Life and Works 1653–1664
Receiving his M.A. in 1653, Wren was elected a fellow of All Souls' College in the same year and began an active period of research and experiment in Oxford. His days as a fellow of All Souls ended when Wren was appointed Professor of Astronomy at Gresham College, London in 1657. He was provided with a set of rooms and a stipend and was required to give weekly lectures in both Latin and English to all who wished to attend; admission was free. Wren took up this new work with enthusiasm. He continued to meet the men with whom he had frequent discussions in Oxford. They attended his London lectures and in 1660, initiated formal weekly meetings. It was from these meetings that the Royal Society, England's premier scientific body, was to develop. He undoubtedly played a major role in the early life of what would become the Royal Society; his great breadth of expertise in so many different subjects helping in the exchange of ideas between the various scientists. In fact, the report on one of these meetings reads:
"Memorandum November 28, 1660. These persons following according to the usual custom of most of them, met together at Gresham College to hear Mr Wren's lecture, viz. The Lord Brouncker, Mr Boyle, Mr Bruce, Sir Robert Moray, Sir Paule Neile, Dr Wilkins, Dr Goddard, Dr Petty, Mr Ball, Mr Rooke, Mr Wren, Mr Hill. And after the lecture was ended they did according to the usual manner, withdraw for mutual converse."
In 1662, they proposed a society "for the promotion of Physico-Mathematicall Experimental Learning." This body received its Royal Charter from Charles II and "The Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge" was formed. In addition to being a founder member of the Society, Wren was president of the Royal Society from 1680 to 1682.
In 1661, Wren was elected Savilian Professor of Astronomy at Oxford, and in 1669 he was appointed Surveyor of Works to Charles II. From 1661 until 1668 Wren's life was based in Oxford, although his attendance at meetings of the Royal Society meant that he had to make occasional trips to London.
The main sources for Wren's scientific achievements are the records of the Royal Society. His scientific works ranged from astronomy, optics, the problem of finding longitude at sea, cosmology, mechanics, microscopy, surveying, medicine and meteorology. He observed, measured, dissected, built models and employed, invented, and improved a variety of instruments.
Life and Works 1665–1723
It was probably around this time that Wren was drawn into redesigning a battered St Paul's Cathedral. Making a trip to Paris in 1665, Wren studied architecture, which had reached a climax of creativity, and perused the drawings of Bernini, the great Italian sculptor and architect, who himself was visiting Paris at the time. Returning from Paris, he made his first design for St Paul's. A week later, however, the Great Fire destroyed two-thirds of the city. Wren submitted his plans for rebuilding the city to King Charles II, although they were never adopted. With his appointment as King's Surveyor of Works in 1669, he had a presence in the general process of rebuilding the city, but was not directly involved with the rebuilding of houses or companies' halls. Wren was personally responsible for the rebuilding of 51 churches; however, it is not necessarily true to say that each of them represented his own fully developed design.
Wren was knighted 14 November 1673. This honour was bestowed on him after his resignation from the Savilian chair in Oxford, by which time he had already begun to make his mark as an architect, both in services to the Crown and in playing an important part in rebuilding London after the Great Fire.
Additionally, he was sufficiently active in public affairs to be returned as Member of Parliament on four occasions. Wren first stood for Parliament in a by-election in 1667 for the Cambridge University constituency, losing by six votes to Sir Charles Wheler. He was unsuccessful again in a by-election for the Oxford University constituency in 1674, losing to Thomas Thynne. On his third attempt Wren was successful and he sat for Plympton Erle during the Loyal Parliament of 1685 to 1687. Wren was returned for New Windsor on 11 January 1689 in the general election, but his election was declared void on 14 May 1689. He was elected again for New Windsor on 6 March 1690, but this election was declared void on 17 May 1690. Over a decade later he was elected unopposed for Weymouth and Melcombe Regis at the November 1701 general election. He retired at the general election the following year.
By 1669, Wren's career was well established and it may have been his appointment as Surveyor of the King's Works in early 1669 that persuaded him that he could finally afford to take a wife. In 1669, the 37-year-old Wren married his childhood neighbour, the 33-year-old Faith Coghill, daughter of Sir John Coghill of Bletchingdon. Little is known of Faith's life or demeanour, but a love letter from Wren survives, which reads, in part:
"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 labors 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 ...."
This brief marriage produced two children: Gilbert, born October 1672, who suffered from convulsions and died at about 18 months old, and Christopher, born February 1675. The younger Christopher was trained by his father to be an architect. It was this Christopher that supervised the topping out ceremony of St Paul's in 1710 and wrote the famous Parentalia, or, Memoirs of the family of the Wrens. Faith Wren died of smallpox on 3 September 1675. She was buried in the chancel of St Martin-in-the-Fields beside the infant Gilbert. A few days later Wren's mother-in-law, Lady Coghill, arrived to take the infant Christopher back with her to Oxfordshire to raise.
In 1677, 17 months after the death of his first wife, Wren remarried, this time to Jane Fitzwilliam, daughter of William FitzWilliam, 2nd Baron FitzWilliam and his wife Jane Perry, the daughter of a prosperous London merchant.
She was a mystery to Wren's friends and companions. Robert Hooke, who often saw Wren two or three times every week, had, as he recorded in his diary, never even heard of her, and was not to meet her till six weeks after the marriage. As with the first marriage, this too produced two children: a daughter Jane (1677–1702); and a son William, "Poor Billy" born June 1679, who was developmentally delayed.
Like the first, this second marriage was also brief. Jane Wren died of tuberculosis in September 1680. She was buried alongside Faith and Gilbert in the chancel of St Martin-in-the-Fields. Wren was never to marry again; he lived to be over 90 years old and of those years was married only nine.
Bletchingdon was the home of Wren's brother-in-law William Holder who was rector of the local church. Holder had been a Fellow of Pembroke College, Oxford. An intellectual of considerable ability, he is said to have been the figure who introduced Wren to arithmetic and geometry.
Wren's later life was not without criticisms and attacks on his competence and his taste. In 1712, the Letter Concerning Design of Anthony Ashley Cooper, third Earl of Shaftesbury, circulated in manuscript. Proposing a new British style of architecture, Shaftesbury censured Wren's cathedral, his taste and his long-standing control of royal works. Although Wren was appointed to the Fifty New Churches Commission in 1711, he was left only with nominal charge of a board of works when the surveyorship started in 1715. On 26 April 1718, on the pretext of failing powers, he was dismissed in favour of William Benson.
In 1713, he bought the manor of Wroxall, Warwickshire from the Burgoyne family, to which his son Christopher retired in 1716 after losing his post as Clerk of Works. Several of Wren's descendants would be buried there in the Church of St Leonard.