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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 5
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 7

 p97  Chapter VI
St. Mary's Church, Brasenose, Lincoln, Exeter, Jesus, Trinity, Balliol

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All Souls College
and St. Mary's Church

Next day we must make our way up this High Street again as far as the great church of St. Mary the Virgin, which almost dominates the whole city, with its two curious outer-growths, Adam de Brome's Chapel (fourteenth century) and the 'Old Congregation House' (of the same date) with its beautiful roof, both on the northern side of the church. From the outside one fails to realize that St. Mary's is over 160 feet long; for the glorious tower and many-pinnacled spire, begun in the middle of the reign of Edward I, are both much larger and much older than the church itself, and their details are singularly like the crosses, now called 'Eleanor Crosses', which that king erected in several places in England to the memory of his wife Eleanor. From the middle of the fourteenth century, if not earlier, St. Mary's has been 'the University Church'; in the same way St. Martin's at Carfax, till it was pulled down, was, and All Saints', lying half-way between these two, now is, 'the City Church'. A chaplain, or chaplains, to hold University services in St. Mary's, are then heard of, and all religious functions and solemnities of the University were transacted within its walls. Here met Congregation, and here the Vice-Chancellor  p98 held his Court and dealt even-handed justice and sometimes heavy fines to disturbers of the peace, whether they belonged to the 'Town' or the 'Gown'. Here was kept the first library owned by the University; here also were kept the treasure chests, with the cash of the University; here, until the seventeenth century, men performed the solemn 'exercises' and 'disputations' which, before the days of written work, were the prelude to the University degrees. Yet from Edward III's reign, strangely enough, the gift of the living lay in the hands not of the University but of Oriel College; and, until Oriel got a chapel of its own, its students resorted to an altar in St. Mary's Church. A long line of illustrious Oriel men have been Vicars of St. Mary's, and the most illustrious of them was John Henry (afterwards Cardinal) Newman.

The body of the church, as we now have it, dates to the late fifteenth century; the chancel, so wholly separated by the heavy screen which supports the organ as to seem like a second church, to 1462, and the rest to the years 1490‑1503. The tasteless galleries, along the north side and the west end of the church, were put up in the second quarter of the nineteenth century. But there was a reason for putting them up; attendance at the University Sermons, delivered morning and afternoon in every Sunday through the three terms, was once obligatory on the undergraduates in the year in which they were to take their degrees, and every one who took a degree in Theology was required to preach one of these sermons — of course in Latin. King James I indeed ordered all students to attend the University Sermons; and after the Civil War the Puritans,  p99 to whom, in public worship, the service was nothing and the sermon everything, tried to enforce such attendance. Now, obviously, as the number of undergraduates increased, accommodation had to be provided for them, and therefore the galleries were rendered necessary. The Vice-Chancellor and Proctors and Heads of the different colleges still attend the morning sermon in their scarlet robes, and the Preacher and the Vice-Chancellor are preceded by an officer called the Bedell with a silver wand irreverently known as 'the poker'. There used to be two sermons every Sunday in term, but the afternoon sermon has been abolished. It had long become rather a dreary farce; and I remember once going to hear the sermon of a friend, appointed to 'preach before the University' on a hot summer afternoon; and well do I recollect his disappointed gaze round the empty church; for beside the Vice-Chancellor and Proctors, the Bedell and the Verger, there were only eight persons present.

