Inquiring readers, Tony Grant from London Calling has contributed yet another wonderful article. Inspired by my visit to Williamsburg a few weeks ago, he decided to research some of the buildings in more depth.
The Sir Christopher Wren building at the William and Mary College in Virginia is the oldest academic building in the United States. It was built between 1695 and 1700. However its origins began long before that and a long and tortuous path was followed before the construction of the college could be begun.
In 1618 The Virginia Company of London ordered the construction of a university at Henrico, a few miles south of the present day city of Richmond. By 1619 Sir Edwyn Sandys the treasurer of The Virginia Company reported that £1,500 had been collected and also that every bishop in England had been asked to collect money from their parishioners for the construction of the university. In July 1619, workmen were sent from England to construct the university. In 1622 an Indian uprising destroyed Henrico. In 1624 Virginia became a Royal Colony and the licence of The Virginia Company was revoked. This removed the charter allowing the building of the university. In 1661 The General Assembly authorised the purchase of land for the building of a college. Nothing happened until 1690 when the Church of England clergy in Virginia put forward propositions for the construction of a college. The reverend James Blair was sent to England in 1691 to petition the new King and Queen, Willam and Mary, to grant a charter to establish a college. The King provided £1,985 14s 10d for the construction of a college to be named William and Mary. There was also a 1d tax placed on all tobacco sold to other countries apart from Britain to raise money. In 1693 a tract of land was purchased for £170 from Captain Thomas Ballard. In May 1694 The Royal College of Arms, which is situated beside St Paul’s Cathedral in the City of London, created a coat of arms for the college. In 1695 the first bricks were laid of the foundation of the college.
This original building of the college is thought to have been designed by Sir Christopher Wren. There is no documentary evidence to prove this but there are some arguments in favour of Wren being the architect. Wren was the King’s chief architect and William and Mary authorised the construction of the college. The Church of England used Wren as their chief architect in London and it was the Church of England ministers in Virginia who instigated the building of the college. Wren was also responsible for many other important buildings throughout Britain. Wren was the architect who virtually rebuilt London after the Great Fire in 1666.
Sir Christopher Wren was a scientist and mathematician and became one of England’s most famous architects. He was responsible for designing and building over fifty London churches and he was the builder of St Paul’s cathedral in the city. He was born on October 20th 1632 in East Knoyle, a village in Wiltshire in Southern England. His father was the local rector. His father later moved to Windsor and Christopher went to Westminster School, situated next to Westminster Abbey and then went on to Oxford University. He had a talent for mathematics and also inventing things. In 1657 Wren was appointed as the professor of astronomy at Gresham College in London and four years later he became the professor of astronomy at Oxford.
In 1662 he was one of the founding members of The Royal Society along with other great mathematicians and scientists. From his interest in physics and mathematics he developed an interest in architecture. In 1664 and 1665 he was commissioned to build the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford and also the chapel of Pembroke College Cambridge. Architecture then became his main interest. He visited Paris and became interested in the baroque style. In 1666 The Great Fire of London destroyed much of the old city. This provided a great opportunity for Wren. He drew up designs for a grand new city. However, many of his ideas did not come to fruition because the owners of different parcels of land, in the city, did not want to sell. Wren was able, though, to design fifty-one churches and St Paul’s Cathedral.
Returning to the possibility of Wren designing the William and Mary College in Virginia, it is interesting to compare Wren’s known buildings with the college to see what similarities in style there might be. I referred to the efforts to raise the finances to build the college and maybe there was a difficulty here. When you compare what Wren built here in England with William and Mary College there are many discrepancies. William and Mary College looks to be a very downmarket version of Wren’s classic buildings.
There are some similarities in design and proportion though. Whoever did design William and Mary College could at least have had Wren as an inspiration. Wren worked closely with designers such as Grindling Gibbons, the wood carver and John Groves, the plasterer.
They both created the most ornate ceilings, wood panelling and facia stone carvings on Wrens buildings. These people were the most prominent and influential designers of their day. They would have charged a premium price for their talents and skills.From the pictures of William and Mary College these features are not present.
William and Mary, who the college is named after, provide an insight into the turbulent history after the even more turbulent times of the English Civil War.
William Henry Stuart was born on November 14th 1650 in the Hague in the Netherlands. He was the son of William II of Orange. In 1672 William was appointed Stadholder(chief magistrate)and captain general of the Dutch forces to resist a French invasion of the Netherlands. In 1677 he married his cousin Mary, the eldest daughter of James, Duke of York who became James II of England. It was a diplomatic and politically inspired marriage intending to repair the rift between England and the Netherlands after the Anglo Dutch Wars. James II was a very unpopular monarch, not least because he was a catholic. The English Parliament tried to oppose James and wanted to reduce his powers. They secretly invited William and Mary to come to England and rule as joint monarchs. William landed at Torbay on 5th November 1688, a very nice Devon coastal resort these days, with an army of 14,000 troops. With local support this increased to 20,000 men. They advanced on London. This was called the Glorious Revolution. James fled to France and William and Mary were crowned as William III and Mary II. Parliament then passed the Bill of Rights which prevented a catholic taking the throne again and parliament also limited the powers of the monarch.
William and Mary did not like each other. William had a dour personality. He was asthmatic, twelve years older and several inches shorter than Mary and he was a homosexual by nature.
If ever you visit Hampton Court you can walk around the 17th century part of the palace behind the old Tudor part which was designed and built by Sir Christopher Wren as a present for William and Mary. It was also intended as an enticement to bring William to England as our monarch. William and Mary liked Hampton Court and spent a lot of time there.
Visitors today can process through all the rooms of state. A palace was designed to a specific plan. The first rooms you enter were waiting rooms. Ambassadors from other countries would wait until ushered into the next set of rooms to have an audience with the King. Rooms following on from that would be for the Kings own ministers. Following on to the next set of rooms, the greatest of the aristocracy and personal friends of the King would be admitted. As you process through the rooms further only the monarchs most intimate friends, advisors and family would be permitted.
Finally you reach the Kings own personal rooms and, lastly, after all the grand state rooms, a small bedroom, lavishly decorated but very small, almost a closet, the kings own sleeping chamber. It is interesting to note that the room above the king’s bedroom was the room of his own personal manservant who was the only one who had access to the King in the night. His manservant could enter by way of a narrow staircase, which apparently, he often did. We can only surmise!