Turn the page
Picturesque England
Turn the page



XFORD has great claims to the picturesque of a grave and calm character; a mass of towers, pinnacles, and spires rise from a valley, amid thick groves of trees, on the banks of the beautiful, and here limpid, river that glides gently through the meadows - the imperial Thames.

Christ Church is one of the finest of the Oxford buildings, and was founded by Cardinal Wolsey in the reign of Henry VIII., the first stone being laid July 17th, 1525. After the great cardinal's death, Henry refounded it, 1532, and in 1546 it received its present name. Over the entrance is a statue of Wolsey. Christ Church is preeminently the royal college. Here the Prince of Wales and Prince Leopold studied, and the Crown Prince of Denmark. Dr. Percy, Bishop of Dromore, whose "Reliques of Ancient Poetry" are well known, was at Christ Church; also Atterbury, the exiled bishop, Ben Jonson, Ruskin, Peel, and Gladstone, with many another celebrated Englishman. Turning to the left the kitchen is entered, and here a monster gridiron is shown, that is four feet six inches by four feet one inch. In the cloisters is the Chapter House, where Charles 1. held his Parliament when shut up in Oxford. The loyalty of the University was of the most devoted character The hall is reached by a very beautiful stone staircase, forty feet wide, dating from 1640. The Irish oak roof is emblazoned with heraldic bearings. There are many fine paintings here.

Christ Church College, Oxford

Great Tom, the famous bell, belongs to Christ Church, and every night, at five minutes past nine, it tolls 101 times (the original number of the students), and at the solemn sound the gates of most of the colleges and halls are shut.

The great gate of Christ Church is known as the Tom Gate, from the cupola over it containing the great bell. It came from Oseney Abbey originally, and was re-cast in 1680, its weight being about 17,000 pounds.

From a cross in the centre of the Quadrangle, Wicliffe used to preach. A fountain now stands on the spot. Leaving it, the visitor crosses to the Peckwater Quadrangle. On the right of it are the library and picture gallery. The former is rich in rare volumes, pictures, busts, and coins. Here is Wolsey's Prayer Book, beautifully illuminated - a French Psalter bound in embroidered crimson velvet, set with pearls, date 1599, and the original score of the May-day hymn sung on Magdalen College tower. There are more than three hundred pictures, arranged chronologically.

In Canterbury quadrangle stood Canterbury College, founded in 1365 by Simon Islip, Archbishop of Canterbury, for the study of Canon Law. Wicliffe was its first warden, and Chaucer and Sir Thomas More were amongst its students.

Of Oriel, St. Mary's Hall, and Corpus Christi, we have not space to speak. Adjoining the latter is Merton, the old college founded 1264 by Walter de Merton, Lord Chancellor and Bishop of Rochester. The college chapel is very magnificent. It is used for parish service as well as for the students. The massive tower rises at the intersection of the transept and choir; the latter cannot be surpassed in beauty. It contains fourteen windows, beautifully illuminated, and the east window has a splendid Catherine Wheel. St. Alban Hall adjoins Merton.

A sad story belongs to the Terrace of Merton. A Cavalier named Windebank gave up Bletchington House to Cromwell without resistance, and "was shot by sudden courtmartial, so enraged were they at Oxford, for Cromwell had not even footsoldiers, still less a battering gun. It was his poor young wife, they said; she and other ladies on a visit there, at Bletchington House, that confounded poor Windebank. He set his back to the wall of Merton College and received his death volley with a soldier's stoicism." - Carlyle's Cromwell.

Sure man's heart anguish ne' er hath broken here
This smiling air of natural repose,
Which over Merton's meadowed landscape glows
Yes, on this spot where the grey stone walls rear
Their hoary height, fell that poor Cavalier,
Who gave his post up to his monarch's foes
At iron Cromwell's summons, without blows,
Through gentle courtesy, not coward fear.

Perchance beneath where now I stand, he stood,
Setting his back against the college wall,
Baring his breast, not dabbled yet with blood,
A bold, unflinching mark for many a ball;
His young wife's name borne on his latest breath-
Short trial his, brief shrift and soldier's death.


Magdalen College has a noble tower, which is a picturesque object when approaching Oxford from the east it was erected between 1492 - 1505. Its height is 145 feet.

The Maudlin Grace or May Morning Hymn is one of the old customs retained at this college.

On the summit of the stately tower a portion is railed off for men who sing and choristers in surplices; the remaining space is for members of the University and visitors, admitted with tickets. As the last stroke of five dies on the breeze, all heads are reverently uncovered, and the choristers in the deep silence wake the echoes of the morning with the fine old hymn to the Trinity, "Te Deum patrem colimus."