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Front Quad, Brasenose

We may now step out at the north door of the church into Radcliffe Square, and turning half left make our way into Brasenose College. This strange name seems to have been derived from a brazen door-knocker in the shape of a ringed nose; this once adorned a house in Oxford in which students resided, and which indeed became regular 'Hall' for their reception before it was converted into a college in 1509 by William Smyth, Bishop of Lincoln, and Sir Richard Sutton. Its territorial connexion seems to have been with the north-west of England, especially with the sturdy squires of Cheshire and Lancashire. The front quad is a simple and quite tasteful piece of work of the date of the  p100 foundation, though a top story (as at New College) has unfortunately been added to it. The original chapel, on the south side of this quad, is now the Fellows' Common room, and a rather strange chapel replaced it about 1666. It is reached by going through an archway on the south-east side of the quad. It certainly contains some work of Wren's design, but is, as a whole, the strangest mixture of Gothic and Classical work. The Hall is much more tasteful and is of the early sixteenth century. Quite recently a new quad has been opened to the south of the Chapel with some beautiful sets of rooms and a new house for the Principal looking on to the High Street. There is no fault to find with the architecture of these, except that, with the most amazing perversity, they have roofed themselves with red tiles in place of the little grey plates of stone from the Cotswolds which we in Oxford are accustomed to call 'Stonesfield slates'. Brasenose has, like University, always been distinguished for its athletic prowess, and its boat has fourteen times been 'Head of the River' in the Summer Eights.

[image ALT: A rectangular stone tablet bearing an 8‑line inscription in Roman capitals, given in the caption below this image; surmounted by a competence coat of arms.]

More importantly, but in the spirit of Fletcher's book, Brasenose was the alma mater of Field Marshal Douglas Earl Haig, who commanded the British Expeditionary Force from 1915 to the end of the Great War.

This record is here set that those
who pass may be put in mind of
Field Marshal Earl Haig & all
the other Brasenose men who
devoted themselves at home or abroad
to the service of their country
in the time of peril

Photo © Andrew James Sillett 2014, by kind permission.
[See also his blog, WhatWouldCiceroDo?]

We leave Brasenose again and turn left — left — into Brasenose Lane, with the dark wall of Exeter College Garden on our right. We shall emerge after a few yards into Turl Street, commonly called 'The Turl', and again turning sharp to the left enter the little gateway of Lincoln, one of the smallest colleges in Oxford, founded in 1427. Lincoln has two very elegant little quads, and a tiny garden jammed in between the southernmost of these and the church of All Saints; and, again, its own back seems to be jammed against Brasenose. The first quad is of the  p101 fifteenth, the second of the seventeenth century. The most interesting thing in the college is John Wesley's pulpit, now in the Antechapel. Wesley was a Fellow of Lincoln and preached some of the earliest of the hundred thousand sermons of his long and laborious life from that pulpit.

And from Lincoln we will turn our faces northwards and go into the much larger college of Exeter, the great foundation for students from the west country, a territorial connexion with which region it still maintains. It was founded by a Bishop of Exeter as early as 1314. It is a standing proof that a college may cover with its buildings a large extent of ground, house a large number of undergraduates, and yet be very poorly endowed. The ground of the earliest Exeter extended to where the Bodleian, Sheldonian, and other adjacent buildings now stand as well as to the present site. Even now it has an extensive front to Broad Street and a lesser one, in which we find its main gateway, to The Turl. With one small exception called Palmer's Tower, which may be of the fifteenth century, though now entirely refaced, the only old bit of the college is the present Dining-hall, which is of James I's time, and a good, though not a remarkable specimen of such work. There is, however, on the screen the figure of a man smoking a pipe; and this is probably one of the earliest representations in art of the use of tobacco. The rest of the college was almost entirely remodelled in the bad period of the nineteenth century, say 1830‑60. The present Chapel is supposed to be a copy of the exquisite Sainte Chapelle at Paris; but, as the architect of it was Sir Gilbert Scott and the date 1857, it is not  p102 a very successful copy. By far the most interesting thing in it is the piece of tapestry on the south wall representing the Adoration of the Infant Saviour by the Wise Men; it was the joint work of two Exeter men who became distinguished artists, Sir Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris.

