Christopher Wren's commercial interest: a reflection
Christopher Wren's commercial interests: a reflection
Canon Dr Paula Gooder, Chancellor of St Paul's Cathedral, reflects on research the Cathedral has engaged in about Christopher Wren and his commercial interests, and reflects on the challenge of living ethically.
2023 marks the 300th anniversary of the death of Christopher Wren. At St Paul’s Cathedral, like many others in the City of London and beyond, we are commemorating Wren’s remarkable vision and skill as an architect, astronomer and mathematician.
In preparation for our celebrations, we engaged in some research to enable us to understand as much as possible about Wren’s connections and investments.
You don’t have to look far online to encounter a range of articles suggesting that Christopher Wren was a stockholder in the slave trading Royal Africa Company. This raises uncomfortable questions about Wren and his affiliations which appear to fall short of standards we might expect in the 21st century.
The Royal African Company was founded in 1660 to trade along the West Coast of Africa. The company was initially led by the Duke of York and later by King James II, and before it was dissolved in 1750 had traded more slaves than any other company on record. Although there are a few claims in popular works that Wren was a founding investor in the Royal African Company, a careful review of the investor lists from The National Archives provides no evidence to support this. A search of these lists from its foundation in 1660 to the time of Wren’s death have produced no indication at all that he was an investor (though G.F. Handel, as well as a cousin of Christopher Wren, Matthew Wren, are mentioned). As far as we know, therefore, Christopher Wren was not a shareholder in the Royal African Company.
He was, however, an investor in the Hudson's Bay Company. The Hudson’s Bay Company (originally named ‘The Governor and Company of Adventurers of England trading into Hudson Bay’) was given a Royal Charter in 1670 by King Charles II which gave to the adventurers sole rights to trade in over 1.5 million square kilometres of land inhabited by Inuit and First Nations communities. From 1679 to 1684 Christopher Wren is clearly named as a significant shareholder and member of the committee that oversaw the company’s affairs.
Wren’s membership in, and later Presidency of, the Royal Society also meant that he had interest in the East India Company, in which the Society was a frequent investor.
In addition, the many churches Wren built in the Square Mile sit amongst institutions like the Royal Exchange, the Bank of England, and Lloyds which made London the commercial and financial centre of empire. This proximity raises the question of how the construction of Wren’s ornate churches – St Paul’s in particular – benefitted from the City’s commercial wealth or from benefactors involved in the slave economy.
All of this raises many questions for us to consider today. Wren does not appear to have been a direct investor in a slave trading company such as the Royal African Company, but he was certainly involved in actions that contributed to the expansion of the empire, as well as having indirect connections with companies that used slaves. Despite not having been directly involved in slavery himself, he was certainly complicit in a world of wealth and power that benefitted significantly from the slave trade.
It is important that, in an anniversary year such as this, we recognise the discomfort such knowledge brings us. Wren was a brilliant designer and scientist; he, like others during the period, also benefitted from a world that accumulated wealth through the mistreatment of others.
In some ways, Wren’s situation is parallel to life in the 21st century. Few people today are directly involved in oppression, abuse, or obvious injustice. We are, however, complicit in a world that benefits from such things. The decisions we make, the items we purchase, the actions we do or do not take, all implicate us, whether consciously or not, in a complex web of morality.
As we look back over 300 years to a world that feels so different from our own, it is worth reminding ourselves that the challenge of living ethically in a complex world is no easier today than it was in Wren’s day.