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December 14, 2004
Christopher Wren takes refuge from religious turbulence in science

Wren.jpgChristopher Wren (1632-1723) was a great architect, and also a great scientist, although the distinction between those two callings was less clear in his lifetime than it is now. Here is how Adrian Tinniswood, in his Wren biography entitled His Invention So Fertile, describes the education of his portagnist:

Throughout the worst period of his father's trials and tribulations, the mid-1640s, Christopher Wren spent much of his time away at school in London. In Parentalia, the collection of family memoirs which is still a core source for Wren studies, his own son records that he was 'of tender health', and that his constitution 'was naturally rather delicate than strong, especially in his Youth, which seemed consumptive'. As a result, until he was nine he was taught at home by his father and a domestic tutor, the Reverend William Shepheard. ('Home' at that time was the Deanery at Windsor, although the family still spent extended periods at East Knoyle.) Then in about 1641 the boy went as a boarder to Westminster School, a natural choice for any child of Wren's background: it was run by the notorious disciplinarian Richard Busby, a firm believer in King and corporal punishment. During the war Busby managed to combine these two interests by birching any boys who showed signs of deviating towards the Parliamentary cause, although since he thrashed any boy at the least provocation, one wonders whether Royalist children really had any preferential treatment. His enthusiasm for the King was such that John Owen, Dean of Christ Church, told Oliver Cromwell that 'it would never be well with the nation till Westminster School was suppressed'. Much the same sentiments, although from a different perspective, were expressed by one of Wren's contemporaries at Westminster, Richard South, later to become one of the Restoration court's most popular preachers. South said that 'Westminster School was so untaintedly loyal that he could truly and knowingly own that in the very worst of times he and his companions were really King's scholars as well as called so'.

Other contemporaries included John Dry den and John Locke. There is something satisfying about the picture of these four boys, who would make their names as architect, Anglican divine, poet and philosopher, working together at their Latin and Greek primers (written, incidentally, by Busby himself and sold to his pupils as a profitable sideline). The headmaster had also translated Euclid into Latin, so although it was unusual for mathematics to figure in school syllabuses of the day, Busby's entrepreneurialism extended to the teaching of geometry.

The earliest of Wren's writings to survive dates from these early schooldays. It is a Latin letter to his father from Westminster and endorsed across the bottom in Dean Wren's hand, 'Written in his tenth year':

Reverend Father:

There is a common saying among the ancients which I remember to have had from your mouth: that there is no equivalent which can be given back to parents. For their cares and perpetual labours concerning their children are the evidence of immeasurable love. Now these precepts so often repeated, which have compelled my soul to all that is highest in man and to virtue, have superseded in me all other affections. What in me lies I will perform as much as I am able, lest these gifts should have been bestowed on an ungrateful soul. May the good God Almighty be with me in my undertakings and make good to thee all thou most desirest in the tenderness of thy fatherly love. Thus prays thy son, most devoted to thee in all obedience.

Given the date of this precocious exercise in filial devotion probably the autumn of 1642, and possibly to mark Christopher's tenth birthday in October of that year it would be nice to think of it as a childish message of support for the increasingly beleaguered Dean. But that is being sentimental. The letter is more likely just a Latin exercise by a rather bright young boy who is eager to show off to his father.

Perhaps because he was still quite a sickly child, perhaps because of the change in family circumstances, Wren left Westminster in 1646, when he was still only thirteen. Already he had seen his father go from eminent divine to humiliated and disgraced ex-parson. He had seen his uncle, one of the most prominent churchmen in England, thrown into the Tower of London and left to rot. And, of course, he had seen the religious and political belief-systems that had informed the whole of his childhood ridiculed and discredited and dismantled. What effects did these things have on him at the time?

We don't know. We don't know if he was proud or pious or just plain bored as he sat with his sisters in the rector's family pew at East Knoyle and watched his father stand at the candle-lit altar elevating the Host, or if he had any inkling that the angels and Old Testament figures which hovered over the chancel walls were an expression of pro-Catholic sentiment that was tantamount to treason. We don't know if he cried when he was told how soldiers had ransacked his father's Deanery, or when he heard that his uncle had been sent to the Tower.

It is a little easier to guess at the long-term consequences of Wren's childhood experiences. A career in the Church was no longer an option. The hopes in that direction that the Dean must have had for his son vanished with Matthew's imprisonment. More interestingly, the collapse of Laudianism may account for Christopher's lack of religious zeal in adulthood. He became a conventional and reasonably orthodox Anglican, but apart from his son's statement chat at the end of his life in the 1720s he spent his time in 'Meditations and Researches in holy Writ', there is little to show that religion was particularly important to him. Did the treatment meted out to his father and uncle teach Wren the fragility of political life? The importance of being on the winning side, whichever side that happened to be? The idea that it was better to abstain from political controversy altogether, that he should keep his mind 'invincibly armed against all the enchantments of Enthusiasm', as a colleague was to put it years later?

I think it did. Like any of us, he was angry and frustrated at times, pleased with himself when things went well and exasperated with others when they didn't. But he was also a supreme pragmatist, well able to switch allegiance if it was in his interest to do so. His son's summary of his character in Parentalia, written soon after his death in 1723, suggests that the events of his childhood had taught Wren the dangers of extremism: 'He was happily endued with such an Evenness of Temper, a steady Tranquillity of Mind, and Christian Fortitude, that no injurious Incidents, or Inquietudes of human Life, could ever ruffle or discompose; and was in Practice a Stoick.' It is also tempting to think that having had his world turned upside down politically, spiritually and personally in the 1640s, he saw in the scientific studies that would occupy half his life a means of placing that world on a systematic and rational footing.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:45 PM
Category: Famous educations

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