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Ch. 4: Jacobean Oxford

The gardens of Wadham College on a bright morning in early spring are a scene in which the memory of old Oxford pleasantly lingers, and is easily revived. The great cedars throw their secular shadow on the ancient turf, the chapel forms a beautiful background; the whole place is exactly what it was two hundred and sixty years ago. The stones of Oxford walls, when they do not turn black and drop off in flakes, assume tender tints of the palest gold, red, and orange. Along a wall, which looks so old that it may well have formed a defence of the ancient Augustinian priory, the stars of the yellow jasmine flower abundantly. The industrious hosts of the bees have left their cells, to labour in this first morning of spring; the doves coo, the thrushes are noisy in the trees. All breathes of the year renewal, and of the coming April; and all that gladdens us may have gladdened some indolent scholar in the time of King James.

In the reign of the first Stuart king of England, Oxford became the town that we know. Even in Elizabeth's days, could we ascend the stream of centuries, we should find ourselves much at home in Oxford. The earliest trustworthy map, that of Agas (1578), is worth studying, if we wish to understand the Oxford that Elizabeth left, and that the architects of James embellished, giving us the most interesting examples of collegiate buildings, which are both stately and comfortable. Let us enter Oxford by the Iffley Road, in the year 1578. We behold, as Agas enthusiastically writes:


"A citie seated, rich in everything,
Girt with wood and water, meadow, corn, and hill."


The way is not bordered, of course, by the long, straggling streets of rickety cottages, which now stretch from the bridge half-way to Cowley and Iffley. The church, called by ribalds "the boiled rabbit," from its peculiar shape, lies on the right; there is a gate in the city wall, on the place where the road now turns to Holywell. At this time the walls still existed, and ran from Magdalen past "St. Mary's College, called Newe," through Exeter, through the site of Mr. Parker's shop, and all along the south side of Broad Street to St. Michael's, and Bocardo Gate. There the wall cut across to the castle. On the southern side of the city, it skirted Corpus and Merton Gardens, and was interrupted by Christ Church. Probably if it were possible for us to visit Elizabethan Oxford, the walls and the five castle towers would seem the most curious features in the place. Entering the East Gate, Magdalen and Magdalen Grammar School would be familiar objects. St. Edmund's Hall would be in its present place, and Queen's would present its ancient Gothic front. It is easy to imagine the change in the High Street which would be produced by a Queen's not unlike Oriel, in the room of the highly classical edifice of Wren. All Souls would be less remarkable; at St. Mary's we should note the absence of the "scandalous image" of Our Lady over the door. At Merton the fellows' quadrangle did not yet exist, and a great wood-yard bordered on Corpus. In front of Oriel was an open space with trees, and there were a few scattered buildings, such as Peckwater's Inn (on the site of "Peck"), and Canterbury College. Tom Quad was stately but incomplete. Turning from St. Mary's past B. N. C., we miss the attics in Brasenose front, we miss the imposing Radcliffe, we miss all the quadrangle of the Schools, except the Divinity school, and we miss the Theatre. If we go down South Street, past Ch. Ch. we find an open space where Pembroke stands. Where Wadham is now, the most uniform, complete, and unchanged of all the colleges, there are only the open pleasances, and perhaps a few ruins of the Augustinian priory. St. John's lacks its inner quadrangle, and Balliol, in place of its new buildings, has its old delightful grove. As to the houses of the town, they are not unlike the tottering and picturesque old roofs and gables of King Street.

