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Ch. 1: The Town Before the University

Most old towns are like palimpsests, parchments which have been scrawled over again and again by their successive owners. Oxford, though not one of the most ancient of English cities, shows, more legibly than the rest, the handwriting, as it were, of many generations. The convenient site among the interlacing waters of the Isis and the Cherwell has commended itself to men in one age after another. Each generation has used it for its own purpose: for war, for trade, for learning, for religion; and war, trade, religion, and learning have left on Oxford their peculiar marks. No set of its occupants, before the last two centuries began, was very eager to deface or destroy the buildings of its predecessors. Old things were turned to new uses, or altered to suit new tastes; they were not overthrown and carted away. Thus, in walking through Oxford, you see everywhere, in colleges, chapels, and churches, doors and windows which have been builded up; or again, openings which have been cut where none originally existed. The upper part of the round Norman arches in the Cathedral has been preserved, and converted into the circular bull's-eye lights which the last century liked. It is the same everywhere, except where modern restorers have had their way. Thus the life of England, for some eight centuries, may be traced in the buildings of Oxford. Nay, if we are convinced by some antiquaries, the eastern end of the High Street contains even earlier scratches on this palimpsest of Oxford; the rude marks of savages who scooped out their damp nests, and raised their low walls in the gravel, on the spot where the new schools are to stand. Here half- naked men may have trapped the beaver in the Cherwell, and hither they may have brought home the boars which they slew in the trackless woods of Headington and Bagley. It is with the life of historical Oxford, however, and not with these fancies, that we are concerned, though these papers have no pretension to be a history of Oxford. A series of pictures of men's life here is all they try to sketch.

It is hard, though not impossible, to form a picture in the mind of Oxford as she was when she is first spoken of by history. What she may have been when legend only knows her; when St. Frideswyde built a home for religious maidens; when she fled from King Algar and hid among the swine, and after a whole fairy tale of adventures died in great sanctity, we cannot even guess. This legend of St. Frideswyde, and of her foundation, the germ of the Cathedral and of Christ Church, is not, indeed, without its value and significance for those who care for Oxford. This home of religion and of learning was a home of religion from the beginning, and her later life is but a return, after centuries of war and trade, to her earliest purpose. What manner of village of wooden houses may have surrounded the earliest rude chapels and places of prayer, we cannot readily guess, but imagination may look back on Oxford as she was when the English Chronicle first mentions her. Even then it is not unnatural to think Oxford might well have been a city of peace. She lies in the very centre of England, and the Northmen, as they marched inland, burning church and cloister, must have wandered long before they came to Oxford. On the other hand, the military importance of the site must have made it a town that would be eagerly contended for. Any places of strength in Oxford would command the roads leading to the north and west, and the secure, raised paths that ran through the flooded fens to the ford or bridge, if bridge there then was, between Godstowe and the later Norman grand pont, where Folly Bridge now spans the Isis. Somewhere near Oxford, the roads that ran towards Banbury and the north, or towards Bristol and the west, would be obliged to cross the river. The water-way, too, and the paths by the Thames' side, were commanded by Oxford. The Danes, as they followed up the course of the Thames from London, would be drawn thither, sooner or later, and would covet a place which is surrounded by half a dozen deep natural moats. Lastly, Oxford lay in the centre of England indeed, but on the very marches of Mercia and Wessex. A border town of natural strength and of commanding situation, she can have been no mean or poor collection of villages in the days when she is first spoken of, when Eadward the Elder "incorporated with his own kingdom the whole Mercian lands on both sides of Watling Street" (Freeman's Norman Conquest, vol. i. p. 57), and took possession of London and of Oxford as the two most important parts of a scientific frontier. If any man had stood, in the days of Eadward, on the hill that was not yet "Shotover," and had looked along the plain to the place where the grey spires of Oxford are clustered now, as it were in a purple cup of the low hills, he would have seen little but "the smoke floating up through the oakwood and the coppice,"

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The low hills were not yet cleared, nor the fens and the wolds trimmed and enclosed. Centuries later, when the early students came, they had to ride "through the thick forest and across the moor, to the East Gate of the city" (Munimenta Academica, Oxon., vol. i. p. 60). In the midst of a country still wild, Oxford was already no mean city; but the place where the hostile races of the land met to settle their differences, to feast together and forget their wrongs over the mead and ale, or to devise treacherous murder, and close the banquet with fire and sword.

