark.

He was the kind of sickly child who survives

into robust old age. 

We think he went to Westminster School –

I say as much on my Old Westminster Walk 

when we visit the school – but no one’s 

absolutely certain that he did.

When he was a ten-year-old he wrote a 

New Year message for his father in Latin 

verse and prose.

Three or four years later – he’s a young

teenager – he devised a project for hand-

signing alphabets for deaf people.

From that – he’s still a youngster, remember –

he moved on to designing what he called 

‘a pneumatic engine’ – what we’d call an

air pump. And then a pasteboard star calendar.

And then when he was 16 a sciotericon to plot equal

hours from a sundial. And then a device for

writing in the dark. And then a recording 

weather clock. And then a pasteboard calculator

for the orbit of the moon.

As an Oxford undergraduate Christopher Wren

designed a box beehive and a practical 

hygrometer. I have to confess, I didn’t know 

what a hygrometer was. Now I do.

It was an instrument used to measure 

the amount of water vapour in air, in soil, 

or in confined spaces.

And onwards and upwards, some undergraduate 

this young man was.

He did work on graphite for lubricating timepieces;

invented a mechanical corn drill; and a regulating 

weather clock recording temperature and wind 

direction; and an egg incubator; and a demonstration

model of an eye – an eye with a translucent retina.

And he worked on a theory of elastic impact from

the collision of balls suspended by threads. He worked 

on respiration and the vital principle of air – a subject

 not fathomed until the discovery of oxygen over 100

years later. And on tracking comets.

And all of that was before he turned his 

mind to architecture.

Was this a bright young man, think you? Yes,

you got it – his was a noble, generous and 

omnivorous mind.

Isaac Barrow, a contemporary, described him

 as ‘once a prodigy of a boy; 

now, a miracle of a man, 

nay, even something divine.’

Christopher Wren’s motto was Numero, 

pondere et mensura. By weight, number and

measure. Elegantly simple. And profound.

And maybe a bit about his domestic life.

And his death. 

Wikipedia makes the point that Christopher

Wren lived to be over 90 years old and of

those years he was married only nine.

He married twice. Faith Wren died of smallpox

when they’d been married just six years. His 

second wife, Jane Wren, died of tuberculosis. 

They’d only been married three years. They’re 

buried alongside of each other in the chancel

of St. Martin in the Fields. I didn’t know that.

I was glad to find it out.

We don’t know much about Faith and Jane. 

But we do have a love letter Wren wrote to

Faith. It’s delighful. Goes like this.

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 labours 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 ...[

And Christopher Wren’s own end, 

on this day 299 years ago.

He was living in St. James’s Street.

The story goes that he would often go 

the couple of miles east to London 

to pay unofficial visits to St Paul’s, 

to check on the progress 

of “my greatest work”. On one of those

 trips – he was years old remember –

he caught a chill. It took hold. Pneumonia

I suppose. On February 25th he took a nap.

A servant tried to wake him up.

He was dead.

For the rest, well, everyone knows about 

the modest burial place in the crypt of 

St. Paul’s and the Latin inscription over 

it that reads, Reader, if you seek a monument,

look around you. 

Otherwise, sure, why not, do some further

reading off your own bat if you want. Be

sure to track down the wonderful story 

about the height of the columns at Windsor

Castle. I very much like the tale about 

someone asking him why an architectural

feature couldn’t be seen with the naked eye

had to be done to perfection and Wren said,

“because God sees it.”

For me, though, the pole star story is highly

personal. It’s something that happened to 

me on the 11th of September 2001. Yes, 911.

Like everyone else I was reeling. The world

had tilted. And something came welling up

out of my subconscious. It was something 

I’d read years earlier. Read and forgotten.

Well, I thought I’d forgotten. I hadn’t.

For some reason I found myself thinking

about St. Paul’s. Surely it was because of 

the horrors visited upon London by 

the Luftwaffe in World War II – and 

St. Paul’s somehow coming through,

surviving – that famous photograph of

the City in flames and St Paul’s, defiant,

intact, beautiful seen through the flames

and clouds of black smoke – and what 

that sight – their beautiful cathedral 

storm-tossed but seaworthy – meant

to Londoners.

And suddenly there it was, something I’d

remembered that I didn’t know I’d 

remembered. Something I needed.

Something that steadied me, comforted me.

Came to me in my hour of need.

I don’t know who said it. But here’s what he

said. Just one annotation. The author uses

the word “specific” in an old fashioned way. A specific

being a remedy, a medicine.

Here it is.

St. Paul’s is much more than a place of worship;

it is a specific against grossness, brutality and despair.”



Find you a find. Catch you a catch. I’ve done so.

I’ve found a long lost image that effectively positions all of Wren’s creations on the acres surrounding St

Paul’s. It’s an astonishing vista. John O’Hara said 

on the death of George Gershwin, “Duke Ellington

is dead. I don’t have to believe it if I don’t want to.”

Christopher Wren is dead but I don’t believe it.

And that illustration – those buildings and structures –

they show me that I’m right. Christopher Wren lives.

And the other astonishing thing about getting them

altogether in a single view is you realise no other

country in the world had a Christopher Wren. No

other city in the world had a Christopher Wren. 


What a week this has been. Sabrina’s 41-inch bust

and Dorothy Paget’s aversion to the colour

green and Protein Man Stanley

Green and the Saving of the Northern Heights

and the Chelsea Arts Ball and now Sir

Christopher Wren. Another week going to

top this one? Well, we’ll see – but I somehow

doubt it. Surfing the waves of this week I’ve

been reminded again and again of something

my best American pal – another David – said

to me years ago. Aside here: I hope Central 

Park’s treating you well this morning, David –

he said, England, it’s a question of texture. The

texture is so much more interesting, so much

richer. You can travel a great long distance in

the States before you get much in the way of 

a change – it’s hundreds of miles of very nice

cornfields – but England, the texture of the 

place is changing all the time. You go round

the next bend and there’s something different,

something interesting. And that’s even more the case in London.

Here, it’s not just mosaics of texture variations,

it’s varying textures stacked on top of each other.

Less lust through less protein and more lust through Sabrina’s bust and no lust for horsey Dorothy who 

never kissed a male until she kissed Golden Miller

and he was a gelding and Oscar Wilde in police court with an anarchist who emptied a revolver at the House of Commons and debutantes blushing and dowagers blanching at the Chelsea Arts Ball and the Northern Heights being saved and Christopher Wren lives…that’s the London wave I’ve surfed

this week. 

I’ll take it.

Good night from the world’s most stimulating city.

See you tomorrow. 

One response to “Today (February 25) in London History – Sir Christopher Wren”

  1. Dr. Holly Dobbins says:

    As an 11th direct descendent of Sir Christopher Wren (one of hundreds I suspect) I want to thank you for your passion. Reading this brought joy to my heart and a smile to my face. I often forget that there are people out there who hold my ancestor in as much awe and reverence as you do. It has been years since I’ve stood on the grounds of one of his creations, but in my mind’s eye I’m there and look to him for inspiration and motivation almost every day. His curiosity, his compassion, his wry humour, his motivation and persistence are qualities I try to summon within myself and emulate. There are many days that I fail, and no doubt he did as well, but on the days that I manage to walk in his footsteps, albeit in my own way, I can envision him winking at me. I know you too got a nod and a wink with your reflection.
    keep dong what you do. I look forward to the day when I return to my ancestral homeland, and perhaps take a walk with you and bring history alive.

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