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Exeter College Chapel

When we cross the little Turl Street and enter Jesus College we are in a very different scene; Exeter looks hard, staring, modern, utilitarian; Jesus, though its birthday was two and a half centuries after that of Exeter, looks as if it had always been where and what it was. It is not indeed true that the garden beds of Jesus are exclusively used for the cultivation of the leek, or that goats feed there; and even in the eighteenth century, out of the original number of eight fellows, one was always an Englishman. The rest were Welsh; and Powells, Prices, Protheros, Lloyds and Merediths have been names immortal in the annals of Jesus. The noble Welsh dragon crawls along the carving of the exquisite screen in the Hall; the very colours of the college boat club are green. I fear that the oak with which the Hall is panelled, and of which the lovely barrel vault of the Chapel roof is built, may have come from some place nearer than the Welsh Hills; but the beer for which the college is famous is not mere English beer, it is true Welsh ale, for which

To pronounce the word they make use of might trouble you,

Being spelt with a C two R's and a W.a

Queen Elizabeth gave her name and her patronage rather than her cash (of which she was always remarkably sparing) to Hugh ap Rice for the foundation of this college at the two separate dates of 1571 and 1589. Jesus was thus the first college founded since  p104 Mary had overset the infant Reformation — the first Protestant college in Oxford. Elizabeth was proud of her own Welsh blood; there are three portraits of her in the college: one in the Hall, one in the Fellows' Common room, and one in the private dining-room; this last is believed to be an original work of her court-painter, Zucchero. In the Hall is Vandyck's splendid picture of Charles I. The college was devotedly Royalist in the Civil Wars. With the exception of the new gate-tower and a portion of the western end of the back quad, which was not finished till early in the eighteenth century, and the substitution of battlements for the older gabled windows throughout the college, most of the buildings date before the middle of the seventeenth century, and, both in their simplicity and their stateliness, will compare favourably with everything except the finest work of that age. The interior of the Chapel, however, was most horribly pulled about and spoiled in 1864. There has been the usual refacing rendered necessary by the damp of the Oxford climate and the tendency of our stone to 'flake off', but even this has been well and modestly performed. A disastrous fire a few years ago destroyed some portions of the interior of the college, but for the new work which has replaced that which then perished only praise can be found.

From Jesus we must still keep our faces to the north and crossing Broad Street enter the small gate in the railed front of Trinity College. The prospect is varied and irregular; to the extreme right of us and fronting on to Broad Street (i.e. facing south) are the charming little row of gabled rooms terminating in the grim blackness of Kettell Hall, the last external  p106 building to be absorbed into the college; half-right of us lies the new house of the President — of what 'style' of architecture it is not easy to define but eminently pleasing as a whole — and to the right of that again the really beautiful New Buildings. Between these we shall get a sweet, if narrow, peep into the delightful greenery of the garden; and straight in front of us we have what looks like a comfortable parish church of King George II's time, tower and all; but it is in fact the College Chapel, famous for its woodwork and filled with some very beautiful modern windows, the gift of the late President. On our left we shall see the tall, singularly plain buildings of Balliol; I call them plain in the sense in which one is permitted to apply that epithet to a lady. When we have gone through an archway under the Chapel tower, we shall find ourselves in a very grim and rather dark quad; and when we have gone straight on through a second archway, we shall not need to think whether the buildings comprising three sides of this second quad are grim or dark (they are both), for we shall have our eyes turned at once to the fourth or open side. And there we shall see on either side of a pathway the two biggest lawns in Oxford. 'How do you get your grass lawns to such perfection?' once asked an American visitor of a college gardener. 'Well, sir', was the reply, 'we mows 'em and we rowls 'em, and we keeps 'em several hundred years — and there you are.' There are no 'hundreds of years' in America by which to count time.b Looking east down the long pathway between the lawns we shall get a lovely glimpse of the front of Wadham through the iron gate ahead of us. And  p107 on the south side of the garden runs the famous walk now covered by a long arch of curiously 'pleached' lime-trees; this 'grove', or, perhaps, the whole garden, was called 'Daphne', and was the fashionable promenade of the wits and ladies of Oxford at the time of the Civil War and for many years afterwards, but the actual lime-trees were not planted till 1713.

