Oxford

We had the most wonderful weekend; the weather was perfect, the choice of destination was fascinating and the family was well behaved and cooperative.

As I write this travelogue, I will remember some of the previous places we have visited. I have noticed, as we go from place to place, that the lives of the people around England are like a tapestry, so intricately woven that if you remove even one thread, the picture becomes incomplete. You will hear names and references to people and places that seem so far removed from the subject, and yet they are so important to the whole story. I hope by the time I leave England, I am able to piece together this wonderful tapestry... it gets more and more complicated and fascinating with every trip we take.

We decided to spend this weekend in Oxford, the University City, to hang out and soak up through osmosis the intelligence, which must emanate from the walls of the colleges!

I have to admit that although I was very excited to get away for the weekend, I wasn't too excited about going to Oxford. All the information we could find made it sound like a pretty boring place. Oh, there would be plenty of shopping, some scholastic history and a bunch of really old, ivy covered buildings. I just wasn't sure we'd find much that would interest the kids. Boy, was I wrong!

We left home Friday after school and managed to get stuck in several major traffic jams. The weather was less than ideal... dark, wet, and we couldn't get the defrost to work very well. We arrived at our hotel, a Travel Inn in Didcott, around 7 p.m., a little worse for the wear, but safely all the same.

Christ Church

Saturday morning we awoke to the most beautiful day, blue skies and sunshine (which does not happen often). After a lovely breakfast in the hotel restaurant, we left for Oxford. The receptionist at the desk recommended that we do a Park and Ride thing, since the centre of Oxford has so much construction, it's nearly impossible to drive through. So we did. We parked our car for 50 p and spent 2.60 for the bus (that's a total of about 5 bucks for the 4 of us to park the car and ride the bus round trip -- we would have spent 2 an hour for parking). We didn't have a map of the stops along the route, so we asked a nice older couple where we should get off. We followed them off the bus and they directed us to the Visitor Information Centre, the first place we always go when visiting a new city. I spent a fortune on guidebooks; the kids picked up a couple of freebee brochures. Then we headed out into town.

The one thing that I knew we had to see was Christ Church. This is Oxford Cathedral, as well as a college with an interesting history. So, we began by following a walking tour. Along the way, we found the Wesley Memorial Church, a lovely 19th century church dedicated to the memory of John and Charles Wesley, who attended Christ Church College in the 1720's. John was ordained as a priest in the Church of England in 1727. John and his brother Charles met with a group of friends who spent time each week in prayer and Bible study, and in social work. They became known as "the Holy Club", "the Bible Moths", and "the Methodists", the last name being the one that stuck, and the rest, as they say, is history. John Wesley preached in the first Methodist Meeting House, which is located nearby.

We wandered a little farther down the road, noticing students running around with suitcases and pillows (it wasn't until much later I realized that they were getting ready to leave for spring break). Eventually we came to the entrance of Christ Church, a large gatehouse built with a tower built in 1682. The Tom Tower, a magnificent tower designed by Sir Christopher Wren, has a huge bell which rings each evening at 9:05 (Greenwich time) which is of course 9:00 Oxford time. This calls the students back into the school, whose doors were locked each night. The bell rings 101 times, one time for each of the original students at Christ Church. Unfortunately, we were just visitors and only students are allowed through that entrance. We had to go into the school through the cathedral.

Christ Church is located on the site of a priory built in the 12th century. It was founded on a site from an earlier priory, founded in the 8th century by Oxford's patron saint, St. Frideswide. She was a princess the daughter of the king of Oxen-ford (named such because there was an important ford in the River Thames at this spot), who had vowed to become a nun. Several versions of the story abound, but it appears that a suitor, the king of the next county, who was struck blind as he entered the town, pursued Frideswide. Her prayers for him restored his sight, and in gratitude he gave up the chase. Oxford is mentioned in the legends of King Arthur. The first attested reference of Oxford is in 912, in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, when it was held by Edward the Elder (a son of King Alfred) because it was a strategic position between his territory in Wessex and that of the Danes.

Since Oxford is the centre of southern England, it was on important lines of communication and trade routes. It is a market town, and in 1066 was the 6th largest town in England. It was important during Saxon times, the Normans built a castle, and Queen Matilda made the castle her headquarters during her fight for the throne with Stephen. Queen Matilda escaped during a siege at the castle, by crossing the frozen river dressed in a white sheet. Steven and Henry II met at Oxford and agreed to end the war. The Castle was rebuilt in 1322, but only used for military purposes in the 17th century (the Civil War). The castle only exists as a mound today, which we did not see.

