I am pleased to announce the launch of a new themed walk on “The Lost Wren Churches of London”.
The walk will be a circular one, beginning and ending at St Paul’s tube station, and taking in all 21 of the “lost” Wren churches on the way, as well as passing a number of the surviving ones (see below).
It will be another of our specials, meaning that it can be taken at any time.
|One of the Not-Quite-Lost Wren Churches, St Dunstan-in-the-East
In the aftermath of the Great Fire of London of 1666, the question was asked, would the City ever be rebuilt, or be the same again?
Well, of course it would, not least because the prosperity of the City was essential not only to that of the country as a whole but also to that of powerful men with vested interests, watching anxiously from the sidelines as “day by day the City’s wealth flowed out of the gate” to other boroughs.
The Lord Mayor initiated the process essentially straight away, within weeks commissioning a detailed survey of the fire-damaged area of the City to assist with the assessment of compensation claims, and to use as a template for reconstruction plans. The survey was undertaken by the Bohemian Wencesla(u)s Hollar, who had travelled widely before eventually settling in London, and earned a reputation as an engraver and print-maker of some skill, specialising in landscape scenes. Other surveys were undertaken, and maps made, by Doornick, Leake, and Ogilby and Morgan.
A number of revolutionary reconstruction plans for the City were submitted, by, among others, Christopher Wren, Robert Hooke and John Evelyn, any one of which, if implemented, would have given it a radically new look and feel, much more like that of the great European cities of the day, and indeed of today, with their uniform architecture, broad boulevards and open piazzas. (Evelyn wrote that “In the disposure of the streets, due consideration should be had, what are the competent breadths for commerce and intercourse (!), cheerfulness and state”). But these plans were over-ambitious, apart from anything else, and were abandoned on the grounds of practicality in favour of one requiring much less groundwork, and much more like the old one (although allowing of at least one concession to modernity, in the widening, and freeing from encumbrance to the flow of traffic, of the streets). The City that might have been never came to be, and that that had been would come to be again: for the most part neither particularly beautiful nor harmonious; but, rather, “lived in” and fractious; and yet, familiar and loved.
The man selected to oversee and implement the chosen reconstruction plan was the aforementioned Christopher Wren, an architect and a member of an aristocratic family who had finally found favour in the Restoration, after years in the wilderness during the Protectorate and Commonwealth: his assistants, the aforementioned brilliant but curmudgeonly Robert Hooke, memorably described by Pepys as “the most, and promises the least, of any man in the world that I ever saw”; and the young and prodigiously gifted Nicholas Hawksmoor. Incidentally, Wren was an anatomist and astronomer as well as an architect (one wonders whether he, like Sartre’s autodidact, acquired his learning by reading an encyclopaedia, starting with the letter “A”); a follower of the “New Philosophy” of Francis Bacon; and a founder member of the Royal Society. He was, in short, an archetypal (English) Renaissance Man, and, most definitely, the right man, in the right place, at the right time – an unusually happy conjunction in the history of the City.
Wren and his office set about their reconstruction work as hastily, or rather speedily, as practicable, so as to provide the City with the opportunity of re-establishing itself with the minimum of delay and loss. In all, they rebuilt 51 parish churches within and immediately without the walls, that is, around half of those that had been destroyed in the Great Fire (*), together with St Paul’s Cathedral, and also rebuilt numerous other public and private buildings, many in the High (English) Renaissance or Early Baroque style – the cost of the entire enterprise being covered by a tax on coal. The most glorious of Wren’s many glorious achievements was undoubtedly St Paul’s Cathedral. The cathedral is faced in plain Portland Stone, wonderfully reflective of the City’s light and mood. It is crowned with a glorious and iconic dome, making it unique among all the cathedrals of England. Wren’s simple epitaph inside the cathedral reads “Lector, si monumentum requiris, circumspice”, meaning “Reader, should you seek his memorial, look about you”. On the pediment above the south door is a stone bearing the image of a Phoenix rising from the ashes, and the inscription of the single word “Resurgam”, meaning “I shall rise again” (the inscription repeating that on another stone found by one of Wren’s workmen among the debris of the old, burnt-out cathedral – a positive portent if ever there was one).
And so, out of the ashes arose a new London. And England was re-born.
(*) Of these 51 churches, 30 are still standing, together with St Paul’s Cathedral, and 21 are not. Of the 21 that are no longer standing, 17, far more than one might have hoped, were demolished by our own over-zealous town planners and engineers in the pell-mell expansion of London following the Industrial Revolution – in some cases, at least marginally justifiably, to allow for development, but in many others simply because they were deemed, under the incomprehensibly philistine Union of Benifices Act of 1860, to be surplus to requirements! Only 4, far fewer than one might have feared, were completely destroyed by German bombing during the Blitz of the Second World War. However, a number of others were also damaged to varying extents at this time, some of which were subsequently restored, and some left as empty shells. Two were destroyed, and 8 damaged, on a single, fateful night, Sunday 29th December, 1940, when thousands of incendiaries were dropped on an essentially unguarded City.
At least many of the original plans of these recently lost churches still survive, as do some later paintings and photographs.