Only a few onlookers observed as Thomas Strong, a master mason, set into place the first stone of St. Paul's that was lowered deep into the earth on this day June 21, 1675. Several reasons have been suggested for the lack of fanfare around one of the great Cathedrals of Christendom. The King may have feared for his safety. He had recently implemented financial measures which were unpopular in the city and had caused great distress. There was also ill-will between the king and Archbishop Seldon. Furthermore, there had been considerable controversy over the plans for the Cathedral. Any of these considerations may have been sufficient to account for the silence with which the work began.
Old St. Paul's burned down in the great London fire of 1666. It had been in bad repair, and various sin taxes were applied to efforts at restoration under architect Inigo Jones. In time the idea of restoration gave way to replacement. King Charles II appointed Christopher Wren chief architect of a rebuilding project. Although he had no formal training as an architect, Wren was a genius who contributed to many sciences and built several public works. Wren's simple and elegant proposals were fiercely contested by a committee which designed a monstrosity.
Christopher Wren, a practical man, agreed to the committee's plan--with the stipulation that he be allowed to make such modifications as would prove necessary during the actual construction. He modified continuously with the result that the finished work closely resembled his own original design! This miffed the committee and eventually led to him being sacked.
An extraordinary coincidence occurred during the rebuilding. When Wren began laying out the shape of his proposed dome, he called a workman to bring him a bit of stone. The workman grabbed the first piece that came to hand. Inscribed on it in Latin was the word, Resurgam. -- "May I Rise Again." St. Paul's rose swiftly. Few cathedrals are built in a lifetime. Wren completed the project in just 35 years.
To Wren, a staunch Protestant, the preaching of the gospel was the primary function of a church; and he designed the interior so that the pulpit would be the center of attention. He forbade his workmen to curse on the project, reminding them, on pain of dismissal, that they were engaged in a holy work. After his death Christopher Wren was entombed within the Cathedral. On his commemoration stone is written: Si monumentum requiris, circumspice. -- "If you would see his monument, look around."
As an interesting historical sidelight, German efforts to destroy the cathedral by bombing in World War II never succeeded. It became a symbol of faith for the nation.
- Allen, John, "Sir Christopher Wren," in One Hundred Great Lives. New York: The Journal of Living, 1944. pp. 111 - 117.
- Asimov, Isaac. Asimov's Biographical Encyclopedia of Science and Technology. New York: Doubleday, 1964.
- Briggs, Martin S. Wren the Incomparable. London: Allen & Unwin, 1953.
- Milman, Lena. Sir Christopher Wren. London: Duckworth, 1908. Source of the image.
- Pevsner, Nikolaus. An Outline of European Architecture. Penguin, 1943. pp.318, 319; 324 - 329; 332 - 397.
- Scott, J. F. "Wren, Christopher," in Dictionary of Scientific Biography. Editor, Charles Coulston Gillispie. New York: Scribner's, 1970.
- "Wren, Christopher." The Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press, 1967 - 68.
Last updated April, 2007.