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Oxford: Magic, Myth and Martyrs

by Sue Kendrick

OxfordIt's not just Matthew Arnold's "sweet spires" that dream in Oxford. As soon as you set foot in the town you find yourself slipping into the same kind of altered consciousness that presumably invoked his lyrical poem, Thyrsis.

In spite of shoppers, students and a healthy influx of tourists, there is a hint of surreal magic lurking in the air -- which may account for the proliferation of fantasy writers that have found inspiration amongst the myths, legends and bloody turbulence that make up Oxford's kaleidoscopic past.

This colourful past begins with the legend of Frideswide, a Saxon princess and nun who built a monastery at the "Ox" ford crossing of the river Thames somewhere around 700 AD. The fact that the town didn't take the name Frideswide suggests there was a settlement of sorts already there, but you can't help feeling that the princess missed out in the recognition stakes in more ways than one.

Apart from establishing a very prosperous monastery on the site now occupied by Christ Church College and Cathedral, Frideswide also gained a reputation as a miracle worker when she very charitably (you can't help but think) restored the sight of a lecherous king who had been struck blind by a lightening bolt when in hot pursuit of her maidenhood!

This seemingly miraculous cure was enough to establish the cult of St Frideswide, with pilgrims flocking to pay homage at her tomb and perhaps hoping to reap the benefit of her powers. The monastery flourished along with the town that grew up around it and quickly became a centre for educational excellence. This had its price, however, and a town full of drunken, rowdy students was as unwelcome then as now. Discontent between "town and gown" finally came to a head in 1355 when a student threw a pot of wine an innkeeper.

St Mary's OxfordAs is usual in times of conflict, opposing parties were keen to have their aggression sanctified by the Almighty. The antagonists used two of the town's churches as mustering points. Citizens rallied to the bell of St. Martin's while the university students flocked to St. Mary's. Riots and running battles lasted for three days, during which 63 students were killed and many more injured. Once order had been restored, the mayor was imprisoned and the university's power in the town increased. For the following 500 years the mayor and corporation were forced to parade to an annual St. Scholastica's Day service at St. Mary's to do penance for their misdeeds.

Both St Martin's and St Mary's are still in existence, with the tower of St. Martin's of particular interest. This dates from the 14th century and bears a clock with ornate quarterboys in Roman military dress. These are replicas; the originals are on display in the Oxford museum, which not only details the growth of the town from prehistoric times but gives some insights into its economic growth, including Frank Cooper's marmalade factory.

St Mary The Virgin, situated in Radcliffe Square, was once the centre for university life and housed the library and treasury. It also hosted lectures and ceremonies and, more gruesomely, was where Archbishop Cranmer received his death sentence in 1556. Look carefully in the north aisle and you will see a groove in a pillar made by the platform erected for this purpose.

If you can manage a 127-step climb to the church roof line, the whole panoramic view of Oxford is revealed in all its honey-stoned, gothic-spired splendour! From this lofty vantage point, glimpses of most of the town's 39 colleges can be seen: solid buildings of age-worn stone embracing neat quadrangles of carefully tended lawns. Each has a tale to tell, most of which can be heard by taking one of the regular, organised tours that take place around the colleges throughout the year. If time is short, though, make sure your trip includes the magnificent Christ Church College and Cathedral, possibly the jewel in the Oxford crown and certainly the centre of Oxford's ecclesiastical beginnings.


These glittering gems occupy the same site within the town centre. Open every day of the year apart from Christmas day, the Cathedral contains the shrine of St. Frideswide herself, rebuilt and restored after Henry VIII's efforts to smash and destroy it during the dissolution of the monasteries in 1538. Another rarity in the Cathedral is the Becket window, which shows the murder of Archbishop Thomas Becket. Henry VIII ordered all depictions of this murder to be destroyed, but the Becket window was preserved simply by blocking out the face.

The present building dates from the late 12th century, replacing the previous priory church, which was deliberately destroyed by fire. Little is made of the St Brice's day massacre, perhaps with good reason, as this is an appalling case of ethnic cleansing that few townships would be proud of.

In 1002, King Aethelred (the Unready) had a hard time stemming the waves of Viking invaders that were looting and pillaging the country and demanding higher and higher rates of Danegeld. In desperation, he issued an edict allowing the lawful killing of any Dane found in the country. This had little effect against the heavily armed raiders, but devastating consequences amongst the settlers, traders and crafts people living in towns such as Oxford.

On 13 November, St. Brice's Day, the Oxford Danish community took refuge in St. Frideswide, hoping that the sanctuary of the church would protect them from the incensed townsfolk. It was a forlorn hope. The building was razed to the ground with the loss of many lives. The King of Denmark's sister, Gunnhild, and her family were said to have been amongst those that perished.

Oriel College OxfordChrist Church College, which lies within the cathedral grounds, was originally planned as Cardinal College by Thomas Wolsey. The son of a humble butcher, Wolsey rose to become the most powerful man in England, until he got in the way of Henry VIII's plans to divorce the first of his six wives, Catherine of Aragon. In typical fashion, Henry stripped Wolsey of his power and refounded the college in 1546 as Christ Church College and promoted the priory church of St. Frideswide to a cathedral, making it the smallest cathedral in England.