Again and again, after Eadward the Elder took Mercia, the Danes went about burning and wasting England. The wooden towns were flaming through the night, and sending up a thick smoke through the day, from Thamesmouth to Cambridge. "And next was there no headman that force would gather, and each fled as swift as he might, and soon was there no shire that would help another." When the first fury of the plundering invaders was over, when the Northmen had begun to wish to settle and till the land and have some measure of peace, the early meetings between them and the English rulers were held in the border- town, in Oxford. Thus Sigeferth and Morkere, sons of Earngrim, came to see Eadric in Oxford, and there were slain at a banquet, while their followers perished in the attempt to avenge them. "Into the tower of St. Frideswyde they were driven, and as men could not drive them thence, the tower was fired, and they perished in the burning." So says William of Malmesbury, who, so many years later, read the story, as he says, in the records of the Church of St. Frideswyde. There is another version of the story in the Codex Diplomaticus (DCCIX.). Aethelred is made to say, in a deed of grant of lands to St. Frideswyde's Church ("mine own minster"), that the Danes were slain in the massacre of St. Brice. On that day Aethelred, "by the advice of his satraps, determined to destroy the tares among the wheat, the Danes in England." Certain of these fled into the minster, as into a fortress, and therefore it was burned and the books and monuments destroyed. For this cause Aethelred gives lands to the minster, "fro Charwell brigge andlong the streame, fro Merewell to Rugslawe, fro the lawe to the foule putte," and so forth. It is pleasant to see how old are the familiar names "Cherwell," "Hedington," "Couelee" or Cowley, where the college cricket-grounds are. Three years passed, and the headmen of the English and of the Danes met at Oxford again, and more peacefully, and agreed to live together, obedient to the laws of Eadgar; to the law, that is, as it was administered in older days, that seem happier and better ruled to men looking back on them from an age of confusion and bloodshed. At Oxford, too, met the peaceful gathering of 1035, when Danish and English claims were in some sort reconciled, and at Oxford Harold Harefoot, the son of Cnut, died in March 1040. The place indeed was fatal to kings, for St. Frideswyde, in her anger against King Algar, left her curse on it. Just as the old Irish kings were forbidden by their customs to do this or that, to cross a certain moor on May morning, or to listen to the winnowing of the night-fowl's wings in the dusk above the lake of Tara; so the kings of England shunned to enter Oxford, and to come within the walls of Frideswyde the maiden. Harold died there, as we have seen, but there he was not buried. His body was laid at Westminster, where it could not rest, for his enemies dug it up, and cast it forth upon the fens, or threw it into the river. Many years later, when Henry III. entered Oxford, not without fear, the curse of Frideswyde lighted also upon him. He came in 1263, with Edward the prince, and misfortune fell upon him, so that his barons defeated and took him prisoner at the battle of Lewes. The chronicler of Oseney Abbey mentions his contempt of superstitions, and how he alone of English kings entered the city: "Quod nullus rex attemptavit a tempore Regis Algari," an error, for Harold attemptavit, and died. When Edward I. was king, he was less audacious than his father, and in 1275 he rode up to the East Gate and turned his horse's head about, and sought a lodging outside the town, reflexis habenis equitans extra moenia aulam regiain in suburbio positam introivit. In 1280, however, he seems to have plucked up courage and attended a Chapter of Dominicans in Oxford.

The last of the meetings between North and South was held at Oxford in October 1065. "In urle quae famoso nomine Oxnaford nuncupatur," to quote a document of Cnut's. (Cod. Dipl. DCCXLVI. in 1042.) There the Northumbrian rebels met Harold in the last days of Edward the Confessor. With this meeting we leave that Oxford before the Conquest, of which possibly not one stone, or one rafter, remains. We look back through eight hundred years on a city, rich enough, it seems, and powerful, and we see the narrow streets full of armed bands of men--men that wear the cognisance of the horse or of the raven, that carry short swords, and are quick to draw them; men that dress in short kirtles of a bright colour, scarlet or blue; that wear axes slung on their backs, and adorn their bare necks and arms with collars and bracelets of gold. We see them meeting to discuss laws and frontiers, and feasting late when business is done, and chaffering for knives with ivory handles, for arrows, and saddles, and wadmal, in the booths of the citizens. Through the mist of time this picture of ancient Oxford may be distinguished. We are tempted to think of a low, grey twilight above that wet land suddenly lit up with fire; of the tall towers of St. Frideswyde's Minster flaring like a torch athwart the night; of poplars waving in the same wind that drives the vapour and smoke of the holy place down on the Danes who have taken refuge there, and there stand at bay against the English and the people of the town. The material Oxford of our times is not more unlike the Oxford of low wooden booths and houses, and of wooden spires and towers, than the life led in its streets was unlike the academic life of to-day. The Conquest brought no more quiet times, but the whole city was wrecked, stormed, and devastated, before the second period of its history began, before it was the seat of a Norman stronghold, and one of the links of the chain by which England was bound. "Four hundred and seventy-eight houses were so ruined as to be unable to pay taxes," while, "within the town or without the wall, there were but two hundred and forty-three houses which did yield tribute."

