OREALD.COM - An Old Electronic Library
eng: a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z

Oxford and Its Colleges

Pages: <1> 2

Oxford lies in a broad, green valley of rich meadowlands, where the winding, willow-fringed Cherwell and Isis join their streams. It is surrounded by gently rising hills, Headington and Boar's Hill. Those who enter the city by the London road pass from Headington over Magdalen Bridge, leaving the slender tower of Magdalen College on their right. They enter upon the " streamlike wanderings of that glorious street," the High, and find themselves in the midst of colleges, university and domestic buildings and city churches essentially different in character and grouping from anything to be seen in other famous cities of the world. It is not merely that there are here nine centuries of English history chronicled in stone, but also that the buildings and their arrangement, whilst reflecting the tastes and tendencies of successive generations, are inspired by a unique and permanent tradition.

Within the last half-century Oxford has been changed from a medieval into a modern city. Vast residential and industrial suburbs are springing up around the ancient place. The Morris motor-car factory at Cowley is a world-famous instance of its industrial activity. But these developments, though inevitably producing congestion of traffic and rapidly destroying the amenities of the surrounding country, have so far had little effect upon the charm of the old buildings. It is hoped to control them by the application of regional town-planning.

Oxford in the past has had a triple aspect. It appears first as a little monastic borough and Norman stronghold and a pleasure resort of the early Plantagenet kings; next as a town of growing political and commercial importance; and finally as a University city. For Oxford was not made by the University so much as the University by Oxford. Always its position as a turnpike upon the Thames thoroughfare and as the key to the communications north and west of London kept it in closest touch with the developments of national life and thought. The great assemblies of the kingdom held there in early days attest the political and strategical importance of the place. One, under Canute, marked the peaceable fusion of Englishman and Dane; another, under Stephen, the reconciliation of Englishman and Norman; and yet another, under Henry III, inaugurated by the "Provisions of Oxford" the rise of English constitutional liberty.

The same reasons, combined with the loyalty of the University, led Charles I to establish his camp and court there during the Civil War. He chose Christ Church for his residence. Oxford then became the rival capital of the kingdom, and a rival Parliament sat in the Divinity Schools (1644). The Parliamentarians laid siege to it in the following year, but only at the king's command did it surrender to Sir Thomas Fairfax. Parliament met again at Oxford in 1665 and 1681, when, the plague having broken out in London, Charles II moved with all his court to Christ Church.

At the beginning of the eighth century Oxford was a mere bank of gravel, uninhabited, fringed by dense forests, and sloping northwards from a swampy network of streams. To this retreat, safe by reason of its isolation, came Frideswide, pious daughter of a Mercian prince. She founded there a church and nunnery on the site of the present "Cathedral Church of Christ." A brass in the Lady Chapel marks her probable tomb; part of the east wall is a fragment of her church. This church having been burnt by the Danes in 1002, it was rebuilt on a larger scale by Ethelred. A portion of Ethelred's church survives in the massive arches of the choir, which, with the east end, was radically restored in the nineteenth century by Sir Gilbert Scott.

St. Frideswide's foundation was succeeded by a monastery, which was dissolved by Wolsey in 1524. Wolsey cut off the three western bays of the priory church to make room for a magnificent chapel for his new foundation of Cardinal College. After his fall, Henry VIII made it a cathedral, removing thither the new bishop's see from Osney (1546). It is one of the smallest cathedrals in England, and is at once the cathedral church of the diocese and the chapel of the adjoining College of Christ Church. The upper portion of the tower and the short spire were built in the thirteenth century, the latter being one of the first erected in England.

Wolsey's College was re-founded by Henry VIII, who united it with his new bishopric. Wolsey had completed part of the Great Quadrangle and also the magnificent kitchen and hall, the approach to which, with its beautiful fan tracery, was added in 1640 by Dr. Samuel Fell. Under his more famous son, Dr. John Fell, Wren built Tom Tower over Wolsey's gateway. In it was hung a great bell bought from Osney Abbey, Great Tom, which nightly at nine o'clock rings 101 strokes, the number of the members of the foundation. Fell also completed the Broad Walk through the Christ Church meadows. Dean Aldrich, famous as a scholar, wit and architect, designed Peckwater Quadrangle (1705), as well as the spire of All Saints' Church in the High Street. Christ Church boasts many famous names amongst its deans and alumni. The number of Prime Ministers educated there is remarkable, including Grenville, Canning, Peel, Gladstone, Salisbury and Rosebery. Lewis Carroll (C. L. Dodgson), the author of "Alice in Wonderland," and John Ruskin were both of them modern Christ Church men.