A preoccupation with size is something that features quite strongly in the design of Christ Church College. The Great Quadrangle, or Tom Quad as it is affectionately known, takes its name from the gatehouse tower built by Christopher Wren. A huge bell by the name of Great Tom hung here and tolled once for each scholar (101 times!) at 9.05 pm each day.

The quad itself is a wide and spacious area flanked by the elegant symmetry of the university buildings. The combination of spacious confinement certainly makes you feel insignificant when strolling around the open-roofed cloisters. Not that this cut much ice with Cromwell! During the Civil war, after he ousted Charles I, he used the area to graze cattle and then went on to slight the city in 1650 by removing its fortifications. He also assumed the chancellorship of the University and replaced many of the officials with his own favourites.

By contrast, the Peckwater Quad is small and enclosed, with the buildings crowding and jostling around you. This was once the site of a medieval Inn but now houses the Library as well as student accommodation.

Charles Dodgson (better known as Lewis Carroll) was once one of these students and these quads may well have been the inspiration behind the "drink me" bottles encountered by Alice on her trip to Wonderland in which she alternatively grew very tall and then very small.

The fictional Alice actually had a real-life counterpart. She was the middle daughter of Dean Liddell, who was in charge of the cathedral. Dodgson befriended all the Liddel girls, but Alice quickly became his favourite. His Wonderland and Looking Gass stories were written for her, and he often used to take her to a nearby shop in St Aldate's, which still exists and is to be found opposite Christ Church College. Here Alice would buy barley sugar, and the shop itself is featured in Through the Looking Glass, where the fictional Alice is served by a bad tempered sheep.

Unfortunately the shop these days is rather a disappointment. You can still buy barley sugar and other sweeties, but the array of tourist junk spoils the illusion somewhat.

Christchurch Dining Hall

Fortunately illusion holds up well when you enter Christ Church College Great Hall. This is everything you expect a medieval banqueting hall to be: oak-panelled; huge fireplaces; rows of blackened, scarred but highly polished dining tables set to feed over 300 students each day. The hall also features a raised High Table and walls festooned with paintings, including the college's founder, Henry VIII, and some of the 13 prime ministers educated at Christ Church.

Be warned! On entering the hall you may well experience a sense of déjà vu. Fans of the Harry Potter films will instantly recognise the Great Hall of Christ Church as the setting for the dining scenes at Hogwarts School for Wizardry. Other scenes were also shot at the college, which very neatly continues the fantasy tradition begun by Dodgson towards the end of the 19th century.

Fact, though, is often stranger than fiction and the Christ Church College Dining Hall has seen its fair share of oddities. During the English Civil War, Charles I held his parliament in this vaulted building with the full support of the staunchly royalist University. Elizabeth I enjoyed a play from the vantage point of the raised table and Charlie Chaplain sampled a good dinner from one of the many tables used to feed the students, none of which have ever left the hall since their placement! (The tables that is, not the students!)

Radcliffe Camera OxfordNo university town would be complete without a good library and the one in Oxford is very special indeed. The Bodleian Library houses literally millions of books due to the fact that its founder, Sir Thomas Bodley, made an arrangement with the Stationers' Company that a copy of every book published should be given to the library. Unfortunately it's no good applying for a borrower's ticket as none of the books can be removed from the premises! In fact, in 1645 the library refused even King Charles I the loan of a book!

The good news is that the Radcliffe Camera is now a private reading room for the Bodleian library, adding to a total of nearly 2,500 seats available for serious-minded scholars. This very distinctive building was built in 1749 by James Gibbs' and was originally intended as a library devoted to the sciences. (The word "camera," by the way, does not refer to photography, but means "chamber.")

Neither books or science proved much help to Archbishop Thomas Cranmer and his fellow Bishops, Ridley and Latimer, when they came to the notice of the Catholic Queen, Mary I. Concerned that their Protestant influence could jeopardise the fragile restoration of the Catholic faith, she had no qualms in throwing them into Oxford's Bocardo prison, where they were cross-examined at the Divinity school and tried for heresy.

Ridley and Latimer were burned at the stake in what was once the town ditch but is now Broad Street. Worse was in store for the unfortunate Cranmer. He was made to watch the grisly proceedings from St Michael's tower, which proved enough to make him renounce his faith. Not that it did him any good. Mary wasn't known as "Bloody Mary" for nothing. On 21 March, 1556 he followed his brother bishops to the stake and met a similar fiery end. A cross in Broad Street marks the site of the burnings and there is a memorial to the martyrs in St. Giles.

