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This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Handbook to the Cathedrals of England

by Richard John King

published by John Murray, Albemarle Street,
Oxford, 1862

Text and engravings are in the public domain.


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 p39  Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford

Part II. History of the See,
with Short Notices of the principal Bishops.

The history of St. Frideswide, the site of whose priory is now occupied by the college and cathedral of Christ Church, has been involved in so much legend and uncertainty, that it is scarcely possible to ascertain the amount of truth which it may really contain. No life exists which is nearly contemporary. William of Malmesbury and Prior Philip of Oxford have both told the story of the saint; the first in his Gesta Pontificum Angliae, the second in a narrative which remains in MS. in the Bodleian. Extracts from what seems to have been an earlier life of St. Frideswide are preserved in Leland's Collectanea.

Early in the eighth century, according to the legend, St. Frideswide was born at Oxford, of which city and district her father, Didan, was the ruler. Her mother's name was Saffrida. With a zeal then by no means unusual among noble Saxon ladies, Frideswide, who had been educated by a sainted virgin named Elgiva, early devoted herself to a monastic life, and induced twelve of her companions to follow her example. Her father, Didan, built a convent for her within the walls of Oxford, which he dedicated to St. Mary and All Saints. But Algar, King  p40 of Mercia, the province within which Oxford was situated, demanded Frideswide in marriage; and as his entreaties were ineffectual, he determined to carry her off by force. She fled to Abingdon. The Mercian King ravaged the whole surrounding country; and Frideswide, for the sake of greater security, was compelled to take refuge with a swineherd. Thence she escaped to a nunnery at Binsey, where she was joined by the twelve companions who had been under her rule at Oxford. After some time the king discovered her retreat, and she fled back for shelter within the walls of Oxford. A battle took place outside the city between the Mercians and the men of Oxford; during which Algar of Mercia was miraculously stricken blind, and was only restored to sight by the intercession of St. Frideswide, whom henceforth he ceased to persecute. She retired to Thornbury in Gloucestershire, where she built herself an oratory, and remained in entire solitude, until, finding that her life was about to close, she returned to her convent at Oxford, where she died, — according to the extract in Leland, Oct. 19, A.D. 740. Her life was distinguished by numerous miracles; and her remains were classed among the chief treasures of Oxford, of which city she became the especial patroness.

St. Frideswide was buried in the church of her own convent, called "the Church of St. Mary of Oxford, on the banks of the Thames."​1 It was no doubt built of wood; since it was into its tower that the Danes fled from the massacre of St. Brice's Day in the year 1002, when the people of Oxford set fire to the church, and burnt it, together with all who had taken refuge within its walls. It was rebuilt, probably again of wood, about two years afterwards; and there is no further notice of St. Frideswide  p41 or of her convent until the year 1111,​2 when Roger, Bishop of Salisbury, granted a "certain place in Oxford, where the body of St. Frideswide lay," to Guimond and his fellow canons.​3 It would seem that the nuns of St. Frideswide had been supplanted before the Conquest by a body of secular canons. After the Conquest, their church was bestowed on the monks of Abingdon, who expelled the canons in their turn. They had been restored, however, before Bishop Roger's grant to Guimond; but their numbers had become few, and Guimond replaced them by a company of regular canons, of whom he became himself the first prior. The convent and church of the canons of St. Frideswide continued to flourish until the suppression of the house was procured by Wolsey in 1522.

Prior Guimond may possibly have commenced rebuilding the church, but the greater part of the work was carried on, and the building was no doubt completed, under the rule of his successor, Prior Robert de Cricklade, or Canutus (1150‑1180; see Pt. I). The confirmation of the privileges of the priory by Adrian IV (Nicholas Breakspear, the English Pope) was addressed to Canutus; who, according to Wood, was Chancellor of the University in the year 1159. The various additions to the church, and the history of its greatest treasure, the shrine and relics of St. Frideswide, have been noticed at length in Part I. The site of the priory was at last fixed upon by Wolsey as a suitable one for the foundation of his new college; and accordingly, in the year 1522, the Prior was induced to  p42 surrender the establishment into the hands of the King, who transferred it to the Cardinal. A bull for its suppression was obtained from Clement VIII; who in 1524 and 1528 issued further bulls, granting permission to Wolsey to suppress about forty-two small religious houses, the revenues of which were to be applied to the Cardinal's two colleges at Ipswich and Oxford. The foundation-stone of the latter college was laid July 17, 1525, by John Longland, Bishop of Lincoln,​4 who preached a Latin sermon in St. Frideswide's church, from Proverbs ix. 1, "Sapientia aedificavit sibi domum." The alterations commenced in the priory church, and the destruction of part of its nave, in order to adapt it for the purposes of the new establishment, which was dedicated to the Holy Trinity, the Virgin Mary, St. Frideswide, and All Saints, and styled "Collegium Thomae Wolsey Cardinalis Eboracensis," have already been described in Part I.

