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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 6
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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 p113  Chapter VII
Oriel, Christ Church, Pembroke

Our last day's excursion shall be comparatively short. We will go up High Street on the south side until we are opposite the west end of St. Mary's Church. We may then look up and see above our heads a rather ponderous modern building with one or two statues on its face. The topmost of these statues is that of Cecil Rhodes, the great financier (and, in the opinion of many who are well qualified to judge, the great 'empire-builder'), of South African fame. Rhodes left a large sum of money to his old college, Oriel, whose new buildings these are, but I do not think he imagined that a statue of himself, in rather baggy trousers, would look down on the High Street for evermore. He also left a large sum to found scholarships in the University to be given to students from our colonies, from America, and from  p114 — of all the countries in the world — Germany. Several 'Rhodes Scholars' have already been killed fighting against us in the German army. To reach the older and more beautiful Oriel we must turn sharp left down Oriel Street; and we shall find that college buildings run the whole way from the High Street to Merton Street, though their depth to the eastward is not very great. We go in at the front gate near the Merton Street end, and find ourselves in a singularly picturesque seventeenth-century quad; it was rebuilt between 1619 and 1642, and was thus brand-new when the Civil War broke out. But the foundation of the college dates to the last years of Edward II, who was the nominal, while Adam de Brome (we have already met him in St. Mary's Church) was the real, founder. The connexion between St. Mary's and Oriel has always been very close, and indeed the name by which the college was first known was 'St. Mary's'; its present name it got from the house or hall called 'La Oriole', which stood on the site of the front quad and was gradually built into it during the fourteenth century. The exact origin of the word is unknown, but an 'oriel' seems to mean a porch or gallery or balcony. And the charming little building known as 'St. Mary Hall', adjoining the college on its northern side, probably grew up from a humble parsonage for the Vicar of St. Mary's Church.

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The Quadrangle, Oriel College (1637)

But when we look at the front quad of Oriel itself, facing us on the eastern side are the Hall (left) and the Chapel (right); these are approached by a broad staircase over which is a rather barbaric, but singularly pleasing, ring of stonework, with the words 'Regnante  p115 Carolo' ('in the reign of Charles') and statues of James I and Charles I. In the Hall is one of the finest timber roofs in Oxford. We pass to the back quad by an archway at the north-east corner; the buildings here are wholly of the eighteenth century and are on the site of the old garden. The northern wing contains, on the first floor, a fine library, and beneath it two very spacious common-rooms, filled with engravings of the very distinguished men who have been Fellows of the college. Still going north through another archway we enter the beautiful and irregular little quad called St. Mary Hall, one side of which was unfortunately hacked away to make room for the new Rhodes building. It had in the Middle Ages been a dependency of Oriel; in the seventeenth century it had acquired a separate existence, and come to resemble St. Edmund's and St. Alban's Halls, and the gateway between it and Oriel had been blocked up. Finally, a few years ago it had again been merged in Oriel and the gateway was reopened.

The arms of Oriel, the familiar golden leopards of the Kings of England with the difference of a silver border, are intended, like all, or nearly all, the college arms to preserve the name and memory of the founder. The exception is Pembroke, which took its name and arms from the then Chancellor, differencing the arms by the addition of the royal badges of England and Scotland in honour of James I. Some college shields commemorate co-founders; thus Wadham combines the arms of Nicholas Wadham and his wife Dorothy (Petre); and the tripartite shield of Lincoln bears the arms of Bishops Fleming and Rotherham, together with those of their See.

 p116  Armorial bearings were first used by the same generation that saw the beginnings of the University; and nowhere can their study be pursued with such a wealth of examples at hand. On the value of such a study most people nowadays agree with Mr. Herbert Spencer rather than with Miss Die Vernon. And so, like Tara's harp, the shields of our benefactors are mute upon the wall — symbols of 'lost causes and forgotten beliefs and impossible loyalties'.

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Tom Tower

We may leave Oriel as we entered it and try (perhaps in vain) to make the porter open the enormous back gate of Christ Church which faces us as we turn half-left; Corpus, which we saw on our second excursion, is on our full left. This is 'Canterbury Gate', and the eighteenth-century quad of Christ Church, into which it leads, stands on the site of an earlier Canterbury Hall or College, which became the property of Christ Church when Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries. It is much easier, so strict are the rules of Christ Church, to get out of this gate than to get in through it. We will, therefore, stop hammering on it and set our faces to walk round the northern walls of Christ Church by Blue Boar Lane. This will lead us, at the corner of the new, and not wholly hideous, Town Hall, in which another branch of your hospital is now established, into St. Aldate's commonly called St. Ol's, the street running due south from Carfax, crossing the Thames at Folly Bridge and ultimately leading, through Abingdon, Newbury, and Winchester, to Southampton, sixty-four miles away; at this corner we turn south (left) and find ourselves opposite the long west front of Christ Church, which we enter under 'Tom Tower', so‑called from the great bell Tom which rings every night one hundred  p117 and one times, to commemorate the original number of the students of Christ Church.