If Cranmer's experience of royal wrath reduced him to ashes, that of the Empress Matilda very nearly ended in frostbite! Finding herself besieged in Oxford's castle by King Stephen, she achieved an ingenious escape by wrapping herself in a sheet and slipping over the castle walls during a violent snow storm. This was just one of many spats in the civil war between Matilda and Stephen over who would wear the crown following the death of Matilda's father, Henry I, in 1135. The Empress, not being very well liked, soon found herself opposed by Stephen, Henry's nephew, who claimed his uncle had appointed him heir on his deathbed. This was just one of several of Matilda's close escapes during the ensuing conflict.

Little now remains of the castle built in 1071 by Robert d'Oilly, except its motte and a small stone keep. It's worth a look, though, especially in wintry weather, as who knows what shrouded figure you may see flitting through the gloaming!

T. E. Lawrence BustIf spectral figures and bleak winds are not to your taste, then the Ashmolean Museum has plenty to interest. Its present collection of art and antiquities is based on an early 17th century collection by John Tradescant, who was a royal gardener. He gathered most of the rarities in the collection when visiting Europe to search for plants. The collection was inherited by Elias Ashmole, who donated it to the University of Oxford in 1683.

One of its most prized possessions is the Alfred Jewel. This is an incredibly beautiful artefact whose purpose is not entirely clear. It bears the inscription "AELFRED MEC HEHT GEWYRCAN," meaning "Alfred ordered me to be made." It has been dated to the reign of Alfred, 871-899 and was discovered four miles from Athelney, where Alfred had founded a monastery. Made of gold, enamel and rock crystal, the purpose of the jewel is not known. It could have been an "aestel," an object that Alfred sent to each bishopric when his translation of Gregory's "Pastoral Care" was distributed. Each aestel was worth 50 mancuses (gold coins), so was a very valuable object. Aestels may have been used as book pointers. If so, there should have been several such jewels, but so far no others are known to exist. Others say that the jewel was a symbol of office, either of Alfred or of one of his officials. The figure on the Jewel is enigmatic; one theory has it as a representation of Christ, while another is that the figure is the personification of Sight.

Alfred was known as the greatest of Anglo-Saxon kings and through his many endeavours against the Vikings was the only English king ever to be given the title "Great." One of his biggest achievements was establishing a defensive strategy consisting of a network of fortified towns. The aim was to guard critical strategic points against the Danes and provide a place of refuge for the people of the surrounding countryside. Oxford was one of these places, which were known as burhs by the Anglo-Saxons.

Much is known about Alfred's military exploits and a little regarding his lack of culinary expertise (remember those burnt cakes?). Few realise, though, that legend has attributed to him the founding of Oxford University, something historians say is not as unlikely as it seems. Alfred was a great lawgiver and passionately interested in education. He founded a school at Winchester and taught himself Latin at the age of 40.

Magdalen Tower OxfordMysterious jewels, nuns with miraculous powers, queenly spectres -- no wonder Oxford has proved a fountain of inspiration to the many writers and poets who have lived, worked and studied here. In fact, the town hosted possibly the most famous writers' group in the country: the Inklings. Its members included C S Lewis, author of the Narnia books; J R R Tolkien of Hobbit and Lord of the Rings fame; Charles William, author of War in Heaven; Owen Barfield, author of The Silver Trumpet; and many others of lesser fame.

The group usually met in Lewis' or Tolkien's rooms but meetings were held in several of the town's pubs, most notably the Eagle and Child (or more affectionately, the Bird and Babe). This is a comfortable old pub on the Woodstock Road, serving good food with a homey atmosphere. There is a display of Inklings memorabilia in one of the rooms including photographs of members. Being very partial to their beer and smokes, the Inklings also met in several other pubs in the town, including the Lamb and Flag on the other side of St. Giles; the White Horse on Broad Street between Blackwell's and the Bodleian library; and the King's Arms at the junction of Broad Street/Holywell Street and Parks Road -- which incidentally, serves excellent food. It's a good place to end a day of dreaming amid the spires!

Related Articles:

Oxford Timeline, by Darcy Lewis

The Ashmolean Museum: Oxford's Window on the Ancient World, by Sean McLachlan

Oxford's Museum of the History of Science, by Sean McLachlan

The Hidden Churches of Oxfordshire, by Louise Simmons

A Taste of Oxford: Sauce, Sausage and Hollyhog Pudding, by Dawn Copeman

More Information:


The Story of Oxford

Oxford Accommodations

Virtual Tour of Oxford

Visit Oxfordshire

The Inklings

St. Frideswide

St. Frideswide - The Legend

Sue Kendrick is a freelance writer living in the English Midlands. She has written many special interest articles for magazines and newspapers and contributed an uncountable amount of news stories to her regional newspaper. She edits and publishes WriteLink (http://www.writelink.co.uk), a UK writers' resource website and monthly newsletter. She also writes fiction and has won several prizes for her short stories. When not writing, she likes to walk, ride, read and pursue her interest in small scale farming (not necessarily in that order!). For more information, visit http://www.suekendrick.co.uk.
Article and photos © 2006 Sue Kendrick
High Street from St. Mary's, Quadrangle, and Radcliffe Camera photos by Sue Kendrick; additional photos courtesy of Britainonview.com


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