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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 1
This webpage reproduces a chapter of
A Handy Guide to Oxford

by C. R. L. Fletcher

published by Oxford University Press
London & Humphrey Milford 1926

The text is in the public domain.

This text has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 3

 p19  Chapter II
History of City and University

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The Castle and Mill

Oxford was never a Roman city and is not even a very old English town; Abingdon, seven miles to the south, is much older. The first we hear of the site is that a nunnery was founded here by a royal Saxon lady in the eighth century. She was called Saint Frideswide, and the present Oxford Cathedral is probably on the site of her first church. The site of her shrine is still to be seen in the cathedral. The first mention of Oxford by name is in the year 912,​a and it was King Edward, son of Alfred the Great, who perhaps pitched on the spot for some sort of rude wooden fortress. Before the days of bridges, fords were important, and the 'Ford of the Ox' was a good place to cross the Thames. Lots of little rivers flow from north and north-west to join the Thames a little above the city, and the Cherwell, whose acquaintance we made in the last chapter, is the biggest of all Thames tributaries above Reading. There is a curious artificial mound which you see on the way from the station, and it perhaps marks the site of a Saxon or (?) Norman wooden tower. Wooden houses would grow up under the shelter of such a primitive 'castle'; for protection was the one great need when the Danes were ravaging and slaying all over the country. Alfred and his son Edward were the two kings who did most to keep these Danes back from southern England, and gradually the midlands were won back for the Saxons; Oxford, you see, stands on the frontier, as it were, between the midlands and the south. The growth of a frontier  p20 town would be pretty rapid. The Danes burned it to the ground several times; last, I think, in 1010. We hear of St. Martin's Church (at the present Carfax — only the tower now remains) as early as 1032. Domesday Book, compiled in 1086, twenty years after the Norman Conquest, speaks of Oxford as if it were already quite an important place, with customs and privileges of its own. 'When the King goes to war Oxford owes him twenty soldiers or twenty pounds'. There were 721 houses in the town. And 'all the Burgesses of Oxford have in common a pasture without the wall which pays 6s. 8d. to the King'. It was, and is, called Port Meadow.

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The Castle Mound (c. 1067) with St. George's Tower (1071)

The really great man of these parts was the Abbot of Abingdon, but King William I gave a lot of lands and houses in Oxford to a Norman follower of his own, called Robert d'Oilly. It was Robert who built the present tower, which alone remains of the great stone castle by the West Gate. You can see this tower by turning to the left at the junction of New Road and Park End Street. No doubt Robert kept a stout garrison in it to keep the townsmen in order. He probably built the tower of St. Michael's Church (in Cornmarket) and perhaps built churches on the site of the present St. Ebbe's and St. Peter's Churches; St. Peter's is the one which lies just on the edge of New College garden, where the Hospital tents are. Robert's nephew founded the great Abbey of Oseney outside the West Gate; hardly a stone of it remains,​1 but it lay just beyond the railway station on the left of the road. Churches, convents, and monasteries  p22 multiplied rapidly during the twelfth century. King Henry I had a palace in what is now Beaumont Street, and went a‑hunting at Woodstock, seven miles north-west. It was his father, Henry II, who gave the first charter to Oxford; Richard and his brother John and John's son, Henry III, followed it up with still more liberal grants of privilege, allowing the citizens to elect their own magistrates, the predecessors of the present Mayor and Corporation. There may have been a stone wall round the city before the thirteenth century: the present remains, though later than that date, are on the lines of the thirteenth-century wall. There were four main gates; the North Gate at St. Michael's Church, called Bocardo; the East Gate at your Hospital door; the South, just south of Christ Church; the West, by the Castle; all are now swept away. The Thames guarded the approaches on west and south, the Cherwell on the east, and only on the north was there need of an artificial moat, called 'Canditch', on the site of the present Broad Street. There may have been a few stone houses before the end of the twelfth century; probably the first were built by Jews, who seem to have been the only rich men (except the great landowners) of those days. Kings visited us frequently, and parliaments were held here. A royal visit was a doubtful blessing; His Majesty would bring a train of perhaps a thousand courtiers and dependents with him, and would stay as a guest in one of the great abbeys, and eat and drink it out of house and home.