Wolsey's complete design embraced a society of one hundred and eighty-six persons; a small portion of whom, including a dean and eighteen secular canons, were at once settled in temporary lodgings. The new buildings rose slowly. Many hundred workmen, including artists of all kinds, were employed on them. The works were stopped, however, on Wolsey's attainder in 1529, and the foundation fell into the King's hands. In 1532 it was refounded by Henry himself, under the name of King Henry VIII's College, and a dean and twelve secular canons were placed in it. The King again required its surrender in 1545, before which time he had determined to erect six new bishoprics, of which Peterborough and Oxford were to be taken out of the diocese of Lincoln. The revenues of the College were accordingly applied to the support of the new  p43 see, the jurisdiction of which extended over the entire county of Oxford, and which was fixed at first at Oseney, the great Augustinian Abbey, which stood within a short distance of the western wall of Oxford. Here it continued from 1542 to 1545, when King Henry re-established his college at Oxford, styling it "Ecclesia Christi Cathedralis Oxoniensis, ex fundatione Regis Henrici Octavi." To this establishment the see of Oxford was now attached, the Bishop being placed at the head of the foundation. No further changes have taken place, although the bishop has long ceased to reside within the walls of the college.

The first bishop of Oseney and of Oxford was —

A.D. 1542‑1557. Robert King, descended from an old Devonshire family, which professed to trace itself upwards to the stock of the kings of Wessex. Robert King had been early admitted as a Cistercian monk at Rewley (Royal-lieu), near Oxford. He afterwards became abbot, first of Thame, and then of Oseney; and 1535 was consecrated suffragan of Lincoln, under the title of Bishop of Rheon, in the province of Athens. In 1542 he became Bishop of Oseney, and in 1545 Bishop of Oxford, as already mentioned. Little or nothing is known of his real character, which may not necessarily have been an unworthy one because, as Strype informs us, "he passed through all the changes under King Henry, King Edward, and Queen Mary;" or because "when suffragan he preached at St. Mary's in Stamford, where he most fiercely inveighed against such as used the New Testament," whilst in Queen Mary's reign he was "a persecutor of the Protestants." He died in 1557, leaving a considerable personal estate to his nephew, Philip King; "which it seems," says Fuller, "was quickly consumed, so that John King, Bishop of London (son of Philip), used to say he believed there was a fate in abbey money no less than abbey land, which seldom proved fortunate, or of continuance to the owners."5  p44 Robert King was buried in the north-east part of the choir, but his monument was removed, about the year 1630, by his relatives John and Henry King (sons of the Bishop of London; Henry was afterwards Bishop of Chichester), to the south choir-aisle, where it now remains. The window above it was the gift of the same members of the King family, both of whom were at this time canons of Christ Church. (For an ample history of this branch of the "ancient Devonshire family," see the introduction and notes to Bishop Henry King's "Poems and Psalms," edited by the Rev. J. Hannah, London, 1843.)

The successors of Bishop King in the see of Oxford have scarcely been men of celebrity. It remained vacant for ten years after his death, when

A.D. 1567–Oct. 1568. Hugh Curwen was translated to it. He had been Queen Mary's Archbishop of Dublin, and Chancellor of Ireland;​6 but preferring, according to Godwin, the  p45 "tranquillity and repose" of Oxford, he procured his translation thither. In the following year, "very decrepid,º broken with old age and many state affairs," says Fuller, he died at Swinbroke, near Burford, and was interred in the parish church there.

For twenty years (1568‑1589) the see of Oxford was again vacant. Fuller asserts, what was probably the truth, that "the cause that church was so long a widow, was the want of a competent estate to prefer her."​7 At length,

A.D. 1589‑1592. John Underhill, Rector of Lincoln College, one of Queen Elizabeth's chaplains, and himself a native of Oxford, was appointed to it. He was buried in the choir of his cathedral.

