St. Stephen Walbrook - Table of Contents  ......................  Architecture Around the World

History - St. Stephen Walbrook
39 Walbrook, London EC4N 8BN

St. Stephen Walbrook - Official Home Page



Design for St Stephen Walbrook, Sir Christopher Wren
Design for St Stephen Walbrook, City of London: transverse section and detail of the internal vaulting to a smaller scale
Sir Christopher Wren
About 1679
Drawing

Sir Christopher Wren's churches were intended to be what he called 'auditories', in which everyone present could see, hear and feel themselves part of the congregation. A well-lit interior was imperative, with the minimum of obstruction from internal supports.

The geometry of St. Stephen's church is perfectly rectangular. The window arches are the main sources of light.

The original church was destroyed in the Great Fire of London of 1666. Wren was commissioned to design the new church amongst other projects. Once again the church was badly damaged during the bombing of the Second World War. The steeple was not built until 1713 -1717. Walbrook is named after the Walbrook River, the original water source which attracted people to the area during Roman times.

Wren (1632-1723) was one of the world's greatest architects and his buildings dominated London's skyline from 1660 until the mid 1900s. He designed the new St. Paul's Cathedral and the building of over fifty new churches following the Great Fire of London,  Chelsea Hospital and Greenwich Hospital, Trinity College Library at Cambridge, and he was to improve and extend Hampton Court. After the Rebuilding Act of 1670, he was responsible for the Monument to the Great Fire of London.

The church was destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666.

The present building was constructed in 1672-1679 to a design by Sir Christopher Wren, at a cost of 7,692 [1,051,000 in 2015; $1,484,537 in 2016].

It is rectangular in plan, with a dome and an attached north west tower. Entry to the church is up a flight of sixteen steps, enclosed in a porch attached to the west front. Wren also designed a porch for the north side of the church. This was never built, but there once was a north door, which was bricked up in 1685, as it let in the offensive smells from the slaughterhouses in the neighbouring Stocks Market. The walls, tower, and internal columns are made of stone, but the dome is of timber and plaster with an external covering of copper.

The 63 feet (19 m) high dome is based on Wren's original design for St Paul's, and is centred over a square of twelve columns of the Corinthian order. The circular base of the dome is not carried, in the conventional way, by pendentives formed above the arches of the square, but on a circle formed by eight arches that spring from eight of the twelve columns, cutting across each corner in the manner of the Byzantine squinch [see below:].

This all contributes to create what many consider to be one of Wren's finest church interiors.

Squinch

Squinch:

A small arch, corbeling, or the like, built across the interior angle between two walls, as in a square tower for supporting the side of a superimposed octagonal spire.

A small arch, corbelling, etc, across an internal corner of a tower, used to support a superstructure such as a spire Also called squinch arch


The King and Wren

Wren had come to the notice of Charles II by 1661, soon after the Restoration of the Monarchy. The King tried without success to induce him to travel to Tangier, as a distinguished Oxford scientist, in order to supervise work on the fortifications of this newly acquired outpost. Wren elected to remain in England, perhaps anticipating the reversion of the Surveyorship of the King's Works on the death of the holder of that office. Charles II was a shrewd judge of men and may well have seen better than Wren at that time where the Doctor's true avocation lay. By 1665 Wren was sufficiently committed to architecture to devote to its study much of a long visit to France.

Early in 1669 the King's Surveyor died, and Wren was appointed to succeed him. This made him royal architect, but it was to the Great Fire and not to the Monarch that he owed the opportunity to rebuild St. Paul's and the City churches.

London already used up large amounts of coal from Tyneside. It would have been an ill wind indeed that blew only smoke and soot, and Parliament put a tax on coal arriving in the capital to pay for the rebuilding programme. Separate commissions were set up to deal with the rebuilding of the Cathedral and the churches.

Wren, because of his position as Surveyor, was appointed architect to both, with a special office staffed for each project. His personal control of the design and building of the Cathedral was far more strict than that applied to the churches. The limitations on one man's time and energy meant that a considerable amount of responsibility had to be delegated. This is confirmed by the range of variation in quality, of exactness, finish and decoration between one church and another.

Certainly not all the sixteen churches begun in 1670 were entirely his personal work. Yet another four were started in 1671, and thirteen more between 1673 and 1677; but in 1672 only one church was begun, and that was St. Stephen Walbrook.

It is probable that the unique character of this Church is connected both with the date of its commencement and with the fact that it was Wren's own parish church (he lived at No. 15 Walbrook). In retrospect we can say that Wren was bound to design a masterpiece in 1672, and it was a fortunate parish that requested him then to proceed.
St. Stephen Walbrook: The King and Wren  (online March 2016)

The first stones of the new Church were laid on 17th December, 1672, by the Lord Mayor of London, the Lieutenant of the Tower of London, one of the Chicheley family, six members of the Court of the Grocers' Company (patrons of the Church), the Rector, two churchwardens and four other parishioners.

Two months later the Vestry gave Wren 'or his lady' a silk purse with twenty guineas for 'his great care and extraordinary pains taken in contriving the design of the Church' - the usual formula for the person who designed a building, indicating that the design had been finalised. Wren's chief draughtsman was given five guineas; like Wren, he had been working simultaneously on designs for the Church as well as for St. Paul's Cathedral.

The whole London building trade was now working at full capacity, and it was still five years before the roofing of the Church was complete. In 1678 the high box pews were installed; Wren had allowed for their height in the high bases of the sixteen internal columns. The pews and font, like William Newman's font cover, pulpit, reredos and western screen, introduced in 1679, were paid for not out of the coal tax but by private subscriptions.

The portico to the north, which was never built, was intended to have colonnades on either side, continuing down the sides of the market place, at the opposite end of which was placed on 29th May, 1672, a marble equestrian statue of Charles II on a high pedestal, the gift of Sir Robert Viner. The sculpture is now resited at Newby Hall near Ripon. Wren may well have had in his mind that this open space should resemble the Forum of ancient Rome.

On 27th May, 1679, the Vestry planned a dinner for the architect, masons and joiners, as the Church was ready for use. The steeple was not built until 1713-1717; it closely resembles the steeples of St.   James Garlickhythe and St. Michael Paternoster Royal.

The church is a Grade I listed building with the entry at the English Heritage website [online March 2016]


Page by Chuck LaChiusa in 2016
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