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Tom Quad

Till a few years ago Christ Church was not only the richest foundation, covering the greatest extent of ground, in Oxford, but it was also the college with the largest number of undergraduates. Of recent years, however, both Balliol and New College have occasionally been a few figures ahead of it. I do not think any of the three ever had quite 250 undergraduates in residence; which is less than half of the number of students at Trinity College, Cambridge. Christ Church is quite peculiar for another reason; it is both a Cathedral with a Dean and Canons (who reside within the walls), and also a college with Fellows and undergraduates. And the Dean of the Cathedral is also the Head of the college. You must not think of him as equivalent to the adjutant of this large regiment (as is the Dean in other colleges); Christ Church has two adjutants and they are called 'Censors'; but the Dean is here what the Provost, Master, Principal, President, or Warden is in other colleges, namely the colonel of the whole regiment. This is all because, first Cardinal Wolsey, and then his master King Henry VIII, laid heavy hands upon earlier foundations which stood on this site. Wolsey got the Pope's leave to dissolve the great 'Priory' (that is to say, monastery) of St. Frideswide, and to found, out of its riches and his own, a college to be called 'Cardinal College'; he actually began to build it and had finished the Hall and Kitchen and begun a great deal of the great quad before the King toppled him over in 1529, confiscated all his wealth, and took the new foundation into his own royal and  p118 capacious hands. For a few years it passed under the name of 'King's College'; then it pleased Henry to refound it as 'Christ Church' in his last year, when he also incorporated with the college the new bishopric of Oxford; this he had already created in 1542. He didn't need to ask the Pope's leave, for by this time there was no Pope so far as England was concerned. Now, in most Cathedral cities the bishop is the great man, and usually has his palace either in or close to the city; but our bishop has his palace six miles away at Cuddesdon, and in the City and University the Dean of Christ Church is a much greater man than the Bishop of Oxford. One connexion with the old Priory of St. Frideswide is still retained, for the church, which its monks built long ago, is still both Oxford Cathedral and the college chapel of Christ Church; and a very beautiful church it is, although Wolsey shortened its western end by pulling down three bays of the nave, so as to make his quad more spacious. The Chapter-house, Cloister, and Old Library are also relics of the Priory; the last was the dining-hall of the monks.

Modern restoration, however faithful, is always apt to be a little disappointing, and any one who has ever seen the 'Great Court' of Trinity, Cambridge, is bound to compare the present state of the wide 'Tom Quad' of Christ Church rather unfavourably with it. Wolsey evidently intended to build a cloister walk round the whole, and the 'springs' for the arches are in fact left to show that he intended it. As it stands the quad has rather a hard, empty, vacant look; the space enclosed is too wide to harmonize with  p119 anything else in Oxford; and the fact that carriages can drive in makes the whole thing rather public. The lower story of the entrance tower is of Wolsey's time, but the top of it was added by Sir Christopher Wren in the later seventeenth century. Two sides of the quad are occupied with the houses of the Dean and Canons; on the south side lie the Hall and, below the Hall, the common-rooms; there are also a few sets of rooms on this and on the western side. Tucked away near the south-east corner, and so unpretending that no one would guess to what it led, is the entrance to the Cathedral, and from this corner itself you go, on your right, up the steps to the Hall and on your left down some other steps to the Cloisters, Chapter-house, Old Library, and ultimately, through the Cloisters, to a new row of buildings called the Meadow Buildings; these look over Christ Church Meadow and the Broad Walk by which, on our second excursion, we reached the Thames and the barges. Again, on the north-east corner of Tom Quad is an archway (with statues of two famous Deans, Fell and Liddell,a on its two sides) called Kill-Canon, leading into the enormous and severely simple quad called Peckwater. This quad was built early in the eighteenth century by Dean Aldrich; it should be seen in full summer term when every box in the windows is a blaze of flowers. The southern side of Peckwater is entirely filled with the ponderous New Library, finished in 1761; and from its eastern corner we emerge into the still later Canterbury Quad which we tried in vain to enter earlier in our excursion. But, after all, the real glories of the buildings in Christ Church are those which Wolsey either left  p120 standing or built, namely the Cathedral, with its Chapter-house, Cloister, and Old Library, and the Hall. So we will not go out at Canterbury Gate at all, but return through Peckwater and Tom Quads and enter the Cathedral.

