Christopher Wren and the £50 Banknote

25 February 2023 marks the tercentenary of the death of Sir Christopher Wren
Published on 24 February 2023


Joseph Hettrick, Bank of England Archive Assistant

Sir Christopher Wren (1632-1723) has, almost inevitably, been best remembered for his feats of architecture. The Bank of England only moved to its own premises twelve years after Wren’s death, therefore it has no extant architectural connections to Wren. It does, however, hold the dubious distinction of responsibility for the first destruction of a Wren church, in 1782. St. Christopher-le-Stocks on Threadneedle Street was remodelled by Wren following the Great Fire of London (1666). In 1734, the Bank of England moved its premises near to the church, on the site of the house of its first Governor, Sir John Houblon. Following the Gordon Riots of 1780, the Bank’s architect, Robert Taylor, was commissioned to expand and secure the Bank. In the ensuing rebuild, the spire of St. Christopher’s was determined to pose too great a risk to the Bank below as a potential vantage point for any would-be attackers. The Bank was granted permission, by the Bishop of London, to knock down the church, provided that it absorbed the burial ground within its plans. This became the first Garden Court of the Bank, until the bodies were re-inhumed in Nunhead during Herbert Baker’s twentieth-century redesign. 

The Old Garden Court. Bank of England Archive: 15A13/1/6/1

With the increase in the scale and significance of the operations of the Bank as it emerged from the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, it was once again compelled to expand. A second Wren church was removed for this purpose. In 1840, the Bank sponsored the removal of St. Bartholomew-by-the-Exchange in order to make way for Sir John Soane’s new curtain wall. Wren had rebuilt the church, with the exception of its tower, after the Great Fire. Describing the church as it stood at the centenary of Wren’s death in 1823, the architect and biographer James Elmes noted that St. Bartholomew’s was ‘a strong plain building’ with ‘[t]he inside, of the Tuscan order in a bold style; and the outside is rusticated, and has sculpted stone ornaments and dressing.’

Reproduction of a line drawing by Adam Smith, after Thomas Malton, (1769) showing St. Christopher-Le-Stocks, the Bank, and St. Bartholomew’s-by-the-Exchange. Bank of England Archive: 15A13/1/2/141.

The author of the ballad ‘The Modern Goth’, directed at Soane in 1796, drew unfavourable comparison between the latter’s designs for the Bank and Wren’s Vitruvian inspired works:

Thrice happy Wren, he did not live to see
The Dome that’s built and beautified by thee,
O had he lived to see thy blessed work,
To see pilasters scor’d like loins of pork,
To see the Order in confusion move,
Scroles fixed below and Pedestals above,
To see defiance hurled at Rome and Greece,
Old Wren had never left the world in peace.

In spite of these unfortunate connections, in 1981 Wren was chosen as the historical figure to feature on a new £50 banknote. 

The front and back of the £50 Series D note featuring Christopher Wren. Copyright Bank of England.

The original press notice prepared by the Bank for the launch of the note explains the aspects of the design pertinent to Wren, highlighting in particular his architecture and astronomy:

Bank of England Archive: 3A72/1

‘The main feature on the back of the note is a new portrait of Sir Christopher Wren… The scene which forms a background to the portrait is based on a view of St Paul’s from the River Thames... St Paul’s is also featured in the form of a floor plan and the design of the denomination guilloche which is developed from the wood carvings by Grinling Gibbons in the South Choir Aisle of the Cathedral… In the decorative sky, patterns from the Cathedral and a section from Flamsteed’s “Atlas Coelestis” of 1729 are combined to reflect Wren’s interest in astronomy.’1

The note entered circulation on 20 March 1981. Initially there had been some trepidation that a banknote of such high value would be unusable and unwanted. However, the notes proved particularly popular and it soon transpired that there was, in fact, a shortage of them. This had something to do with Christopher Wren, according to one theory put forward by nearly all of the British newspapers. The then Prince of Wales and Lady Diana Spencer were to be married in St. Paul’s that year. The papers speculated that this, combined with the visit of Her Late Majesty and the Duke of Edinburgh to the Bank of England Printing Works on 19 March 1981 to mark the launch of the note and to unveil a Silver Jubilee plaque, had made the new designs a sought after commodity. The Bank explained that ‘[e]veryone has been taken by surprise at the note’s popularity. Nobody can say why they are so sought after, but they’ve proved very popular indeed.’2

Her Late Majesty at the Bank of England Printing Works for the launch of the £50 D Series and to unveil a Silver Jubilee Plaque. Bank of England Archive: 9A349/1

A Times article from 11 August 1981, one of many collated by the Bank’s Press Office on the supposed reasons for the shortage of the £50 D Series. Bank of England Archive: 3A72/1

Wren was replaced by Sir John Houblon on the £50 banknote in 1994, but the Wren note remains a favourite among museum visitors and its design stands as a testament to his life and legacy.

1 Bank of England Archive 3A72/1

2 Bank of England Archive 3A72/1