We expect that the founding of the University was well organized, but in reality, the University was never founded, it evolved. Early in the 12th century, scholars lived in Oxford, teaching. It isn't until the 13th century when we can find a reference to a University Chancellor. Relations between the townsfolk and the scholars were never good. The economy of the day was the type where everyone produced something for the community. The smith made tools and weapons, the baker baked bread, etc. But the scholar produced nothing. They paid, but it meant that the baker had to produce extra bread, the smith had to produce extra tools. So, the scholars were not pulling their fair share of the workload. They just sat around thinking... and drinking. That was the other problem. College life in 1200 was very much like college life in the 20th century, although they didn't have to take tests, so the drinking was even worse.

Several major riots occurred, including one in 1209, when a townswoman and two scholars were killed. The University disbanded and fled, some scholars went to Cambridge. Because of the privileged status of the scholars, the pope sided with them and fined the town. The scholars returned, as did the monks, who set up monasteries around town. The Augustinians reformed St. Frideswides priory. At this point, Oxford was known for its teaching of mathematics and natural sciences, and because of the friaries, theology.

Most of the students were poor, and received donations from their parish and friends. Richer students did exist and employed poorer students as servants. Graduates could establish halls or hostels for a small number of scholars. Students shared the expenses of good and heating.

The rioting continued for 150 years, until 1355 and the massacre of St. Scholastica's Day. The dispute arose form a disagreement between a landlord and some students at a tavern. The students set fire to the town, and the townsfolk plundered the students' hostel. Sixty-three scholars were killed. For nearly 500 years (until 1825) the Mayor and 63 citizens were required to pay a penny fine each and bow before the vice-chancellor each year.



The Spires

We entered the Cathedral from the south, first through the Meadow Building, through the cloisters and into the cathedral. As cathedrals go, Christ Church isn't extraordinary, but as usual it does have a 'claim to fame'. It is the smallest Cathedral in England. The present church building at Christ Church was begun c. 1150. It is built in the honey-colored Cotswald stone. The building was originally much larger than it is today, but another name from our past made huge changes at Christ Church.

Cardinal Wolsey (of Henry VIII fame), wanted his own college. He had studied at Magdalen (pronounced Mawdlin) in Oxford, so it was natural for him to want to build there. He managed to get enough money for his project by suppressing a bunch of small monasteries, and he took over St. Frideswide's Priory. To build the Quadrangle, he knocked down the nave of the church, keeping the choir and altar areas as a chapel until he was able to build his chapel (designed to rival King's College Chapel in Cambridge). Unfortunately, the college remained unfinished because Henry VIII got mad at Wolsey for not acquiring his divorce from Katharine of Aragon, and Wolsey was fired.

Eventually, Henry did gain an enthusiasm for the school and united the college and the cathedral into Christ Church, as we know it today. Eventually the building was completed, although the magnificent chapel of Wolsey's plan never happened. The chapel today is now Oxford Cathedral (since 1546).

As I said before, Oxford Cathedral is small, because it has no nave. It has only the choir and several small chapels. Most Cathedrals are designed in the shape of a cross, but that shape is nearly lost. Since there is no nave, the amount of seating is limited, and it is said that during major services, every square inch of the church is filled with people. There were several beautiful stained glass windows including one telling the story of St. Frideswide, one telling the story of Jonah, and The Becket Window, which tells of the martyrdom of St. Thomas Becket. One other notable window is of St. Catherine. This window was created in 1870, and the face of St. Catherine bears the likeness of Edith Liddell, the sister of the infamous 'Alice', who you'll discover later in this travelogue.

Before we left the cathedral, the guide recommended a nice place for us to eat, and since it was lunchtime, we headed for that coffee shop. We walked through the quad (following a very specific traffic pattern, they didn't want us visitors mingling with the scholars). We weren't able to go into the great hall because of some reconstruction work, but this is the room where all the students of Christ Church eat. Lunch is very casual affair, but they all gather for a formal dinner each evening.

It is interesting to note that when we were in the cathedral, we asked about services. We had planned, if we were still in town, to attend Evensong. The guide told us that the service begins at 6:00, Oxford time. Since Oxford is 1 degree west of Greenwich, their clocks are set 5 minutes behind. So, while our watch will say 6:05, it is actually 6:00!

The coffee shop was in St. Mary the Virgin, a church just a block away from Christ Church. St. Mary is the University Church, since it is centrally located, the University grew up around it. The coffee shop is located in the oldest University building, built in the 14th century as the Congregation House. This two-story building contained the first library, as well as a meeting room for the university's 'parliament'. Since the 17th century, the building has been used for several purposes, even as a fire station. St. Mary the Virgin is still the place where the formal university sermon is preached. It, too, has had an interesting history, being the place where John Wesley preached his famous, "Almost a Christian" sermon in 1741, and the church of John Newman where the "Oxford Movement" was launched. This was an attempt to bring back catholic spirituality in the church and university. John H. Newman eventually resigned from St. Mary's and was accepted into the Roman Catholic Church. He went on to become a noted cardinal.