Dr. Rimbault gives the following account of this custom: - "in the year of our Lord Cod, 1501, the most Christian King, Henry VII., gave to St. Mary Magdalen College the advowsons of the Churches of Slymbridge, county Gloucester, and Fyndon, county Sussex, together with one acre of land in each parish. In gratitude for this benefaction the college was accustomed, during the lifetime of their Royal benefactor, to celebrate a service in honour of the Holy Trinity, with the Collect still used on Trinity Sunday, and the prayer, 'Almighty and everlasting God, we are taught by Thy Holy Word that the hearts of kings, etc.,' and after the death of the king to commemorate him in the usual manner The Commemoration Service, ordered in the time of Queen Elizabeth, is still performed on the first of May, and the Latin hymn in honour of the Holy Trinity, which continues to be sung on the tower at sunrising, has evidently reference to the original service."

There is an annual charge on Slymbridge Rectory, Gloucestershire, of 10 for choir music on the top of the tower, the college being the patron of that living.

The new buildings having been inspected, we proceed to the celebrated water walks winding along the river Cherwell for a long way. One of these is called "Addison's Walk," as he used to stroll there.

Cardinal Wolsey, Reginald Pole, Addison, Gibbon, Collins, Wilson, John Hampden, John Foxe, martyrologist, were all Magdalen men.

New College, or "Sainte Marie of Wynchester at Oxenford," was founded and built by that great architect, William of Wykeham, Bishop of Winchester, and Lord Chancellor. Founded in 1379, it was completed and opened in 1386 with solemn processions and litanies. A warden was appointed, and with forty fellows, thirty scholars, ten chaplains, three clerks, and sixteen choristers formed the first establishment.

The entrance to New College is not striking, but the interior is charming. Over the gateway, however, are three exquisite statues representing the Virgin Mary, the angel Gabriel, and the founder, Wykeham. The tower stands by the portal. It has ten bells, one of the sweetest peals in the city. Four of these bells bear the founder's motto - "Manners makyth man." From the summit of this tower a very fine view of the University is obtained. There is a remarkable echo in the cloisters, and in them are buried several distinguished men. A small beacon tower is at the top of the great bell tower, which, in case of invasion, could be lighted to send the alarm of war forward.

From the cloisters the visitors enter the chapel, passing through the ante-chapel. The painted windows here are magnificent, and the large west window by Jervais, designed by Sir Joshua Reynolds, is splendid, as are also the south windows, said to have been painted by the pupils of Rubens. Wykeham's pastoral staff is preserved here, and his mitre, sandals, ring, gloves, and plate are kept in the muniment room. A letter of his is also preserved in the library.

The gardens of this college, overshadowed by old trees, are extremely beautiful. Surrounding them are the thick old walls and bastions, the bishop having entered into an agreement with the city magistrates to keep the walls in good repair for ever.

Amongst the great men who were students at New College were Archbishop Chichele, Bishop Kenn, Archdeacon Philpot, martyr, Bishop Lowth, Dr. Crotch.

St Mary Magdalen Church was erected during the Saxon period of our history, but St. Hugh, Bishop of Lincoln, added the north and south aisles, 1194. The tower was built with some of the material from Rewley Abbey, 1511-31. In a MS. of the Bodleian Library is a legend of Ralph, a priest, 1286. He had been guilty of some great crime, and whilst he was celebrating high mass, he fancied that he beheld an angel descending, who snatched the holy elements from him, and he became senseless. When he recovered, he was so terrified and struck by remorse, that he hastened to confess his sin, and did a severe penance for it. From that time he was afflicted with palsy of the head, probably coming on when he thought he saw the angel.

The jewel chest, of finely carved oak, in which the plate of the Roman Catholic service was kept, is still in the vestry. The north aisle, called the Martyrs' Memorial Aisle, was built by public subscription in 1841 in remembrance of the martyred Bishops and Archbishop; Ridley, Latimer and Cranmer. This aisle contains the door of the cell in which the martyrs were imprisoned. Nearly adjoining the Church is the Martyrs' Memorial, erected at the same time as the aisle, 1841. It is in the style of the crosses raised by Edward I. to his Queen Eleanor, and is very light and elegant as well as lofty, being seventy three feet high. The statues in the niches are those of the prelates. Archbishop Cranmer is on the north side, Bishop Latimer on the west, and Ridley on the east. Below is the following inscription:

"To the glory of God and in grateful commemoration of His servants - Thomas Cranmer, Nicholas Ripley, Hugh Latimer, prelates of the Church of England, who near this spot yielded their bodies to be burned, bearing witness to the sacred truths which they had affirmed and maintained against the errors of the Church of Rome, and rejoicing that to them it was given, not only to believe in Christ, but also to suffer for His sake. This monument was erected by public subscription in the year of our Lord God MDCCCXLI."