To the Oxford of Elizabeth's reign, then, the founders and architects of her successor added, chiefly, the Schools' quadrangle, with the great gate of the five orders, a building beautiful, as it were, in its own despite. They added a smaller curiosity of the same sort, at Merton; they added Wadham, perhaps their most successful achievement. Their taste was a medley of new and old: they made a not uninteresting effort to combine the exquisiteness of Gothic decoration with the proportions of Greek architecture. The tower of the five orders reminds the spectator, in a manner, of the style of Milton. It is rich and overloaded, yet its natural beauty is not abated by the relics out of the great treasures of Greece and Rome, which are built into the mass. The Ionic and Corinthian pillars are like the Latinisms of Milton, the double-gilding which once covered the figures and emblems of the upper part of the tower gave them the splendour of Miltonic ornament. "When King James came from Woodstock to see this quadrangular pile, he commanded the gilt figures to be whitened over," because they were so dazzling, or, as Wood expresses it, "so glorious and splendid that none, especially when the sun shone, could behold them." How characteristic of James is this anecdote! He was by no means le roi soleil, as courtiers called Louis XIV., as divines called the pedantic Stuart. It is easy to fancy the King issuing from the Library of Bodley, where he has been turning over books of theology, prosing, and displaying his learning for hours. The rheumy, blinking eyes are dazzled in the sunlight, and he peevishly commands the gold work to be "whitened over." Certainly the translators of the Bible were but ill-advised when they compared his Majesty to the rising sun in all his glory.

James was rather fond of visiting Oxford and the royal residence at Woodstock. We shall see that his Court, the most dissolute, perhaps, that England ever tolerated, corrupted the manners of the students. On one of his Majesty's earliest visits he had a chance of displaying the penetration of which he was so proud. James was always finding out something or somebody, till it almost seemed as if people had discovered that the best way to flatter him was to try to deceive him. In 1604, there was in Oxford a certain Richard Haydock, a Bachelor of Physic. This Haydock practised his profession during the day like other mortals, but varied from the kindly race of men by a pestilent habit of preaching all night. It was Haydock's contention that he preached unconsciously in his sleep, when he would give out a text with the greatest gravity, and declare such sacred matters as were revealed to him in slumber, "his preaching coming by revelation." Though people went to hear Haydock, they were chiefly influenced by curiosity. "His auditory were willing to silence him by pulling, haling, and pinching him, yet would he pertinaciously persist to the end, and sleep still." The King was introduced into Haydock's bedroom, heard him declaim, and next day cross-examined him in private. Awed by the royal acuteness, Haydock confessed that he was a humbug, and that he had taken to preaching all night by way of getting a little notoriety, and because he felt himself to be "a buried man in the University."

That a man should hope to get reputation by preaching all night is itself a proof that the University, under James, was too theologically minded. When has it been otherwise? The religious strife of the reigns of Henry VIII., Edward VI., and Mary, was not asleep; the troubles of Charles's time were beginning to stir. Oxford was as usual an epitome of English opinion. We see the struggle of the wildest Puritanism, of Arminianism, of Pelagianism, of a dozen "isms," which are dead enough, but have left their pestilent progeny to disturb a place of religion, learning, and amusement. By whatever names the different sects were called, men's ideas and tendencies were divided into two easily recognisable classes. Calvinism and Puritanism on one side, with the Puritanic haters of letters and art, were opposed to Catholicism in germ, to literature, and mundane studies. How difficult it is to take a side in this battle, where both parties had one foot on firm ground, the other in chaos, where freedom, or what was to become freedom of thought, was allied with narrow bigotry, where learning was chained to superstition!

As early as 1606, Mr. William Laud, B.D., of St. John's College, began to disturb the University. The young man preached a sermon which was thought to look Romewards. Laud became SUSPECT, it was thought a "scandalous" thing to give him the usual courteous greetings in the street or in the college quadrangle. From this time the history of Oxford, for forty years, is mixed up with the history of Laud. The divisions of Roundhead and of Cavalier have begun. The majority of the undergraduates are on the side of Laud; and the Court, the citizens, and many of the elder members of the University, are with the Puritans.

The Court and the King, we have said, were fond of being entertained in the college halls. James went from libraries to academic disputations, thence to dinner, and from dinner to look on at comedies played by the students. The Cambridge men did not care to see so much royal favour bestowed on Oxford. When James visited the University in 1641, a Cambridge wit produced a remarkable epigram. For some mysterious reason the playful fancies of the sister University have never been greatly admired at Oxford, where the brisk air, men flatter themselves, breeds nimbler humours. Here is part of the Cantab's epigram:


"To Oxenford the King has gone,
With all his mighty peers,
That hath in peace maintained us,
These five or six long years."