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Interior of Cathedral

Though one of the smallest cathedrals in England, it abounds in varieties of style, and excels in some of them. And perhaps it pleases all the more by its extreme variety; some of the pillars are round, some are eight-sided; of the arches supporting the tower half are round and half are pointed; in the very organ-screen there are two totally different styles. The main plan of the church is late Norman — perhaps of the end of the twelfth century; and it is quite possible that some of the foundation stones are even two centuries earlier, and of Saxon work. The two chapels lying north of the choir, called the Lady Chapel and the Latin Chapel, are of the early thirteenth and the fourteenth centuries respectively. The upper story of the nave and transepts, and of the tower with the spire, are of the thirteenth. The upper story of the choir with its gloriously rich, almost fantastic, roof is late fifteenth; the north transept window and the wooden roof of the transepts is early sixteenth century. No one knows what Wolsey intended to do with the church, but it is certain that the plan of his college included a wholly new and enormous chapel, of the same architectural style as the Hall, on the north side of Tom Quad. The only thing inside the present cathedral that is probably his work is the dark oak of the stalls in the Latin Chapel. But such old glass as remains in that chapel is of the fourteenth century; and so is some of that of St. Lucy's  p122 Chapel in the south aisle. There are in the Latin Chapel two very fine tombs, those of Elizabeth, Lady Montacute, who gave the monks the field now known as Christ Church Meadow, and that of Sir George Nowers, a companion of the Black Prince, who lies in just such armour as our knights wore at the Battle of Poitiers. The so‑called shrine of St. Frideswide in the Lady Chapel may mark the spot where her real shrine stood; but that was broken to pieces at the Reformation, and what we now see is the 'watching chamber' which may or may not have stood over it — a place in which a devotee of the saint might say his prayers quietly. A very interesting tomb in St. Lucy's Chapel (south aisle) is that of Bishop King, a prelate who was prepared to move with the times, for he was last Abbot of Oseney and first Bishop of Oxford; the window above, with his portrait, is of the late sixteenth century, and in the background of it you see a representation of Oseney Abbey. One of the most curious windows in the church is at the west end just north of the door; it represents the story of Jonah and dates from about 1630; notice the city of Nineveh and the giant pumpkin (Jonah's 'gourd') in it. And at the opposite end of the church are two really fine specimens of modern stained-glass windows, from the designs of Burne-Jones.

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Latin Chapel, Christ Church (c. 1350)

There is a door in the south aisle leading to the Cloisters, from which Wolsey pulled down the whole west side; there are several graves of canons, of comparatively recent date, in the grass plot which is enclosed by the remaining sides. But the Cloisters themselves only date from the very end of the fifteenth century, whereas the Chapter-house door  p124 is early Norman work, probably of Henry I's reign; it leads into a very beautiful thirteenth-century room, recently restored to something like its original condition. But now turn back for a moment and go up the steps leading to the huge vault at the bottom of the Hall staircase. This vault is, or at any rate appears to be, supported by a single shaft of immense height and beauty; and most people exclaim, 'What miraculous builders these old monks were!' But it was not built by monks at all, but by a wholly forgotten architect called Smith as late as 1640. We now go up the stone staircase and enter the Hall through a vestibule. It is much the largest dining-hall in Oxford — over 100 feet long and 50 feet high — though it would go, roof and all, inside the hall at Trinity, Cambridge. It is Wolsey's own building, the only thing, except the Kitchen, which he completed, and it is very little altered; the roof in particular is a glorious piece of timber work. There is a fine picture, by the great painter Holbein, of Henry VIII at the west end, and there too are Wolsey and Queen Elizabeth; looking down the walls of the Hall you will also see two archbishops painted by Reynolds, and a famous judge by Gainsborough. John Wesley, Dr. Pusey, and Mr. Gladstone, all members of Christ Church, are also there. No visit to Christ Church is supposed to be complete without a tour round the Kitchen, which is also of Wolsey's building, and in its main features very much as he left it. But we have already been to see the smaller, more ancient, and not less well-fed, kitchen at Magdalen; and even a gridiron which is supposed to have belonged to the Cardinal himself need not detain us here. It is large  p126 enough for him to have fried heretics alive on; but, though he used to burn their books, there is good reason to suppose that he was an enemy to the practice, too common in his days, of roasting their bodies.

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Staircase, Christ Church (1640)

We may now go back through the Tom Quad and out under Tom Gateway. One leaves Christ Church with a certain sense of disappointment and yet with a much greater sense of awe. It is splendid and majestic; one would like to be a member there; one would like very much to have been one of those schoolboys from Queen Elizabeth's foundation of Westminster School for whose future education she appropriated a certain number of the scholarships (then called studentships) at Christ Church; and to have proceeded in due time from a junior to a senior studentship or fellowship; then to have been made a Canon and Divinity Professor; and finally to have risen, by direct gift from the King or Queen, to the proud position of Dean. But somehow or other, at all these stages of promotion, one would occasionally have wished for a tranquil nook in the garden of Wadham, or Magdalen, or Trinity, or St. John's.