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The Old Bocardo Gate (now destroyed)

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The East Gate (now destroyed)

And in this same third century the University began to grow up. The earliest schools in England were in the great monasteries, and the teaching was  p24 wholly in the hands of the monks and only in such subjects as the monks approved. But before the middle of the twelfth century we begin to hear of a sort of revolt of intelligent people against the rather narrow views of the monks; we hear of at least one foreign scholar coming to Oxford and giving lectures on Law — a subject in which monks took little interest. Teaching, after law, is a 'trade', and as all trades were then grouped into brotherhoods, called 'gilds', the first idea of a university seems to have been some sort of gild of teachers or lecturers. Your gild would give you a licence to teach, and kings, or perhaps popes, would give a licence to a particular city to have a gild or corporation of teachers. Scholars would travel half over Europe to listen to some renowned teacher; Paris, and Bologna (in Italy) were early centres of teaching. Oxford and Paris in fact grew into something like universities about the same date; and, if one may say so, almost without realizing what was happening to them. Finally some pope would give to such a body of teachers a charter with power to elect its own chancellor, vice-chancellor, and other officers; power to hold property; power to confer 'degrees', a degree being the mark that you had qualified as a teacher, served, as it were, your apprentice­ship to the trade. The first, or lowest, degree is now that of Bachelor of Arts (B.A.); the next that of Master of Arts (M.A.). 'Doctors' ' degrees were only conferred on those who had studied special subjects, such as Law, Medicine, or theology. At the present day, for each of these degrees a special kind of hood is worn over the shoulders, and a special gown.

The first students would live in crowded lodging-houses  p27 or 'halls',​2 and some of these halls afterwards became the sites of colleges. Some benevolent rich man would give, either in his lifetime or by will, the rents of certain lands 'to maintain for ever twenty poor scholars at Oxford'; they would be bound to pray for his soul, but also to study and become learned men 'fit to serve God in Church and State'. These 'poor students' would live together in one hall, and other pious benefactors would give them more lands, or build larger buildings for them. And so a college might very well take five or six centuries to 'grow' into its present condition; a healthy college in fact is always 'growing', even to‑day. And even to‑day, though it is a revival, not a survival, there are some students 'not attached to any college or hall', and commonly called 'The Unattached' or  p28 the 'Non-Collegiate' students. They live in lodging-houses licensed by the authorities of the University, and are in all respects full members of the University, though not of any college. Moreover, as no college has within its walls room for all its junior members, there are great many members of ordinary colleges also living in lodgings for some part (generally the last year) of their undergraduate career.

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Great Lion Hall
Types of Halls (from old drawings)

Now, see; you might quite well have a university without any colleges; the students might continue to live each for himself in lodgings. So they do at all the modern universities, of which a number have been founded in our great towns during the last eighty years. But the peculiarity of Oxford and Cambridge is that in them you have both the common life in their colleges and the opportunities for education of the very highest kind afforded by the University. The University itself has also been endowed, though not so richly as many of the colleges, with lands and money, and some of its rents go to pay Professors and 'Readers' and Lecturers. It, and each college, is a 'body corporate', with self-government to a limited extent over its own members. The University has now more interest in the colleges than it used to have, and all colleges who are rich enough are obliged to make contributions to its funds. Each college maintains tutors who give lectures to its own men within its walls; and any member of a college can also attend the lectures of the University professors.