The poem maunders on for half a dozen lines, and "loses itself in the sands," like the River Rhine, without coming to any particular point or conclusion. How much more lively is the Oxford couplet on the King, who, being bored by some amateur theatricals, twice or thrice made as if he would leave the hall, where men failed dismally to entertain him.


"The King himself did offer,"--"What, I pray?"
"He offered twice or thrice--to go away!"


As a result of the example of the Court, the students began to wear love-locks. In Elizabeth's time, when men wore their hair "no longer than their ears," long locks had been a mark, says Wood, of "swaggerers." Drinking and gambling were now very fashionable, undergraduates were whipped for wearing boots, while "Puritans were many and troublesome," and Laud publicly declared (1614) that "Presbyterians were as bad as Papists." Did Laud, after all, think Papists so very bad? In 1617 he was President of his college, St. John's, on which he set his mark. It is to Laud and to Inigo Jones that Oxford owes the beautiful garden-front, perhaps the most lovely thing in Oxford. From the gardens--where for so many summers the beauty of England has rested in the shadow of the chestnut-trees, amid the music of the chimes, and in air heavy with the scent of the acacia flowers--from the gardens, Laud's building looks rather like a country-house than a college.

If St. John's men have lived in the University too much as if it were a large country-house, if they have imitated rather the Toryism than the learning of their great Archbishop, the blame is partly Laud's. How much harm to study he and Waynflete have unwittingly done, and how much they have added to the romance of Oxford! It is easy to understand that men find it a weary task to read in sight of the beauty of the groves of Magdalen and of St. John's. When Kubla Khan "a stately pleasure-dome decreed," he did not mean to settle students there, and to ask them for metaphysical essays, and for Greek and Latin prose compositions. Kubla Khan would have found a palace to his desire in the gardens of Laud, or where Cherwell, "meandering with a mazy motion," stirs the green weeds, and flashes from the mill-wheel, and flows to the Isis through meadows white and purple with fritillaries.


"And here are gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossoms many an incense-bearing tree";


but here is scarcely the proper training-ground of first-class men!

Oxford returned to her ancient uses in 1625. Soon after the accession of Charles I. the plague broke out in London, and Oxford entertained the Parliament, as six hundred years before she had received the Witan. There seemed something ominous in all that Charles did in his earlier years--the air, or men's minds, was full of the presage of fate. It was observed that the House of Commons met in the Divinity School, and that the place seemed to have infected them with theological passion. After 1625 there was never a Parliament but had its committee to discuss religion, and to stray into the devious places of divinity. The plague pursued Charles to Oxford. In those days, and long afterwards, it was a common complaint that the citizens built rows of poor cottages within the walls, and that these cottages were crowded by dirty and indigent people. Plague was bred almost yearly at Oxford, and Charles really seems to have improved the sanitary arrangements of the city.

Laud, the President of St. John's, became, by some intrigue, Chancellor of the University. He made Oxford many presents of Greek, Chinese, Hebrew, Latin, and Arabic MSS. There may have been--let us hope there were--quiet bookworms who enjoyed these gifts, while the town and University were bubbling over with religious feuds. People grumbled that "Popish darts were whet afresh on a Dutch grindstone." A series of anti-Romish and anti-Royal sermons and pamphlets, followed as a rule by a series of recantations, kept men's minds in a ferment. The good that Laud did by his gifts--and he was a munificent patron of learning--he destroyed by his dogmatism. Scholars could not decipher Greek texts while they were torturing biblical ones into arguments for and against the opinions of the Chancellor. What is the true story about the gorgeous vestments which were found in a box in the house of the President of St. John's, and which are now preserved in the library of that college? Did they belong to the last of the old Catholic presidents of what was Chichele's College of St. Bernard before the Reformation? Were they, on the other hand, the property of Laud himself? It has been said that Laud would not have known how to wear them. Fancy sees him treasuring that bright ecclesiastical raiment, [Greek text which cannot be reproduced], in some place of security. At night, perhaps, when candles were lit and curtains drawn, and he was alone, he may have arrayed himself in the gorgeous chasuble before the mirror, as Hetty wore her surreptitious finery. "There is a great deal of human nature in man." If Laud really strutted in solitude, draped rather at random in these vestments, the ecclesiastical gear is even more interesting than the thin ivory-headed staff which supported him on his way to the scaffold; more curious than the diary in which he recorded the events of night and day, of dreaming hours and waking. In the library at St. John's they show his bust--a tarnished, gilded work of art. He has a neat little cocked-up moustache, not like a prelate's; the face is that of a Bismarck without strength of character.