Opposite to Tom Gate of Christ Church is the rebuilt church of St. Aldate or St. Ole. The name is probably a corruption of the church by the 'Old Gate' — for no one knows who 'Saint Aldate' may have been. And, tucked in behind it, as it were, wedged between the two narrow lanes called Beef Lane and Brewer Street, is Pembroke College. It has no architectural beauty and need not detain us long, but it is interesting for several reasons; first because of its situation, for it alone, with the partial exception  p127 of Worcester, is really a college among the narrow streets. In the Middle Ages, when most streets were narrow and nearly all were slums, most colleges must have been in similar surroundings. Secondly, Pembroke is interesting from its history; it began as a Hall for students, called, at one time or another since the thirteenth century, 'Segrym Hall' or "Broadgates Hall'; it ate up a lot of surrounding Halls and finally emerged as Pembroke College, being refounded under that name in 1624. For at least a century before that it had been in danger of being swallowed up by its big opposite neighbour, now Christ Church. Thirdly, Pembroke has produced, in proportion to its size, a considerable number of great men of letters, the most famous of whom was Dr. Johnson, and of lawyers, the most famous of whom was Sir William Blackstone, afterwards Fellow of All Souls. It was the latest of all colleges to be without a chapel, for till 1732 the south aisle of St. Aldate's was its chapel, and till 1710 a room over that aisle was its main library and lecture room. The only building inside Pembroke College that remains from the time of Broadgates Hall is the present Library, which was the Hall dining-room. The Chapel is rather good eighteenth-century work, much redecorated in 1884; the rest of the college was mangled and mangled again between 1829 and 1848, a new Hall being finished in the latter year. One is bound to admit that the beautiful creepers, which cover most of the college walls, have done their best to disguise the ugly architecture. Pembroke at the present time is somewhat in a backwater, as regards distinction both in examinations and in athletics; but within the last forty years, and especially  p128 during the mastership of Dr. Evans (perhaps the most universally beloved head any college ever had), it was quite in the forefront on the river and had many triumphs in the Schools.

We can return to the hospital by going through a gate on the east side of St. Aldate's Street, just south of Christ Church. But before we go through we should take a peep down a little court on the west side of the street at the magnificent front of Bishop King's Palace, now occupied partly as lodgings, partly as a shop; it seems to have been built for, or by, that first Bishop of Oxford, who had been last Abbot of Oseney, somewhere about 1550. Then the gateway to which I have just referred will bring us out in Christ Church Meadow, and we can return either through the Broad Walk to the banks of the Cherwell and there turn left, which will bring us out through Rose Lane opposite Magdalen College; or turn left before we reach that walk, at the east end of the 'Meadow Buildings' of Christ Church and emerge in Merton Street between Merton and Corpus. Our walks through Oxford might have been very much extended; and almost everywhere north of the Thames, west of Magdalen Bridge, and south of a line drawn from the back of Magdalen to St. Giles's Church, and thence again to the railway station there would have been things worth seeing. Even in the depth of the slums which surround the remnants of the Castle one occasionally meets fine old houses mouldering to decay; one of the finest in Oxford is situated in Paradise Square, in the heart of the populous and squalid parish of St. Ebbe's. But my object has been rather to take you through the colleges and  p130 the more stately parts of the city. Thus, I have not attempted to travel up the pretty new road leading north from Holywell, in which you will find, marked on the map, two sets of new buildings called 'Manchester College' and 'Mansfield College' respectively. For these are not colleges within the University at all, but merely establishments for the training of Nonconformist ministers, and corresponding to those theological colleges of the Church of England which exist in many parts of the country.b

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Bishop King's Palace (built c. 1546; restored 1628)

Our task is done, and I think you will acknowledge, after a few walks, that Oxford is a city well worth seeing; I have heard it put into a list of the four finest cities of the world, the other three being Rome, Prague, and Venice, a list to which any one who has seen it will surely wish to add Edinburgh.

Thayer's Notes:

a Henry Liddell (1811‑1898) is the co-author of a work known to every student of the classics, Liddell & Scott's Greek Lexicon; John Fell (1625‑1686), who went on to become Bishop of Oxford, is famous chiefly for a verse extemporized on him by a student — to his face:

I do not love thee, Dr Fell,

The reason why I cannot tell;

But this I know, and know full well,

I do not love thee, Dr Fell.

b Mansfield and Manchester (now Harris Manchester) became full official Colleges of Oxford in 1995 and 1996 respectively.

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