Christopher Wren was a seventeenth-century English designer, astronomer, geometer, and one of the most renowned architects in English history. He designed fifty-three London churches, including the new St. Paul's Cathedral. He was a founder of the Royal Society. His scientific investigations were highly regarded by Sir Isaac Newton and Blaise Pascal.
Wren was born the child of a prominent clergyman. As a child Wren was considered sickly, though he lived into a robust old age. His early education came from a private tutor and his father. Later education is difficult to determine, though records indicate he received a thorough grounding in Latin and drawing. His older sister married a prominent mathematician, so he perhaps tutored Wren. Wren entered Wadham College, Oxford, in 1650, though he did not receive modern scientific training there. While at Oxford, he became associated with a group of distinguished scholars, whose activities led to the formation of the Royal Society. Wren graduated Oxford with a BA in 1651, and three years later received the MA. At that point Wren was elected a Fellow at Oxford and began an active period of research and experimentation. Several years later he was appointed Professor of Astronomy at Gresham College, London. Wren enjoyed his tenure as professor. Later he became a professor at Oxford.
Most of Wren's scientific achievements can be found in the records of the Royal Society. His research ranged from astronomy, optics, longitude, cosmology, mechanics, microscopy, surveying, medicine, and meteorology. He had also, at this point, turned his attention to architecture. He first designed the chapel at Pembroke College in Cambridge, and then the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford, which was completed in 1668. At about this time he was asked to look into redesigning the old St. Paul's Cathedral. Wren traveled to Paris for further research. Less than one year later the Great Fire destroyed much of London, including St. Paul's. Wren's designs and ideas were instrumental in rebuilding the city and cathedral. He was knighted in 1673.
In 1669, at age thirty-seven, Wren married his childhood neighbor, Faith Coghill. Their brief marriage produced two children, one of whom survived and grew up to be an architect. It was the younger Christopher Wren who supervised the topping ceremony of St. Paul’s in 1710. Faith Wren died from smallpox in 1675. Within two years of her death, Wren married once again, this time to Jane Fitzwilliam, the daughter of an Irish peer and successful merchant. The couple had two children, though the second Mrs. Wren died of tuberculosis in 1680.
Wren's later life remained active. When his patron, Charles II, died, he still accepted royal and noble commissions, including projects at Whitehall, a new chapel for James II, and other projects associated with Kensington Palace, Hampton Court, and Greenwich Hospital. In 1723 he was ninety years old, and would often go to London to check on the progress of "my greatest work." On one of these trips he caught a chill, and quickly worsened. He died on February 25, 1723 and was laid to rest in a corner of St. Paul's crypt. His simple stone marker reads (translated from Latin): "Underneath lies buried Christopher Wren, the builder of this church and city; who lived beyond the age of ninety years, not for himself, but for the public good.--Reader, if you seek his monument, look around you.--He died on the 25th of February, 1723, aged 91."
Sir Christopher Wren in Godfrey Kneller's 1711 portrait