Cardinal Wolsey and Oxford

The magnificence of Cardinal Wolsey has become a by-word, and, as often happens in such cases, has by that very proof of its original fitness almost ceased to be of any practical value; in other words the term now rises habitually to the mind whenever the subject is before it, in place of, rather than as concentrating and explaining the circumstances and thoughts which originally gave currency to it. But if any one desires to revive the idea of that magnificence in all its primitive freshness of meaning, he need only visit Oxford. Near the southern entrance of the city, with its picturesque series of bridges across the Isis, or Thames, he will find a pile of building at first attracting his attention by its general architectural splendour, then by its extraordinary extent, the plan including a cathedral, two great quadrangles, and two courts; lastly by the individual interest attached to almost every separate feature, and more especially the Cathedral, the superb west front, the stately hall, and the entrance tower, in which hangs one of the most famous of English bells, Great Tom of Oxford.—That pile of building forms Christ Church College and Cathedral, the former being the establishment that Wolsey founded in grateful acknowledgment of the benefits he had derived from the university, and in redemption of the promise which he had consequently made at an early period of his prosperity, to bestow some lasting mark of his esteem upon the place. And splendid as is the edifice, important as are its uses, the one and the other represent but imperfectly the gigantic plan of its founder, which was and is an unprecedented instance of princely beneficence in a country of wealthy men and prodigal benefactors. The best architects of the age were collected together to erect the buildings; and the society for whose accommodation they were to be reared, was to consist of one hundred and sixty persons, chiefly engaged in the study of sciences, divinity, canon and civil law, arts, physic, and literature. But the sunshine of royal favour in which the great Cardinal basked, became suddenly eclipsed by newer favourites; he fell even more suddenly and signally than he had risen. The crowned despot, however, for once seems to have been moved in a good cause; and either Wolsey’s pathetic consignation of his cherished project to the royal care, or the entreaties of the University, caused him to save Christ Church and become its patron. Some years later he translated the see of Oseney, formed by himself out of the monastery of that name, to Oxford, and Christ Church became the Cathedral. At the same time the principal estates were granted to the chapter, on condition of their maintaining three public professors of Divinity, Hebrew, and Greek; one hundred students in theology, arts, and philosophy, eight chaplains, and a suitable choir. We have thought it necessary to give this short notice of the origin of the junction of the College with the Cathedral, which would otherwise have seemed unaccountable to those ignorant of their history; and, having done that, proceed to notice the structure that more peculiarly belongs to our present section.

Wolsey founded his college upon a site not only time-honoured, but made sacred by its early connection with the growth of Christianity in England, and, to some eyes at least, by one of those pious legends with which church history is so rife; it was on the site of the monastery of St. Frideswida, the church of which yet remained, that he began to build.

We need hardly speak of the antiquity of Oxford itself, since there are learned men who talk of literature having flourished there ever since certain “excellent philosophers with the Trojans coming out of Greece, under the command of Brute, entered and settled in Britain.” Whatever truth there may be in this, it seems to be undoubted by any one that it was a place of importance in the British times. But the first event that may be called historical, and that had any great influence over its future fortunes, was one of which the Cathedral of Christ Church is to this day the palpable embodiment. In 727 Didan, the sub-regulus, or Earl of Oxford, founded a monastery, then dedicated to the Holy Trinity, and in which Didan and his wife were interred. Their daughter, Frideswida, devoted herself to a religious life, and was appointed to the government of her parents’ foundation; when an event occurred that incalculably enhanced the popularity of the monastery, and ended in her canonization and the re-dedication of the monastery to her. Algar, Earl of Leicester, fell in love with her, and allowed his passion so far to exceed all the limits that prudence, as well as religious principle, marked out, as to endeavour to force her, sacred to the service of Cod as she was by her own choice and the monastic laws, into a marriage. She then concealed herself in a wood at Benson, near Oxford; and the Earl, unable to discover her abode, threatened to fire the city if she was not delivered up to him. “Such tyranny and presumption,” observes Leland, “could not escape divine vengeance; he was struck blind! Hence arose such a dread to the Kings of Britain, that none of his successors dared enter Oxford for some time after.

Frideswida died in 740, and was probably buried in a chapel on the south side of the church, for there stood her shrine, until the great fire of Oxford in 1002 (that occurred during the simultaneous massacre of the Danes by Ethelred’s order), when it was nearly destroyed, and for a time neglected. But in 1180 the shrine was removed to its present situation, in the dormitory, to the north of the choir; and the worn steps leading to the little oratory, erected at the back of the shrine, show how numerous have been the devotees who have there visited it. In course of time, a new shrine was desired for so popular a saint, which was accordingly erected in 1289, and which remained until the Reformation, when it is said to have been destroyed; but was more probably simply defaced. And even then the relics of the body of St. Frideswida were preserved by some ardent Catholics, and restored subsequently to the church. In the reign of Queen Mary, the remains of the wife of Peter Martyr, the Reformer, were taken up from their resting place in the Cathedral, and formally condemned to be buried beneath a dunghill; when Elizabeth came to the throne, they were restored with as marked honours; and to prevent any further disturbance in case of a restoration of the older religionists to power, the very singular step was taken of mixing the mouldering relics of the wife of the Protestant reformer with those of the canonized nun and abbess Frideswida. Whether the mingled ashes now lie in the grave of Martyr’s wife, or beneath the large altar tomb that is supposed to be St. Frideswida’s, and is called by her name, is now unknown. In Fig. 682 this monument is shown; the one to the extreme right, with three stages of decorated architectural work, the lowest being of stone, the other two of wood. Beyond, and next to it, is the very rich monument of Lady Elizabeth Montacute, with her effigy, in the costume of the day, the dress enamelled in gold and colours all over. The third and last monument of the same range is the tomb of Guimond, the first prior; for St. Frideswida’s monastery for nuns was subsequently changed into a house of secular canons, and then again into one for regular canons of the order of St. Austin; and thus it remained till Wolsey obtained an order for its dissolution from the Pope, prior to the change he meditated.

There is no reason to suppose that any portions of the pile erected by the parents of Frideswida are preserved in the present Cathedral. At the same time, the architectural character of the oldest portions of the church—early Norman or Saxon—has induced some antiquaries to refer its date to the very beginning of the eleventh century; but the more received opinion is that which attributes the erection to the twelfth century. Much, however, has been added since, as the Chapter House, which, with a highly enriched Norman doorway, exhibits generally a valuable example of the early English style; the tower of similar architecture (the present spire was added by Wolsey); and the cloisters, which are in the beautiful perpendicular style. Some of the most striking parts of the interior belong to the same period as the cloisters. The roof of the nave is especially deserving of attention, for its curiously beautiful groining, and for the pendants which stud it over. The size of Christ Church is certainly remarkable, but in the opposite sense to that in which such words are usually applied to such structures: it is, indeed, one of the most petite of Cathedrals. Its entire length but little exceeds one hundred and fifty feet, and the entire breadth is but fifty-four feet; the transept measures one hundred and two feet, from end to end; the roof is about forty feet high; the steeple, one hundred and forty-six.