One other major event associated with St. Mary the Virgin Church is the story of the Oxford martyrs. This three Anglican bishops were burnt at the stake by Queen Mary, otherwise known as Bloody Mary. Mary was Catholic. Latimer, Ridley and Cranmer did not believe the doctrine of 'transubstantiation'. Cranmer also helped Henry get rid of Catherine of Aragon (Mary's mom). The three men were tried in the Chancel in 1554. Ridley and Latimer were tried again in 1555, and were martyred on October 16. Cranmer had signed a document recanting his Protestant beliefs. Cranmer was forced to watch their death from the roof of his prison. Cranmer was brought to St. Mary's to hear a sermon about why he must die, on March 12 1556. Cranmer withdrew his recantations of his Protestant beliefs and vowed that the hand that had signed them would be the first to burn. Crosses in the centre of Broad Street mark the places where these three men died.

In 1939, at that onset of the Second World War, the Vicar of St. Mary's invited a group of German Lutheran refugees to use the church for worship. Regular Lutheran services have been conducted there ever since.

The oldest part of the church is the tower, built in 1280. From the gallery at the top, you can see the most wonderful panoramic views of Oxford. Of course, first you have to climb the 127 steps to the top. We did. The gallery is only a couple feet wide. It was interesting trying to move around, especially since you can't make a complete circle around the tower. After seeing all four sides, we had to literally squeeze through the crowds to get back down.



The Spires

As we exited St. Mary's we entered Radcliff Square and the imposing presence of the Radcliff Camera. This circular building, one of the most famous in Oxford, was originally built between 1737 and 1749 as a library. The building now houses two reading rooms and a bookstore.

We passed the Bodleian Library, the largest Academic library in the world, which houses 6 million volumes. We passed near another Christopher Wren masterpiece (his first), the Sheldonian Theatre, which is used for major University functions.

We passed under the 'Bridge of Sighs', a recreation of the famous bridge in Venice, which connects the two parts of Hertford College. In the legend about the Venitian bridge, it is said that you could hear the 'sighs' of the prisoners as they crossed that bridge to their fate. I wonder if the same can be said about the students, as they cross this bridge to some fate of their own.

We wandered aimlessly through some more of the city, passing the colleges, and many scholars running hither and thither. We took notice to the gargoyles and grotesques that can be found on many of the ancient buildings. Then we decided to find an attraction called, "The Oxford Story". It was a ride depicting the story of Oxford, especially the University. I learned three interesting bits of history from this "trip through time" which I would like to share.

First, John Wycliff challenged the authority of the Pope and translated the Bible into English in the late 14th century (long before King James and his translation), was a Master at Balliol. He was kicked out of Oxford and died soon after.

The printing press was established in Oxford in 1478, and the University Press had printed nearly twenty volumes by 1486. The Press was revived in 1584 (with some spasmodic printing in between), and was confirmed by Letters Patent in 1632. It's been going strong ever since.

Oxford was the Capital of England for four years, during the reign of King Charles I. He "borrowed" from the University to equip his army, taking all their silver to melt down and use in the Royal Mint set up in Oxford. The University was always Royalist, and provided two regiments for Charles. Academic life was suspended as students left the city.

The list of famous people connected to Oxford is very long. Oliver Cromwell became Chancellor in 1650. A few names from America include John Locke and William Penn (founder of Pennsylvania). The list includes many British Prime Ministers, including W.E. Glastone (I can't seem to get an accurate number, but at least 14 went to Christ Church) and Margaret Thatcher.

We should note that University examinations had been opened to women in 1894, but women were not given degrees until the 1920. Other famous women grads include Vera Brittain and Indira Gandhi.

Robert Hooke and Robert Boyle constructed the first practical air pump and developed Boyle's Law of the expansion of gases. Edmund Halley predicted the return of Halley's comet.

Artists include Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris. Intellectuals such as T.E.Lawrence (better known as Lawrence of Arabia) and Harry Moseley (a physicist). C.S. Lewis and JRR Tolkien were from Oxford. The Prince of Wales (later Edward VIII) went to Magdalen. Writers include Oscar Wilde, W. H. Auden Joseph Addison, Robert Graves, Edmund Blunden and Julian Grenfell. Charles Dodgson was a Mathematics Don at Christ Church.

Who is Charles Dodgson? He is better known as Lewis Carroll, the author of Alice in Wonderland. For more on Alice, visit The Making of Alice.



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