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St. Alban's Hall (see p40)

Internally each college bears some resemblance to a regiment. The Head of it (who may be called 'Master', or 'Provost', or 'Warden', or 'Rector', or 'Principal', or 'President') is the colonel; the 'Fellows' (whom in our common talk we call 'Dons')  p30 are the officers; the undergraduates are the men. There are no regular non-coms., but in practice there are always a dozen or so of leading undergraduates who, in a good college, are on the best of terms with the Dons and do their best to keep up the reputation of the college both in the 'Schools' (as we call the examinations which men have to pass to get their degree) and in the sphere of athletics. There is one of the Dons called the 'Dean', who is just like the adjutant of the regiment and is responsible for its discipline. The University has also two supreme adjutants, called 'Proctors', who are responsible for the discipline of the whole University. And at the head of all is the very great man called the Vice-Chancellor, whom we might compare to the general of a brigade. The office of Chancellor is more or less honorary.

Not all Dons are engaged in giving instruction, for a college is a 'place of religion and learning', as well as of education. Like a regiment each college has a padre called a Chaplain, who conducts the daily services in the chapel; and in almost every one there are one or two of the Fellows who do 'research work' on their own account to add to the sum of knowledge in this very ignorant and imperfect world. One of our most distinguished members has recently been working to discover an antidote to the poisonous gases with which the enemy is trying to break the line of the Allies.

So, if I have made myself at all clear, you will see that the University was what we should call an 'established business' more than fifty years before the first college was founded in Oxford by Walter de  p31 Merton (Edward I's Lord Chancellor) in the years 1264‑74. University College was founded six years later (1280), Balliol eight years later; Exeter, Oriel, and Queen's early in the fourteenth century; New College, in whose gardens you bask, before 1390. The idea of all these foundations and of all later colleges was the same; to establish a common, or corporate, life for students who came to Oxford to learn or teach. In those days they came much younger than they do now; Cardinal Wolsey is believed to have taken his degree at fourteen. But then, remember that the Black Prince won a battle at fifteen. The students also stayed longer; seven years was not an unusual course. So there were both big and little boys in fourteenth-century Oxford, and a fine quarrelsome set they were. They were always having fights with the citizens; these lasted almost till my own youth, when they were called 'Town and Gown rows' (because undergraduates wear gowns). In the Middle Ages they often ended in battle, murder, and sudden death. After such rows (as on St. Scholastica's day, Feb. 10, 1354, when Merton College was besieged for a week and forty Oxford scholars were killed) the Vice-Chancellor would hold solemn inquest and fine the citizens severely and make them do penance.

Oxford may be called one of the birthplaces of the Reformation in Europe, for, late in the fourteenth century, John Wiclif (who was perhaps an undergraduate of Queen's, then perhaps a Fellow of Merton, and certainly Master of Balliol) began to translate the Latin Bible into English, and attacked the Pope and  p32 the Roman Church in several ways. The movement was stamped down by the authorities for a time, but it smouldered on and burst out again in Henry VIII's reign, when the study of Greek had begun to open men's eyes. Three more colleges were founded in the fifteenth century: Lincoln (tucked into the dark little street called 'The Turl', i.e. turnstile) in 1427; All Souls, in the High Street, in 1437; and Magdalen in 1458. Brasenose comes next, 1509, and Corpus Christi in 1516. Cardinal Wolsey's magnificent scheme to create a college larger than any other, to be called Cardinal College, was strangled in its birth by Henry VIII, who was just then laying most vigorous hands on anything he could reform (or, shall we say, confiscate?). But bluff King Hal loved learning and learned men too, and he refounded Wolsey's college, and in his own last year called it Christ Church. He also created a bishopric of Oxford, and took St. Frideswide's Church (which is actually inside the walls of Christ Church) to be its cathedral. Moreover, he gave the University a new charter, which made its officials lords and masters of the city (1523). The Vice-Chancellor's Court could henceforth deal very severely with any tradesman who tried to injure or defraud a member of the University. It was in the same reign that the monasteries in Oxford (as everywhere else in England) were all destroyed; their ruins were sold or pulled down; some of their lands went to enrich some colleges, but more of them were given to the King's courtiers. And so the face of Oxford, as of England, was changed in fifty years.

Was it for good or evil? Who shall say?

