The Lesser-Known Christopher Wren Domes

Last year (2023) we celebrate the 300th anniversary of Christopher Wren’s death. Wren (1633-1723) is widely considered as England’s greatest architect.

His masterpiece that forever stands firm on the London skyline is the great dome of St Paul’s Cathedral. However there are a further three London churches with impressive domes all designed by Wren, not to mention the UNESCO world heritage site at Greenwich’s Old Royal Naval College.

Dome of St Paul's Cathedral | Look Up London

In this post we’ll take a look at the lesser-known domes in three London churches; St Mary-at-Hill, St Stephen Walbrook and St Mary Abchurch.

But first, a little background on the City Churches.

Taken from an etching by Charles Cockerell’s engraving, “Tribute to Christopher Wren” – British Museum / Public Domain

London’s City Churches

After the Great Fire of London in 1666, 87 parish churches were destroyed.

Christopher Wren was appointed Surveyor-General assisted by three surveyors, Robert Hooke, John Oliver and Edward Woodroffe.

The City Churches presented a unique challenge for Wren as his team. Each had unique ground plans, opinionated parishioners and different amounts of surviving masonry. Incredibly, between 1670 and 1686 a total 51 churches were rebuilt.

Three of these surviving City Churches have domes and it’s these that I want to explore in a bit more depth.

St Mary-At-Hill (1670-74)

Tucked down the atmospheric Lovat Lane, it’s easy to overlook St Mary-at-Hill. Hemmed in between buildings, stepping inside provides a wonderful surprise.

Lovat Lane and St Mary-at-Hill | Look Up London

Suddenly you’re surrounded by a light, airy space with a magnificent coffered dome above you.

St Mary-at-Hill Dome | Look Up London

First mentioned around 1177, St Mary’s was damaged in the Great Fire but not totally destroyed. Wren, ever the pragmatist, reused the majority of the outer walls and the tower.

Working with the existing shape gave Wren the chance to experiment with how to place a dome on top of a square, a conundrum that was central to his designed for St Paul’s. Here the shallow dome rests on four columns, an idea he would later build upon for St Stephen Walbrook.

Christopher Wren Domes, St Mary-at-Hill | Look Up London

Further 19th century restorations ensued and amazingly St Mary-at-Hill survived the Blitz. John Betjeman calling it ‘the least spoiled and the most gorgeous interior in the City, all the more exciting by being hidden away among cobbled alleys, paved passages, brick walls, overhung by plane trees.’

But, alas, it wasn’t to be.

In 1988 a fire ripped through the church and the vaults and dome had to be rebuilt. 

St Mary-at-Hill | Look Up London

St Stephen Walbrook (1672-1687)

In 1758 John Wesley described it nicely as a little church that’s “neat and elegant beyond expression”. From the outside it doesn’t seem that impressive. The stonework is rough-hewn because it was once crowded by other buildings.

Christopher Wren Domes, St Stephen Walbrook | Look Up London

But as you ascend the steps you walk into a space full of light and space. The central dome rests on a series of columns, each connected by arches.

Christopher Wren Domes, St Stephen Walbrook | Look Up London

Because the dome itself is not directly connected to the walls, it seems to almost float above you.

Christopher Wren Domes, St Stephen Walbrook | Look Up London

St Stephen Walbrook was built while Wren was wrestling with the design of St Paul’s so it was an ideal testing ground for his work on the Cathedral’s dome.

He undertook a vast amount of research before and during the design of St Stephen’s and while he hadn’t travelled much (only a short visit to Paris) he read vociferously and met with other travellers through his Royal Society connections.

Wren was also fascinated with architecture from the Ottoman empire, namely Hagia Sophia and its dome supported by 4 arches. In his second tract on Architecture written in 1680s he says the vaulting of St Paul’s follows the techniques of Hagia Sophia. 

A Savin / Public Domain
Hagia Sophia with a similar format of a square ground plan topped with a dome. Credit: A Savin / Public Domain

He was also influenced by St Peter’s in Rome, designed by Michelangelo and again supported on four arches. Another inspiration would’ve been the dome of Les Invalides in Paris, which heavily influenced the Royal Hospital at Chelsea (1681-92)

In the end, with both St Stephen Walbrook and St Paul’s, the structure of the dome relies on eight arches supporting its base.

With St Stephen Walbook this works with twelve columns, clustered in groups of three at each corner. They support 8 arches in a roughly circular shape from which the dome can grow.

Christopher Wren Domes, St Stephen Walbrook | Look Up London

There is a further similarity between the domes of St Stephen Walbrook and St Paul’s.

With St Paul’s Wren’s final solution to his dome problem is in fact three domes in one:

  1. The internal one is a perfect hemisphere to ensure the ideal proportions.
  2. A hidden, cone-shaped brick dome which supports the lantern
  3. A light shell made of wooden timbers with a lead skin on top which gives the whole building height and gravitas on the skyline.
Crossection of the dome with drawings by Wren (left) and William Dickinson (right) c.1702-3 © St Pauls Cathedral

Like St Paul’s, St Stephen’s dome isn’t all it seems and is two in one, the interior dome which is constructed from wood and plaster with a thinner exterior dome made from copper.

Now, confident with his solution for creating a domed space over a square room, Wren rinses and repeats for our final City Church…

St Mary Abchurch (1681-1686)

One of the most surprising City Churches, again St Mary Abchurch is tucked down a side street and once you step inside you’re transported back to the late 17th century.

Christopher Wren Domes, St Mary Abchurch | Look Up London

The square site, hemmed in by other buildings gave Wren another opportunity to add a dome.

Looking up, you can admire a wonderful painted dome spanning the entire space with no central supports.

Christopher Wren Domes, St Mary Abchurch | Look Up London

Again it’s supported by 8 arches like St Stephen Walbrook but because there are no aisles (nor free standing columns) it seems to grow weightlessly from the walls.

The dome is painted and at the centre is the Hebrew word for God. It was completed in 1708 by the parishioner William Snow who was paid £170.

Although it was badly damaged in the Blitz (a bomb fell through the dome in 1940 and the freedoms was shattered into fragments) it was restored with the utmost sensitivity by Godfrey Allen so has the same feeling that Wren would’ve known.

I very much agree with Dan Cruikshank’s assessment of the restoration that the whole effect is “gentle and respectful”.

Visit the City Churches

The best way of visiting these churches is during the week. The excellent Friends of City Churches website (https://www.london-city-churches.org.uk/) details when each of the churches are open but St Stephen Walbrook and St Mary Abchurch are open most weekdays.

I’ve written about the following City Churches in their own dedicated blogs: St Margaret Lothbury, St Margaret Pattens and St Mary Moorfields.


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