A vacancy of eleven years [1592‑1604] again occurs.

A.D. 1604‑1618. John Bridges, Dean of Salisbury, was appointed on the accession of James I. A "competent estate," though by no means a great one, had by this time been found for the support of the see; and the succession of bishops continues henceforth unbroken.

A.D. 1619, translated to Durham 1628. John Howson, student and canon of Christ Church, was consecrated, says Fuller, "on his birthday, in his climacterical, he then entering upon the sixty-third year of his age." He was a writer of considerable reputation; his four sermons "against the Pope's supremacy," "enjoyned on him by King James (to clear his causeless aspersion of favouring Popery), and never since replied upon by the Romish party, have made him famous to all posterity," according to Fuller. He was one of the original members of Chelsea College, founded by James I for the defence of the Church of England, and "to afford divines leisure and other conveniences to spend their time wholly in controversy, and maintain the Reformation against Papists and Dissenters." A provost and seventeen fellows were established in it, besides two historians, "who were to transmit the affairs  p46 of Church and State to posterity."​8 The design, however, soon proved an entire failure; and the buildings and endowments were afterwards appropriated to their present use — the support and maintenance of superannuated soldiers. Bishop Howson died in 1632.

A.D. 1628, translated to Norwich in 1632. Richard Corbet, Dean of Christ Church. (See Norwich Cathedral.)

A.D. 1632‑1641. John Bancroft, Master of University College, was the nephew of Richard Bancroft, Archbishop of Canterbury. He recovered much land, which had been alienated, for his college, and did much for his see, the revenues of which were still but scanty. He obtained the royalty of Shotover for it, and annexed to it in perpetuity the vicarage of Cuddesdon, "where he built a fair palace and a chapel, expending on both about three thousand five hundred pounds."​9 "Cujus munificentiae" (said the Oxford Orator to the King at Woodstock) "debemus, quod incerti laris mitra, surrexerit e pulvere in palatium." The palace was burnt during the civil war, but was afterwards rebuilt, and has been restored and enlarged by the present (1861) Bp. of Oxford. Bishop Bancroft was buried in the parish church of Cuddesdon.

A.D. 1641, translated to Worcester 1663. Robert Skinner, was translated to Oxford from the see of Bristol. Bishop Skinner was imprisoned during the civil war, and expelled from his see. He remained in obscurity until the Restoration, when he was elevated to the see of Worcester. He died in 1670 at the age of eighty, the last English bishop who had been consecrated before the Great Rebellion.

A.D. 1663‑1665. William Paul, Dean of Lichfield; collected materials for the restoration of his palace at Cuddesdon, but died before the work was begun. He was buried at Baldwin Brightwell, in Oxfordshire, where his monument remains.

 p47  A.D. 1665, translated to Worcester 1671. Walter Blandford, Warden of Wadham College, Oxford, was consecrated by the Bishops of London, Gloucester, and Exeter, in the chapel of New College.

A.D. 1671, translated to Durham 1674. Nathanael Crewe, Fellow of Lincoln and Dean of Chichester. For a full notice of this bishop, who died in 1721, see Durham Cathedral.

A.D. 1674, translated to London 1675. Henry Compton, Canon of Christ Church, and Master of St. Cross, near Winchester, was the youngest son of the second Earl of Northampton, killed fighting on the side of the King at Hopton Heath in 1643. As Bishop of London, King Charles appointed him guardian of his nieces, the Princesses Mary and Anne; the marriage ceremony for both of whom was afterwards performed by Bishop Compton. During the reign of Charles, Bishop Compton made himself conspicuous by his endeavours to reconcile the Protestant Dissenters to the Church of England, and by his opposition to Rome, — services which were remembered to his disadvantage on the accession of James. A pretext was soon found for suspending him for the discharge of his episcopal functions, to which he was not restored until September, 1688. The Bishop, however, at once joined the party of the Prince of Orange; and was the first, after William's arrival in London, to sign the declaration which had been set on foot at Exeter. He assisted at the coronation of William and Mary; and until his death in 1713 laboured, but without effect, to bring about the reconciliation of Dissenters with the Church. Bishop Compton was one of the ten bishops to whom, in conjunction with twenty Anglican divines, a revision of the Book of Common Prayer was entrusted by William III in 1689. This, it need hardly be said, was never carried into execution.10