Humble wooden dwellings grew up around the monastery of S. Frideswide and by the deep ford across the Isis from which the town derives its name. The citizens presently had their common pasture in Port Meadow, and their church of S. Martin's, the tower of which remains. This church was built in 1034 at Carfax (Middle English: Carfoukes, from the Latin, Quadrifurcum, "Four forks"), the crossroads where the High Street intersects S. Aldate's, the road which connected Wessex and Mercia and ran down to the river at Folly Bridge.

The town was protected from attack on three sides by streams. To guard it on the north side an earthen wall was thrown up, the starting point of which was the great Mound, near the modern station. This was strengthened in 1071 by a castle built by Robert D'Oigli, William the Conqueror's castellan. The massive keep still exists. It was in this castle that Queen Matilda was besieged by Stephen, and from it she made her escape across the snow to Wallingford.

A high, strong wall with towers and bastions took the place of the old vallum in the time of Henry III. One section, almost intact, forms the picturesque boundary of New College. Further protection was provided, after the Norman custom, by strongly built churches at suitable spots, with towers which still in some instances retain a military character. Such were S. Michael's at North Gate and S. Peter's at East Gate. Purely religious foundations at this time were the churches of S. Mary the Virgin, S. Ebbe's, S. Cross, S. Mary Magdalene and S. Aldate's. Some of these were perhaps built by Robert d'Oigli, the wife of whose nephew founded the great Abbey of Osney in 1129, on the site of the present railway station. About the same time the royal palace of Beaumont was erected by Henry I on rising ground near Worcester College.

By the end of the twelfth century Oxford had become a stately town of stone houses and stood in the front rank of English municipalities. The Jews, encouraged by the early Plantagenet kings, had added to Her wealth, and charters granted by the same sovereigns confirmed the liberties of her citizens. Their merchant guilds and craft guilds were highly organized, and their self-government by bailiffs and aldermen was complete. But just at this time, dropped like a cuckoo's egg in a sparrow's nest, there arose a new and rival power, the University, destined after a century of strife to curtail many of their liberties and eclipse their fame.

The expulsion of foreign students from the University of Paris in 1167 led (it is probable) to a migration of English masters and students to the flourishing town where they might expect to enjoy the favour of the king and his court at Beaumont. Certain it is that in 1185 Giraldus Cambrensis found established there a University, or place of general study, with an academic population of no less than 3,000 souls. Town and Gown were soon at daggers drawn.

In 1209 an infringement of their ecclesiastical privileges, in which the town was supported by King John, caused the University to migrate to Cambridge as a protest. But after John's surrender they returned triumphant, with a charter of privilege from the Papal Legate definitely establishing their immunity from all lay jurisdiction.

The Friars, who first came to Oxford in 1221, made it their chief centre of learning and teaching in England. The Priory of the Franciscans, on the site of Paradise Square, rivalled S. Frideswide's and Osney. Duns Scotus and William of Ockham were the most famous of their theologians, whilst Roger Bacon, the greatest name in Oxford science, ended his days as a brother of their order. To the great monastery of the Carmelites, Edward I presented the Palace of Beaumont, where Richard Coeur de Lion had been born. Several of the modern colleges occupy the site of old monasteries. The picturesque quadrangle of Worcester College, for instance, still includes the old monastic buildings of Gloucester Hall, founded as a house of study for Benedictine monks (c. 1280).

As S. Martin's was the centre of civic life, so the church of S. Mary in the High Street was the first home and centre of the University, where all its business, academical as well as ecclesiastical, was transacted. The old Congregation House adjoining it was added in the fourteenth century, and the room above it was used as a library and school of law. But the church itself is and was a parish church, lent by the town to the University for scholastic business.