Certainly there were many abuses which needed  p33 reforming, but it is sad to reflect on the results of the six years' reign of that ardent baby-Protestant, Edward VI, when no end of beautiful painted windows and statues of saints, no end of mediaeval church architecture, yes and many valuable mediaeval books, were smashed or burned because they were alleged to be 'monuments of superstition'. And as a second visitation of the same kind fell upon poor Oxford a century later, when the godly soldiers of Cromwell's army (good and merciful Englishmen as they were for the most part) finished off what the Commissioners of Edward VI's had left, the wonder is that any mediaeval church-work remains in Oxford. No doubt what stained glass is left had been taken down by pious hands and hidden until better times came and then replaced. Certainly in the middle of the sixteenth century the number of students fell off very badly, and it probably never again reached its mediaeval figure (believed to have been about 3,000) until our own days; and now again a greater Cause has drained it of two-thirds of these men, and the poor University will be poorer than ever. Never mind; we must all give our all to the Cause.

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Martyrs' Memorial

In Queen Mary's reign, which followed Edward VI's, happened one of those events which every one in Oxford remembers, the burning alive of the three Protestant bishops, Latimer, Ridley, and Cranmer, in the ditch outside Balliol College. They were the most famous of the three hundred martyrs whom the Queen sent to the stake. A building called the 'Martyrs' Memorial' was erected in the nineteenth century, not in the actual place of their  p34 martyrdom, but two hundred yards away from it, at the beginning of St. Giles' Street. It is not very good architecture, but if you look at it you will probably think it is a difficult object to climb; nevertheless it was climbed by an undergraduate a few years ago.

Trinity College in Broad Street, St. John's in St. Giles' Street, and Jesus in Turl Street were all founded in the latter half of the sixteenth century, the two former in Queen Mary's, the last in Elizabeth's reign. Jesus is the famous Welsh college, and has kept its territorial connexion better than any other Oxford foundation. My gallant friends of the Fusiliers and of other famous Welsh regiments must be sure to pay a visit to Jesus College; they say that if, before the war, you had put your head inside and called out 'Jones' a dozen heads would have appeared from as many different windows. And then they would have taken you in and shown you the enormous silver punch bowl, so big that any man whose arms are long enough to circle it may have it filled with strong punch, and if, after drinking the punch, he is able to carry the bowl, he may carry it away with him for good!

Queen Elizabeth was very fond of Oxford; like her father she was very learned, and when Vice-Chancellor made fine speeches to her in Latin she had no difficulty in replying in Greek. We have, in the great University Library called the Bodleian, a map of Oxford of the middle of her reign, which shows that it was indeed a city of gardens; far more ground, even inside the walls, was covered with gardens than with houses. But long before this the city had far outgrown its walls, so that when the  p36 Civil War came, two reigns later, and King Charles I took up his quarters here, he had to pull down many houses outside the walls, and the population inside was most inconveniently crowded, especially during the siege of 1646. Those four years, 1642‑6, were our 'heroic age'. I don't say Charles was right or the Roundheads wrong; there was a heroic cause, in fact, on both sides, and never was a war fought in which both sides had greater right to be proud of their deeds. There was hardly any bloodshed except in battle, and all the early battles were drawn simply because neither side would admit that it was beat while half a battalion of it was left standing. The students and the young dons mostly took arms for the King, and there was the same drilling (but in gayer uniforms and with clumsier weapons), in all open spaces both within and without the city, as now. But all lectures were stopped and everything except military business was suspended; many an undergraduate, like Anthony Wood's brother Thomas, 'left his gowne at the town's end, and ran to Edghill to do his Majestie good service'. Those who wanted to fight for the Parliament had of course to escape from the city as best they could; the Warden of Merton College was a great Parliament's man. When the King's cause was finally lost, at the end of 1645, the city stood quite a respectable siege, and only surrendered upon very good terms in June 1646. Except of so‑called 'superstitious monuments', there was no destruction and no outrage; but victorious Parliament sent down gentlemen from London to 'reform' the University, and they put to all Fellows of colleges the simple question, 'Do  p37 you or do you not recognize our authority?' and if you did not, you were at once deprived of your Fellowship; and you remained deprived till King Charles II, when he was restored to his throne, thirteen years later, restored you (supposing you were still alive) to your Fellowship. The colleges, moreover, had already ruined themselves for the King's cause; they had melted down their plate to turn into silver coin for his service; some of their lands had been confiscated, and occasionally even devastated in the war. We have in All Souls College a little sugar basin actually made out of shillings and half-crowns which had been coined at Oxford during the Civil War from college silver plate.