 p48  A.D. 1676‑1686. John Fell, son of Samuel Fell, Dean of Christ Church, was perhaps the best and most liberal prelate by whom the see of Oxford has been filled;​a and may almost be regarded as the second founder of Christ Church. At the age of eleven he was placed on the books of the college as student by his father; and during the siege of Oxford by the Parliamentarian troops, he served with the Royalists, devoting himself to the cause of King Charles with not less zeal than his father, who died, it is said, of grief, at his parsonage at Sunningwell, on the same day (Feb. 1) in which he heard the news of the King's execution. The future bishop remained in seclusion until the Restoration, when he was made Prebendary of Chichester and Canon of Christ Church, and in November, 1660, succeeded as Dean. He immediately commenced the improvement and decoration of his college, towards which he contributed very considerable sums. His father, about 1640, had built the staircase leading to the hall, with its very rich fan-tracery; and had commenced the north side of the great quadrangle. This was now completed, as was the western gateway, the octagonal tower surmounting which was designed by Sir Christopher Wren. In 1680 the famous bell, Great Tom (still, 1860, the largest in England, owing to the failure of the great bell at Westminster),​b which had been brought from Oseney and hung in the tower of the cathedral, was recast, and placed in this octagon. Parts of the chaplains' quadrangle, and the range of rooms looking towards the Long Walk, and known as "Fell's buildings," were also the work of the Bishop. Many of the best advowsons belonging to the college were bought by him; and by his will he established ten exhibitions for undergraduate commoners. In order that he might superintend the works in the college, he was permitted to retain his deanery in commendam after his elevation to the bishopric, in 1676. He rebuilt the palace at Cuddesdon, for which the materials  p49 had been collected by Bishop Paul. On his death in 1686, he was interred in Christ Church Cathedral (which he had restored to order, after the troubles of the Rebellion), where his monument bears the following inscription, by Dean Aldrich:— "Desideratissimi Patris pietatem non hoc saxum, sed haec testentur moenia; munificentiam, hujus loci aedificia; liberalitatem, alumni; quid in moribus potuit reformandis, haec aedes; quid in publicis curis sustentandis, Academia; quid in propaganda religione, Ecclesia; quam feliciter juventutem meruit, Procerum familiae; quam praeclare de republica meruit, tota Anglia; quantum de bonis literis, universus orbis literatus." This praise was far from being unmerited, according to Antony Wood, who declares the Bishop Fell was "the most zealous man of his time for the Church of England; a great encourager and promoter of learning in the University, and of all public works belonging thereunto; of great resolution and exemplary charity, of strict integrity, a learned divine, and excellently skilled in the Latin and Greek languages." He was a great patron of Wood, whose "History and Antiquities of Oxford" was translated into Latin at the charge of Bishop Fell, and partly by the Bishop himself. His own most important work is the "Life of Hammond," first printed in 1660.

A.D. 1686‑1687. Samuel Parker, a 'chamaelion' Churchman, who is only distinguished for his share in James II's attack on the liberties of Magdalen College. He was educated "among the Puritans at Northampton," and afterwards at Wadham and Trinity Colleges, Oxford, in the latter of which he became alive, after the Restoration, to the superior advantages of conformity. In 1663 he took Orders, and was afterwards much patronised by Sheldon, Archbishop of Canterbury. As a courtier, his servility procured him the favour of James II, who in 1686 made him Bishop of Oxford, and by a royal mandamus constituted him President of Magdalen. (The well-known  p50 story of this intrusion, which need not be detailed here, will be found in Macaulay's "History of England," vol. II, and in Bloxam's "History of Magdalen College.") Bishop Parker subsequently declared himself prepared to embrace Romanism, and wrote in defence of transubstantiation. He never openly abandoned the English Church, however, and died at Magdalen College, March 20, 1687. He was buried in the chapel.

A.D. 1688‑1890. Timothy Hall, an obscure person, raised to the episcopate through the influence of James II, in October, 1688, whilst the Revolution was imminent. He died in April of the following year.

A.D. 1690, translated to Lichfield 1699. John Hough, the President of Magdalen, chosen by the Fellows of his college in opposition to the wishes of the King, who had nominated to the presidency, first Antony Farmer, and then Bishop Parker. Hough was in consequence expelled, together with twenty-five of the Fellows. From Lichfield he was translated to Worcester in 1717. He died in 1743. (See Worcester.)