With the buildings of Robert D'Oily, a follower of the Conqueror's, and the husband of an English wife, the heiress of Wigod of Wallingford, the new Oxford begins. Robert's work may be divided roughly into two classes. First, there are the strong places he erected to secure his possessions, and, second, the sacred places he erected to secure the pardon of Heaven for his robberies. Of the castle, and its "shining coronal of towers," only one tower remains. From the vast strength of this picturesque edifice, with the natural moat flowing at its feet, we may guess what the castle must have been in the early days of the Conquest, and during the wars of Stephen and Matilda. We may guess, too, that the burghers of Oxford, and the rustics of the neighbourhood, had no easy life in those days, when, as we have seen, the town was ruined, and when, as the extraordinary thickness of the walls of its remaining tower demonstrates, the castle was built by new lords who did not spare the forced labour of the vanquished. The strength of the position of the castle is best estimated after viewing the surrounding country from the top of the tower. Through the more modern embrasures, or over the low wall round the summit, you look up and down the valley of the Thames, and gaze deep into the folds of the hills. The prospect is pleasant enough, on an autumn morning, with the domes and spires of modern Oxford breaking, like islands, through the sea of mist that sweeps above the roofs of the good town. In the old times, no movement of the people who had their fastnesses in the fens, no approach of an army from any direction could have evaded the watchman. The towers guarded the fords and the bridge and were themselves almost impregnable, except when a hard winter made the Thames, the Cherwell, and the many deep and treacherous streams passable, as happened when Matilda was beleaguered in Oxford. This natural strength of the site is demonstrated by the vast mound within the castle walls, which tradition calls the Jews' Mound, but which is probably earlier than the Norman buildings. Some other race had chosen the castle site for its fortress in times of which we know nothing. Meanwhile, some of the practical citizens of Oxford wish to level the Jews' Mound, and to "utilise" the gravel of which it is largely composed. There is nothing to be said against this economic project which could interest or affect the persons who entertain it. M. Brunet-Debaines' illustration shows the mill on a site which must be as old as the tower. Did the citizens bring their corn to be tolled and ground at the lord's mill?

Though Robert was bent on works of war, he had a nature inclined to piety, and, his piety beginning at home, he founded the church of St. George within the castle. The crypt of the church still remains, and is not without interest for persons who like to trace the changing fortunes of old buildings. The site of Robert's Castle is at present occupied by the County Gaol. When you have inspected the tower (which does not do service as a dungeon) you are taken, by the courtesy of the Governor, to the crypt, and satisfy your archaeological curiosity. The place is much lower, and worse lighted, than the contemporary crypt of St. Peter's-in-the-East, but not, perhaps, less interesting. The square-headed capitals have not been touched, like some of those in St. Peter's, by a later chisel. The place is dank and earthy, but otherwise much as Robert D'Oily left it. There is an odd-looking arrangement of planks on the floor. It is THE NEW DROP, which is found to work very well, and gives satisfaction to the persons who have to employ it. Sinister the Norman castle was in its beginning, "it was from the castle that men did wrong to the poor around them; it was from the castle that they bade defiance to the king, who, stranger and tyrant as he might be, was still a protector against smaller tyrants." Sinister the castle remains; you enter it through ironed and bolted doors, you note the prisoners at their dreary exercises, and, when you have seen the engines of the law lying in the old crypt you pass out into the place of execution. Here, in a corner made by Robert's tower and by the wall of the prison, is a dank little quadrangle. The ground is of the yellow clay and gravel which floors most Oxford quadrangles. A few letters are scratched on the soft stone of the wall--the letters "H. R." are the freshest. These are the initials of the last man who suffered death in this corner--a young rustic who had murdered his sweetheart. "H. R." on the prison wall is all his record, and his body lies under your feet, and the feet of the men who are to die here in after days pass over his tomb. It is thus that malefactors are buried, "within the walls of the gaol."