Oliver Cromwell himself was Chancellor of the University during his rule, and, though a man of no learning, he did his very best to promote learning here, and to save the remnants of college prosperity. Yet it was a sullen acquiescence that the University (and indeed all Britain) gave to the great soldier-Protector; and the restoration of King Charles II was welcomed with wild delight in 1660. From that time there is little actual 'history' to record, either of City or University; modern England had begun, and the most conspicuous event was foolish King James II's attempt to intrude a great many Roman Catholics into a Protestant University; at Magdalen he turned out all the Fellows who refused to vote for a President of his nomination (and all but one did refuse), but he had to restore them again just a little while before he had to run away to France to save his own silly neck. But Oxford, however loyal to Protestantism, did profoundly dislike the Revolution  p38 of 1688 on the whole, and remained at heart 'Jacobite' (i.e. attached to the exiled but rightful kings) far into the eighteenth century. One or two of the colleges, for instance Merton, Wadham, and Lincoln, were openly of the other way of thinking — 'Whig', as the nickname then ran, while the rest of the University was 'Tory'. Many a health was drunk (and no doubt deeper than elsewhere in the famous punchbowl at Jesus) to the 'King over the water'; in fact, the present royal family had no popularity with us till good King George III's time.

Two great religious movements, to each of which England owes much, had their origins in Oxford, the Wesleyan or Methodist movement in the eighteenth century and the High Church revival in the second quarter of the nineteenth. And, though John Henry Newman, of Oriel College, at last felt obliged to go over to the Roman Catholics, Oxford is not less proud of him than she is of good John Wesley, who was a Fellow of Lincoln.

In Charles II's reign stage coaches began to do the journey from Oxford to London ('God willing', as their advertisements used to say) in one day, and it was then reckoned a prodigious feat to drive fifty-four miles in a day. And as the University was then brought nearer to the capital city many of its peculiar customs began to fade away. At the end of the eighteenth century our communications were further improved by the opening of two great canals — the Oxford Canal, extending to Coventry and thence to Staffordshire (by means of which we still get our excellent coal), and the Thames and Severn Canal, from Lechlade on the Upper Thames to the Severn at  p39 Berkeley. Railways were long resisted by our good conservative dons, and many people now living remember when Steventon station, ten miles away, was called 'Oxford Road'; but at last, in the fifties of the nineteenth century, the line from Didcot to Birmingham was opened which runs through Oxford itself. The population of the city was about ten thousand at the opening of the nineteenth century;' it is now five times ten thousand. The last colleges to be founded were Wadham, 1610, Pembroke, 1624, Worcester, 1714, Hertford, 1740, and Keble, 1871: in the last of these the worst architect in English history, who had already done his best to ruin Merton in 1865, achieved the crowning triumph of his style — a style hardly equalled for ugliness even in America.​b

The Author's Notes:

1 At the bottom of Mill Street there is an arch of about the year 1500, once the door of a great barn, a portion of the roof of which still remains.

2 Beam Hall still exists as a private house in Merton Street.

Thayer's Notes:

a Oxford scholars, having the means, the motivation, and the opportunity to falsify ancient sources — all three components of a crime, as Agatha Christie frequently tells us — have done so here and there. For one interpolation seeking to give Oxford a bit more antiquity, see Reginald Poole, Illustrations of the History of Medieval Thought and Learning, p274.

b The reader need not take undue notice of this; it's just good clean vitriol bubbling up from our author — see my note in Chapter 6.

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