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A View of Kettell Hall, Trinity, and Broad Street

Trinity stands on the site of the much older monkish foundation of Durham College, an offshoot of the great cathedral of the far north, founded by Bishops of Durham, Hatfield and Richard Bury, in Edward III's reign. This Richard was the greatest book collector of his time, but his books were scattered in the time of Edward VI when so many monastic libraries perished. Durham College, being monastic, was dissolved by Henry VIII, and the site was sold to Sir Thomas Pope, a lawyer-statesman of that day; and he in 1555 became the founder or refounder of the college with the name of Trinity. The front quad, through which we first passed, is really part of old Durham, but was restored and heightened by President Kettell, who also rebuilt the College Hall, and the house called after his name, now the south-east corner of the college, in the early seventeenth century. Much of the college was rebuilt in the fifty years that followed the great Civil War, the northern wing of the garden quad being by Wren, and perhaps the earliest (1665) example of the revival of classical architecture to be found in Oxford; the western wing, Chapel, tower, and gateway were finished before the end of the seventeenth century; some of the lovely wood-carving of the Chapel is by the famous Grinling Gibbons. The last addition, before  p108 our own days, was the south front of the garden quad (1728). The Griffin, of which there is a brass representation in the Hall, is the patron animal of the college because its double head was the crest of the founder, and this appears on the beautiful tomb of himself and his wife in the Chapel. Perhaps the finest picture in the possession of the college is that of Lady Pope in the Hall.

Every man thinks, or should think, his own college the best in the University, but perhaps, had a general vote been taken of the young men at any time during the last forty years, or rather had a question been put to them somewhat in this form, 'To which college would you choose to belong, if not to your own?' more votes would have been given for Trinity than for any other. The reason of this is not easy to find; the college is comparatively small; it has not always been in the first flight, either in the world of scholarship or of athletics, and its buildings are by no means so beautiful as those of many other foundations; but the fact remains of the immense popularity of Trinity among members of other colleges.

Towering over Trinity on the west, and, as it were, somewhat frowning down upon it, comes the college which every unprejudiced person must admit to be the 'greatest' in Oxford — Balliol. There is a 'natural history' of colleges, and each college has a spirit, or a set of traditions which go to make a spirit, of its own. And few people will question that, in the things which in a learned University really matter, namely a high standard of learning, both in its older and its younger members, an assiduous devotion to study, and an enormous proportion of success in  p109 the examinations and the prize competitions of the University, Balliol has been for three-quarters of a century in a field by itself.

John Balliol and Dervorguilla his wife were great people in northern England and southern Scotland in the thirteenth century. John was lord of Barnard Castle on the Tees, and Dervorguilla was heiress of Galloway and of the royal blood of the old Scottish Kings.c John, a rough fellow, as feudal barons in that region were wont to be, had got himself into trouble with a particularly stout Bishop of Durham. The bishop got the better of the quarrel and John had to submit to a public flogging, at the bishop's own hands, at the door of Durham Cathedral; and part of the penance laid upon him was to perform 'some signal act of charity'. In compliance with this John proceeded, three years before his death, to endow some poor scholars in Oxford, to provide for them a lodging and a maintenance to the amount of eightpence each per week. Dervorguilla proceeded after her husband's death to improve upon this foundation, and the college was the result of her efforts. The present front quadrangle, entered by the door in Broad Street a little west of Trinity, stands upon the site of the earliest building of Dervorguilla's time. From the very first the men of Balliol entered upon that feud with their next eastern neighbours of Durham (like themselves men from the north), which has now developed into a most humorous and friendly strife with Durham's successor Trinity; and as some windows of each look down into the other, each can in turn 'take the upper ground in manoeuvring', whatever the missiles employed may be.