In speaking of Oxford before the civil war, let us not forget that true students and peaceable men found a welcome retreat beyond the din of theological fictions. Lord Falkland's house was within ten miles of the town. "In this time," says Clarendon, in his immortal panegyric, "in this time he contracted familiarity and friendship with the most polished men of the University, who found such an immenseness of wit and such a solidity of judgment in him, so infinite a fancy, bound in by a most logical ratiocination, such a vast knowledge that he was not ignorant in anything, yet such an excessive humility as if he had known nothing, that they frequently resorted and dwelt with him, as in a college situated in a purer air; so that his house was a university in a less volume, whither they came not so much for repose as study; and to examine and refine those grosser propositions, which laziness and consent made current in vulgar conversation."

The signs of the times grew darker. In 1636 the King and Queen visited Oxford, "with no applause." In 1640 Laud sent the University his last present of manuscripts. He was charged with many offences. He had repaired crucifixes; he had allowed the "scandalous image" to be set up in the porch of St. Mary's; and Alderman Nixon, the Puritan grocer, had seen a man bowing to the scandalous image--so he declared. In 1642 Charles asked for money from the colleges, for the prosecution of the war with the Parliament. The beautiful old college plate began its journey to the melting-pot. On August 9th the scholars armed themselves. There were two bands of musqueteers, one of pikemen, one of halberdiers. In the reign of Henry III. the men had been on the other side. Magdalen bridge was blocked up with heaps of wood. Stones, for the primitive warfare of the time, were transported to the top of Magdalen tower. The stones were never thrown at any foemen. Royalists and Roundheads in turn occupied the place; and while grocer Nixon fled before the Cavaliers, he came back and interceded for All Souls College (which dealt with him for figs and sugar) when the Puritans wished to batter the graven images on the gate. On October 29th the King came, after Edgehill fight, the Court assembled, and Oxford was fortified. The place was made impregnable in those days of feeble artillery. The author of the Gesta Stephani had pointed out, many centuries before, that Oxford, if properly defended, could never be taken, thanks to the network of streams that surrounds her. Though the citizens worked grudgingly and slowly, the trenches were at last completed. The earthworks--a double line--ran in and out of the interlacing streams. A Parliamentary force on Headington Hill seems to have been unable to play on the city with artillery. Barbed arrows were served out to the scholars, who formed a regiment of more than six hundred men. The Queen held her little court in Merton, in the Warden's lodgings. Clarendon gives rather a humorous account of the discontent of the fine ladies "The town was full of lords (besides those of the Council), and of persons of the best quality, with very many ladies, who, when not pleased themselves, kept others from being so." Oxford never was so busy and so crowded; letters, society, war, were all confused; there were excursions against Brown at Abingdon, and alarms from Fairfax on Headington Hill. The siege, from May 22nd to June 5th, was almost a farce. The Parliamentary generals "fought with perspective glasses." Neither Cromwell at Wytham, nor Brown at Wolvercot, pushed matters too hard. When two Puritan regiments advanced on Hinksey, Mr. Smyth blazed away at them from his house. As in Zululand, any building made a respectable fort, when cannon- balls had so little penetrative power, or when artillery was not at the front. Oxford was surrendered, with other places of arms, after Naseby, and--Presbyterians became heads of colleges!


Andrew Lang