It was not till the middle of the fourteenth century that the University was provided with buildings of its own. Then the Divinity Schools were erected (1424-1466), with an upper story for housing the library, which had been increased by gifts of books from Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester. The Duke Humphrey library is now included in the famous library founded by Sir Thomas Bodley (1603). "Bodley" forms the east and west sides of the Schools' Quadrangle. Its rich store of books and MSS., renders it one of the great libraries of the world. The most remarkable of the additions to the buildings of the Bodleian is the Radcliffe Library-the "Camera Radcliffiana" -designed by James Gibbs (1737). It was intended by its munificent founder, Dr. John Radcliffe, to house a scientific library. This has now been removed to the University Science Museum in convenient proximity to the laboratories in the "Parks," whilst the Camera serves as a reading-room for modern books.

The Convocation House adjoining the Divinity School was added by Archbishop Laud (1634) for the transaction of the legislative business of the University. A little later the scene of its other secular academic ceremonies was transferred from S. Mary's to the Sheldonian Theatre. This magnificent building, designed by Wren, was erected by the munificence of Archbishop Sheldon (1669) to accommodate the University at the Encaenia, the solemn rite of admitting Masters of Art to teach, and also to receive the Arundel Marbles presented by the Duke of Norfolk. The Ashmolean Museum, adjoining it, designed by Wood, was added in 1683 to house the collection of Elias Ashmole. The modern Examination Schools are in Merton Street. Close to the Sheldonian, the University Press was established in the Clarendon building, erected (1713) with funds arising from the sale of Lord Clarendon's history.

When the University had thus obtained buildings of its own suitable for its educational work, S. Mary's was once more reserved for religious purposes only. It has remained ever since, as a parish church and the University Church, the centre of successive religious movements. Among the Friars, William of Ockham had supported the cause of the civil power against the Pope. John Wycliffe, a Master of Balliol in 1356, went further on the same lines. Appealing to the people and organizing bands of popular preachers from Oxford, he led the first Reformers in an attack upon the abuses, extortions and dogmas of the Papacy. But ruthless persecution repressed for a hundred years the Reformation of which Oxford had been the fount and centre.

From the pulpit of S. Mary's Peter Martyr delivered his testimony, and John Wesley foreshadowed his secession from the Church; John Keble (commemorated in Keble College) began the Oxford High Church movement. Here Dr. Pusey preached a sermon for which he was suspended, and Dr. Newman entered on the road to Rome. S. Mary's was rebuilt in the fifteenth century, when, following the prevailing fashion, pinnacles were added to the old tower and spire, with their fourteenth century statues.

Oxford had at first welcomed the New Learning, indeed, the earliest Greek scholars were all Oxonians. Dean Colet (Magdalen) and Sir Thomas More led the movement for reforming the Church without separation from Rome. But Wolsey's new foundation soon proved a home of Lutheran heresy, and under Archbishop Cranmer the Reformation took the opposite direction, only to be followed by the Catholic reaction under Mary. Bishops Latimer and Ridley were burned at the stake, October 16, 1555; and Cranmer on March 25, 1556, at a spot opposite Balliol College, now marked by the Martyrs' Memorial (1841). In the choir of S. Mary's the body of Amy Robsart, wife of the Earl of Leicester, Chancellor of the University, was laid to rest after she had been found dead at Cumnor Place. The preacher of the funeral sermon was indiscreet enough to refer to the virtues of "this poor lady so pitifully murdered."

The Friars were ambitious and grasping; whilst Oxford, as the home of the secular clergy, was jealous of the regulars. It was in defence of the secular clergy against the encroachments of the Friars that a first step was taken which was destined to change the whole constitution and character of the University and of Oxford; for it issued in the foundation of colleges. The early students lodged in hired "halls," or houses in the town. One of these houses in the High Street was subsequently incorporated as University College (1280). Before the incorporation of this hall, Walter de Merton had founded a seminary intended exclusively for the training of secular as distinguished from the regular clergy. It was copied by every subsequent founder of colleges, and completely revolutionised University life. For from this time onwards the foundation of colleges marks each successive stage in the development, not only of the university, but of English history itself.

>>> Next page >>>
Pages: <1> 2

Pictures for Oxford and Its Colleges

Home | Privacy Policy | Copyright | About