 p110  John Wyclif, the reformer, who had been Master of Balliol in 1361, was perhaps the man who gave the first impetus to the college in the direction of minute and accurate scholarship; and the first golden age of Balliol scholarship was the fifteenth century, when Duke Humfrey of Gloucester, the founder of the University Library, was a member of the college. The Balliol library was famous for the possession of classical manuscripts, collected abroad by its members and their friends, before the 'revival of learning' had touched Oxford at any other point. After that came a long period of relapse, and the reputation of the college was never lower than in the seventeenth century. Late in that century John Snell of Glasgow founded certain endowments for Glasgow scholars who should come to Oxford. These endowments Balliol managed to annex, and thereby strengthened its connexion with Scotland which had never been wholly broken; a few distinguished Scottish names, like that of Adam Smith, are found on the college books in the eighteenth century. But the real revival of the college only dates from the Mastership of Dr. Jenkyns, 1819‑54. He was succeeded by Dr. Scott, and Scott in 1870 by the great Dr. Jowett; about whom more stories have been told than about any other Head of a college. Perhaps he is best described by the famous epigram made on him by one of his undergraduates:

I come first: my name is Jowett;

Whatsoever is I know it.

I am Master of this College;

What I know not is not knowledge.

Jowett was the greatest Head of an Oxford college,  p111 perhaps the greatest Head of any society devoted to learning and education, that ever lived. And all his influence was given in the direct of training his scholars to be, not merely scholars, and never bookworms, but practical hard-headed men of the world, fitted to serve their country in every department of life. The result has been that Balliol has counted among her children a very large proportion of the statesmen and lawyers of the 'Victorian' and 'post-Victorian' ages. Of the Ministry of 1915 Mr. Asquith, Sir Edward Grey, Lord Curzon, and Lord Lansdowne were all Balliol men. The activities of Balliol men have been so various that the college cannot claim special distinction in any one branch of athletics. But its Eight has nearly always kept a good place on the river; though it has not been Head since 1879, it has always had one or two oars of great fame. In 1899 five of the Oxford crew were Balliol men; the only Balliol man who rowed in the Oxford boat of 1914 was also the first Rowing 'Blue' to fall in the war, and the college is already in mourning for a long list of its noble sons.d

Of the buildings which now house this society one would wish to speak with respect; but I fear that the best that can be said is that the new Hall at its northern end (1879) is 'imposing' and that the latest additions (on which the mortar is hardly dry while I write) are very much more successful than those of 1869 or 1857. But the deliberate pulling down of a chapel, which old men will tell you was a marvel of sixteenth-century beauty, and the delivery of part of the old buildings into the hands of two bad architects, was both a blunder and a  p112 crime which it is hard to forgive. The best, nay the only, thing that can be said in favour of the whole mass of the college, is that the garden quad, though the buildings surrounding it have no beauty at all, is so spacious and well-shaped that it is an exceedingly pleasant place to sit and to walk in. We can, if we please, leave Balliol by a back gate from the garden quad, which will lead us out into St. Giles's opposite the Martyrs' Memorial, but our nearer way home is from the front gate, then eastwards to the bottom of Broad Street and southwards by Radcliffe Square to the High Street.

Thayer's Notes:

a What seems to be the proper spelling today is hardly better: gwrw.

b Surely gentle reader you didn't expect me to let this pass; the statement is nonsense, of course, as it was a hundred years ago. Discounting the 900‑year‑old buildings of Taos Pueblo, some of which are still inhabited, as the productions of non-European savages, the city of St. Augustine, Florida was founded within a decade of Trinity College; and New England boasts plenty of seventeenth-century towns and buildings. The United States by and large have not quite the antiquity of England, but let's not get carried away.

Withal, Fletcher's attitude need not be taken too seriously, neither here nor on p39; he bore the United States no particular animus, since according to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, in his School History of England (1911) he took side-swipes at the vindictive Spaniards, the lazy and vicious West Indians, and the spoilt and ungrateful Irish.

c John and Dervorguilla thus were the parents of a King of Scotland; for further information, see the page at Balliol.

d The author's own son, Reginald William Fletcher, killed in the war in November, 1914, and already mentioned once before in this book. His rowing victories were once recorded in a page at Balliol (nominally even now accessible from a search page): with the continued shrinkage of the Web it has now disappeared, but not before I saw it; it included a photograph of a team oar painted with the names and weights of the members, from which we learn that he weighed 164½ pounds at the time.

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Page updated: 26 May 17