Ridley and Latimer perished at the same time and place in a ditch opposite Baliol College. Lord Williams, of Tame, and a sufficient retinue were appointed to see them burnt. They embraced each other, and then knelt each beside his stake in prayer. A certain Dr. Smith preached a sermon, as was usual on these occasions. He took his text from the 13th chapter of St. Paul's first Epistle to the Corinthians: "If I give my body to be burnt, and have not charity, it availeth me nothing." Ridley wished to answer the sermon, which was a tirade of reproach and uncharitable assertions, but he was not allowed; he was told that if he would recant he might have his life, and he answered, "So long as the breath is in my body I will never deny my Lord Christ and His known truth. God's will be done in me!"

Latimer said he could answer the sermon well enough if he might, and added, "Well, there is nothing hid but it shall be opened," a saying he habitually used. Ridley distributed such trifles as he had about him to those who were near, and many gathered round him to obtain a relic. They undressed for the stake, and Latimer, when he took off his prison garb, an old threadbare gown of Bristol frieze, apppeared in a shroud instead of a shirt. Till that moment he had looked like a withered, bent old man, but now he stood quite upright, "as comely a father as one might lightly behold."

Ridley then prayed aloud, "O Heavenly Father, I give unto Thee most hearty thanks for that Thou hast called me to be a professor of Thee, even unto death. I beseech Thee, Lord God, take mercy upon this realm of England, and deliver the same from all her enemies."

After he had been chained to the stake, his brother-inlaw tied a bag of gunpowder round his neck. Ridley, told what it was, said he received it as sent by God, and begged him to make haste and give some also to Latimer. Then he spoke to Lord Williams, and besought him to use his influence with Queen Mary in behalf of his sister and the poor tenants of his see.

When the faggots were piled around them, and the fire brought, the brave old Latimer said, "Be of good comfort, Master Ridley, and play the man! We shall this day light such a candle in England as I trust shall never be put out!" He then received the flame in his hands, as if embracing it, and stroked his face with them, dying apparently without pain. Ridley suffered longer, till the gunpowder exploded, when he fell at Latimers feet. "As the bodies were consumed, the quantity of blood that gushed from Latimer's heart astonished the beholders." It was particularly observed, because he had repeatedly prayed during his imprisonment that he might shed his heart's blood for the truth; that God would restore His gospel to England, and preserve the Lady Elizabeth. Latimer's words were prophetic. The fires of the martyrs restored the Light to their country.

Cranmer died alone at the same place, penitent for his former recantation, and holding his erring hand in the consuming flames as his penance for past weakness.


Here Latimer and Ridley in the flames
Bore witness to the truth. If thou hast walked
Uprightly through the world, just thoughts of joy
May fill thy breast in contemplating here
Congenial virtue. But if thou hast swerved
From the strait path of even rectitude,
Fearful in trying seasons to assert
The better cause, or to forsake the worse;
Reluctant, when perchance therein enthralled,
Slave to false shame, 0 thankfully receive
The sharp compunctious motions that this spot
May wake within thee, and be wise in time,
And let the future for the past atone.

Pembroke College dates from 1624. It was founded by Thomas Teesdale and Richard Wightwick, and named after William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke.

It was at Pembroke that Dr. Johnson studied. Here, as Macaulay says, "The needy scholar was generally to be seen under the gate of Pembroke, haranguing a circle of lads over whom, in spite of his tattered gown and dirty linen, his wit and audacity gave him an undisputed ascendancy." He was only three years at Pembroke, entering the college in 1728 at nineteen years of age. Whitfield, the friend of Wesley, was educated here; Sir Thomas Browne, author of "Religio Medici"; Francis Beaumont the dramatist; Camden, the historian; Pym and Bishop Bonner.

We may now pass to Folly Bridge at the southern entrance to Oxford, and recollect that Friar Bacon's Tower stood there, and remained till 1778, when it was taken down. The present bridge was built in 1825. This tower was called Friar Bacon's Study, from the popular belief that Bacon used to ascend it in the night to study the heavens.

Bacon was the most wonderful philosopher that England ever produced, except his great namesake, Lord Bacon, of Verulam, and Sir Isaac Newton. His knowledge of geometry and mathematics was so great that in his own time he was considered a wizard. It is said that in his works is the singular prophecy, founded probably on certain knowledge, that when the two greatest enemies could be united and ruled, man would be true lord of the universe. Under this figurative mode fire and water are described; their union in steam has undoubtedly greatly increased the power of man. We have searched Bacon's works, but have not found this exact prophecy.