One is glad enough to leave the remains of Robert's place of arms--as glad as Matilda may have been when "they let her down at night from the tower with ropes, and she stole out, and went on foot to Wallingford." Robert seems at first to have made the natural use of his strength. "Rich he was, and spared not rich or poor, to take their livelihood away, and to lay up treasures for himself." He stole the lands of the monks of Abingdon, but of what service were moats, and walls, and dungeons, and instruments of torture, against the powers that side with monks?

The Chronicle of Abingdon has a very diverting account of Robert's punishment and conversion. "He filched a certain field without the walls of Oxford that of right belonged to the monastery, and gave it over to the soldiers in the castle. For which loss the brethren were greatly grieved--the brethren of Abingdon. Therefore, they gathered in a body before the altar of St. Michael--the very altar that St. Dunstan the archbishop dedicated--and cast themselves weeping on the ground, accusing Robert D'Oily, and praying that his robbery of the monastery might be avenged, or that he might be led to make atonement." So, in a dream, Robert saw himself taken before Our Lady by two brethren of Abingdon, and thence carried into the very meadow he had coveted, where "most nasty little boys," turpissimi pueri, worked their will on him. Thereon Robert was terrified and cried out, and wakened his wife, who took advantage of his fears, and compelled him to make restitution to the brethren.

After this vision, Robert gave himself up to pampering the monastery and performing other good works. He it was who built a bridge over the Isis, and he restored the many ruined parish churches in Oxford-- churches which, perhaps, he and his men had helped to ruin. The tower of St. Michael's, in "the Corn," is said to be of his building; perhaps he only "restored" it, for it is in the true primitive style- -gaunt, unadorned, with round-headed windows, good for shooting from with the bow. St. Michael's was not only a church, but a watchtower of the city wall; and here the old northgate, called Bocardo, spanned the street. The rooms above the gate were used till within quite recent times, and the poor inmates used to let down a greasy old hat from the window in front of the passers-by, and cry, "Pity the Bocardo birds":


"Pigons qui sont en l'essoine,
Enserrez soubz trappe voliere,"


as a famous Paris student, Francois Villon, would have called them. Of Bocardo no trace remains, but St. Michael's is likely to last as long as any edifice in Oxford. Our illustrations represent it as it was in the last century. The houses huddle up to the church, and hide the lines of the tower. Now it stands out clear, less picturesque than it was in the time of Bocardo prison. Within the last two years the windows have been cleared, and the curious and most archaic pillars, shaped like balustrades, may be examined. It is worth while to climb the tower and remember the times when arrows were sent like hail from the narrow windows on the foes who approached Oxford from the north, while prayers for their confusion were read in the church below.

That old Oxford of war was also a trading town. Nothing more than the fact that it was a favourite seat of the Jews is needed to prove its commercial prosperity. The Jews, however, demand a longer notice in connection with the still unborn University. Meanwhile, it may be remarked that Oxford trade made good use of the river. The Abingdon Chronicle (ii. 129) tells us that "from each barque of Oxford city, which makes the passage by the river Thames past Abingdon, a hundred herrings must yearly be paid to the cellarer. The citizens had much litigation about land and houses with the abbey, and one Roger Maledoctus (perhaps a very early sample of the pass-man) gave Abingdon tenements within the city." Thus we leave the pre-Academic Oxford a flourishing town, with merchants and moneylenders. As for the religious, the brethren of St. Frideswyde had lived but loosely (pro libito viverunt), says William of Malmesbury, and were to be superseded by regular canons, under the headship of one Guimond, and the patronage of the Bishop of Salisbury. Whoever goes into Christ Church new buildings from the river-side, will see, in the old edifice facing him, a certain bulging in the wall. That is the mark of the pulpit, whence a brother used to read aloud to the brethren in the refectory of St. Frideswyde. The new leaven of learning was soon to ferment in an easy Oxford, where men lived pro libito, under good lords, the D'Oilys, who loved the English, and built, not churches and bridges only, but the great and famous Oseney Abbey, beyond the church of St. Thomas, and not very far from the modern station of the Great Western Railway. Yet even after public teaching in Oxford certainly began, after Master Robert Puleyn lectured in divinity there (1133; cf. Oseney Chronicle), the tower was burned down by Stephen's soldiery in 1141 (Oseney Chronicle, p. 24).


Andrew Lang