A.D. 1699, translated to Salisbury in 1715. William Talbot. In 1721 he was translated to Durham, and died 1730.

A.D. 1715, translated to Canterbury 1737. John Potter. He died 1747. (See Canterbury.)

A.D. 1737, translated to Canterbury 1758. Thomas Secker; was translated to Oxford from Bristol. He died 1768. (See Canterbury.)

A.D. 1758, translated to Salisbury 1766. John Hume, like his predecessor, had been consecrated to the see of Bristol. He died 1782.

A.D. 1766, translated to London 1777. Robert Lowth, translated to Oxford from St. David's, to which he had been consecrated in the same year, 1766.

A.D. 1777, translated to Hereford 1788. John Butler, died 1802.

A.D. 1788‑1799. Edward Smallwell, translated from St. David's.

A.D. 1799, translated to Bangor 1807, and thence to London 1809. John Randolph, died 1813.

A.D. 1807‑1811. Charles Moss.

A.D. 1812‑1815. William Jackson.

A.D. 1816‑1827. Edward Legge.

A.D. 1827‑1829. Charles Lloyd.

A.D. 1829, translated to Bath and Wells 1845; died the same year. Richard Bagot.

A.D. 1845. Samuel Wilberforce.

For later bishops up to our own time, see the official site of the Diocese of Oxford.

The Author's Notes:

1 This was the first church at Oxford dedicated to the Virgin. The second was the present University Church, dedicated to St. Mary of Littlemore; and the third, St. Mary of Winchester, to whom Wykeham dedicated New College.

2 This is the date in Matthew Paris. William of Malmesbury has 1122. The episcopate of Bishop Roger commenced in 1107. He died in 1139.

3 What right Bishop Roger had to interfere in Oxford, then in the diocese of Lincoln, does not appear. The "book of St. Frideswide," quoted by Twine (Antiq. Acad. Oxon.) assigns the grant with more probability to King Henry. Roger may possibly have been Chancellor at the time.

4 "The exact situation of this stone has not been ascertained; but it is supposed to have been laid at the south-east corner of the great quadrangle, nearly under the archway, above which is the statue of the Cardinal." — Ingram's Memorials.

5 Church History.

6 Curwen was a "moderate Papist" according to Fuller, who explains the fact that "no person, of what quality soever, in all Ireland, did suffer martyrdom" in Queen Mary's days, by the following remarkable story:— "About the third of the reign of Queen Mary, a pursuivant was sent with a commission into Ireland to empower some eminent persons to proceed with fire and faggot against poor Protestants. It happened, by Divine Providence, this pursuivant at Chester lodged in the house of a Protestant inn-keeper, who having got some inkling of the matter, secretly stole his commission out of his cloak-bag, and put the knave of clubs in the room thereof. Some weeks after, he appeared before the Lords of the Privy Council at Dublin (of whom Bishop Curwen a principal), and produced a card for his pretended commission. They caused him to be committed to prison for such an affront, as done on design to deride them. Here he lay for some months, till with much ado he got his enlargement. Then over he returned to England, and quickly getting his commission renewed, makes with all speed for Ireland again. But before his arrival there, he was prevented with the news of Queen Mary's death; and so the lives of many, and the liberties of more poor servants of God, were preserved." — Worthies — Westmoreland.

7 Worthies — Oxfordshire.

8 Collier, Church History, pt. II. bk. 8.

9 Fuller, Worthies — Oxfordshire.

10 See the proposed alterations in "Procter's History of the Book of Common Prayer," Appendix, Sect. I.

Thayer's Notes:

a About this man opinions vary widely; he was surely the most famous bishop to have held the seat of Oxford. That his personality was at the center of his reputation can be gauged by the main source of his fame today, this little verse:

"I do not like thee, Dr. Fell,
The reason why I cannot tell;
But this I know, I know full well,
I do not like thee, Dr. Fell."

According to Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (1894), the tag was written by a student who had been expelled from Oxford by Dr. Fell, but was told he would remit the sentence if he translated the thirty-third Epigram of Martial (now usually numbered I.32):

"Non amo te, Zabidi, nec possum dicere quare;
Hoc tantum possum dicere, non amo te."

The student, Tom Brown, did so with a vengeance; he later made a name for himself for just this kind of talent, becoming known as a satirist (1663‑1704) and the author of Letters from the Dead to the Living (1702).

b For further details about this bell, see this passage of Kendrick's Lincoln Cathedral.

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