There is a legend attached to Roger Bacon's tower, sufficiently absurd. It runs thus: - "His familiar spirit told him that if after great study be should succeed in making a head of brass which could speak, and if he should hear it when it spoke, he might be able to surround England with a wall of brass. By the assistance of Friar Bungay and a demon that they called to assist them Bacon did make a brass head that when finished was warranted to speak in the course of one month, but the exact day or hour was quite uncertain; and if they did not hear it their labour would have been in vain. The two friars watched it night and day for three weeks, then, exhausted with fatigue, Bacon desired his man Miles to watch, and call them the moment the head spoke. Half an hour after they had left him Miles heard the head speak. "Time is," it said. Miles thought he ought not to wake his master so soon, for as yet he could have had no rest. Half an hour elapsed, then the head spoke again; "Time was," it said. Miles thought it was not worth while to wake his master to hear such a truism. Another half-hour elapsed, then the head said, "Time is past," and fell down with a tremendous crash that woke the friars. Thus Bacon's work was lost. He died at Oxford in 1292.

One of the legends connected with Bacon's supposed magical power was that he had so charmed the building that if a more learned man than himself passed under it it would fall - perhaps on the learned individual in question. Thus, at that period, and long after, it was a common saying to a youth sent to Oxford, "Beware of walking near Bacon's Tower." Dr. Johnson alludes to this superstition in the "Vanity of Human Wishes":

"When first the college rolls receives his name,
The young enthusiast quits his ease for fame
Resistless burns the fever of renown,
Caught from the strong contagion of the gown;
O'er Bodley's dome his future labours spread,
And Bacon's mansion trembles o'er his head."

From Folly Bridge there is a fine view of Merton Tower. "As you stand on it you have only to look across Christ Church meadow to the pinnacled tower of Merton College to be reminded that this was the earliest home of science of a decidedly English school, and that for two centuries there was no other foundation, either in Oxford or Paris, which could at all come near it in the cultivation of the sciences."

St. John's College was re-founded in the year of Ridley and Latimer's martyrdom for divinity, philosophy, and the arts, under a grant from the Dean and Chapter of Christ Church for the use of a president and three scholars, since augmented to fifty. The first founder had been Archbishop Chichele, in 1436; the second, in 1555, Sir Thomas White, of Richmansworth. The chapel is on the north side, and was restored in 1843. It contains several monuments. The library contains some valuable and rare books, among them Caxton's Chaucer, the only perfect one, and some very beautiful missals.

The gardens of St. John's are extremely beautiful and picturesque with trees and the loveliest flowers. They cover five acres, and during Commemoration they are filled with visitors. There is a very fine Wellingtonia Gigantea in the gardens.

Some remarkable men have belonged to this college, amongst whom are Shirley the dramatist, who with his wife died from shock and exposure in St. Giles's Fields, to which they had escaped from the Great Fire of London; Hudson, the Arctic explorer, who sailed to Greenland, 1607; and Tresham, one of the Gunpowder Plot conspirators; Archbishop Laud, and Bishop Juxon.

Balliol College was founded by John Balliol, father to Balliol, King of Scotland. He had been sentenced to be scourged at the doors of Durham Cathedral, bat was relieved from the disgrace and suffering on the promise of founding a college for poor Durham scholars. He resided at Barnard Castle, Durham, and was one of the barons in arms under Simon de Montfort against Henry III. He died in exile, and Devorgilda, his wife, carried out his intention. Her seal is on the statutes of the foundation. Balliol men rank as first class in intellectual power, as the examinations for entry there and for a scholarship are very severe.

The Schools date from 1439, but were rebuilt between 1613 and 1618. The name of each school is placed over the rooms used for the examinations. The Schools, Tower is of mixed architecture, and is therefore called the Five Orders Gate.

The examinations are Responsions, or Little Go; the first Public Examination, or Mods (Moderations); and the second Public Examination, or Great Go.

The Bodleian Library was originally founded by Roger de Lisle, Dean of York, in a room of St. Mary-the-Virgin's Church. The good Duke Humphrey, of Gloucester, Protector of Henry VI., commenced the present building.

In 1550, the library was much injured by the removal of all MSS., or books having a Roman Catholic tendency, by order of Edward VI.; these volumes were, most of them, burnt. But in 1597, the library was re-founded by Sir Thomas Bodley, of Morton College, and after him it was named. It was opened in 1602.

It is a magnificent collection of books and manuscripts; the number of volumes is about 400,000, and the MSS. 26,000.

Students and visitors of all nations have left their autographs in the visitors' book here; and one very unworthy reader, the infamous Marat of the French Revolution, who was living at Oxford as a tutor, robbed the library, and was imprisoned in the castle for the crime.

Oxford Castle is now only one ruined tower; but it was once no despicable stronghold. It is said that Alfred held his court here, and Harold Harefoot was crowned and murdered here.

Turn the page
Picturesque England
Turn the page
Picturesque England - Matthew Spong 2004