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Oxford and the Civil War

The opening of the first coffeehouse in England – in a section of the Angel Coaching Inn, Oxford – sparked a cultural phenomenon, with knowledge and debates, held for the price of a penny admission, immediately more accessible and popular than ever before.

Oxford Oxforde 1643 City University Map with Key to Colleges scan from 1887 reproduction of Edward Weller Lithograph

Remarkably, the cosmopolitan university city where this modern movement took hold had been the Royalist capital of England only five years previously, with grand medieval buildings home to the king’s parliament, mint and law courts. Oxford, which felt pressures of an aristocratic medieval legacy, a growing university and an emerging identity as a modern city, was not only a key point in the English Civil War, but a melting pot of all these cultural forces, from which the Enlightenment would emerge.

The medieval foundations of Oxford’s colleges should not be confused with the intellectuals who came to define what we understand by a university. While home to students since the 12th century, most colleges were the beneficiaries of rich and powerful churchmen or nobles, who by making the hefty donation to build such a grand space and take in scholars – most often with the stipulation that a service should be regularly held for the good of their soul – hoped to both assert their worldly status, and to ensure their quick passage through purgatory to heaven after death. Most of the older university buildings and the medieval legacy of the city should be understood in this way – aiming to bring their aristocratic founders closer to God rather than with much interest in the development of the university itself, much less the town.

One wing of the Merton College library.Taken by Tom Murphy VII. Creative commons attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic

In 1525, the latest of these foundations, ‘Cardinal College’, was founded by Thomas Wolsey – the most powerful man in England after the king – planned on a grand scale with a dominant local impact. Wolsey dissolved the ancient priory of St Frideswide which had been the old religious heart of the town, and aimed to build a new, magnificent chapel for his college. When Cardinal College was only three quarters built, however, Wolsey fell from grace, and died on the way to face charges of treason in London. Henry VIII seized the opportunity to become the college’s new founder in 1532 and following the Break from Rome, Henry definitively refounded the college as Christ Church, with the chapel serving as the cathedral for the new Church of England Diocese of Oxford in 1542. From this date, Oxford had the status of a city, with Christ Church at its heart – a dual symbol of old medieval grandeur, and of the king’s new England of the Reformation.

Christ Church, Oxford: Tom Gate. Etching by J. Whessell. Welcome V0014084.

Oxford’s university population ensured the city was at the centre of religious and intellectual debates in the later 16th century – most dramatically in the burning of Bishops Latimer and Ridley at the stake at Broad Street in 1555. In the more settled Protestant England of Elizabeth I, the university flourished, and grew rapidly. While few entirely new colleges were founded, the existing medieval institutions made their mark on Oxford with large building programmes in the early 17th century, and new quadrangles were built by several of the larger colleges. From this time until the drawing up of a new charter in 1636, the university enjoyed privileges – often of some controversy – over the town, derived from a refoundation charter drawn up by Wolsey in 1521. As the Civil War approached, the city of Oxford was architecturally dominated by the university, still made up of constituent colleges with their foundations in an older, medieval hierarchy, and having enjoyed legal privileges over the town for the past century.

Christchurch Cathedral. Oxford. wikipedia by

The secular city had gained its own charter in 1605, sixty years after acquiring the nominal status of a city when Christ Church chapel had been elevated to a cathedral. The town in this period was economically dependent on the university, with over three-quarters of the population working in some form of service provision. While the university population grew from the 1570s to the Civil War, so did the city itself, and the grand university buildings of the early 17th century were shadowed by the building of cottages and the emergence of large suburbs; often referred to as ‘shambles’ and the subject of complaint and demolition by the colleges. The town was not wholly submissive to the university, having its status as a ‘free city’ governed by a mayor and council confirmed in the 1605 charter. While Oxford had in reality been governed independently for centuries, this recognition of status, as the university grew in wealth and influence, meant that the city had some independent character, and control, at the eve of the Civil War.

The town of Oxford is often portrayed as having been strongly Parliamentarian – set up in opposition to the Royalist university – but the role of the city as a focal point of the War was more accidental than having risen up from any great conflict between the two forces. Despite having jostled with one another for power within Oxford for much of the past century, the town and university were largely co-dependent, and both were the beneficiaries of recent growth. In the early days of conflict, when a full-on war became inevitable, the mayor and vice-chancellor continued to work together despite opposing principles.

Depicting King Charles I defence of Oxford during the second English Civil War 1648-49

Following the outbreak of the Civil War, Oxford was first occupied by Royalists, welcomed by the university with minor resistance from the town. This force retreated on the approach of a Parliamentarian army a month later, at which point the vice-chancellor was arrested and the university disarmed. On 29 October, King Charles himself entered the city with the main Royalist army after the Battle of Edgehill. Charles did not plan on staying in Oxford, but retreated to the city before winter after realising his army was not strong enough to push on into London. For the remainder of the First Civil War, Oxford was the Royalist capital, and Parliament itself was held in the city from late 1643.

So far as Charles’ defining principle was his God-given, quasi-medieval right to power as king, the Royalist occupation of Oxford could be symbolically linked to the colleges’ medieval heritage, rather than the temporary loyalties of individual university men. The king chose Christ Church, the last great pre-Reformation foundation – with close ties to Henry VIII’s new church – as his residence, and Parliament was held in Wolsey’s impressive Great Hall. Other colleges performed important duties too; the Queen took residence at Merton, and the Royal Mint was established at New Inn Hall – now St Peter’s. In a surviving ‘Oxford Crown’ minted at the time and preserved in the Ashmolean, the cityscape of Oxford, with the grandest university buildings, appears under a horsed Charles. Such a depiction of a city was highly unusual and shows the power the medieval architecture of Oxford held symbolically to the Royalist cause.

Merton College. Wellcome M0016060

Charles’ residence in Oxford had a practical impact on the city as a military occupation, rather than any romantic, medieval ideal. Royalist forces posted in Oxford were less than gentle with the citizens, and in early 1646 a general curfew was ordered throughout the city. University buildings were converted for the storage of arms and men, and the larger city was fortified. English towns had had no need for defenses since the Wars of the Roses, before the widespread use of gunpowder. The medieval walls, therefore, were protected for modern warfare with a large series of earthworks to the north. Following the turn of the War against the Royalists, which threatened a full-scale siege of Oxford, a further line of defenses were installed in 1645.

When Parliamentarian forces did approach the city in May 1646, however, the course of the war had already been decided, and while Oxford was formally besieged for two months, neither side had the appetite for much bloodshed. The city surrendered on 25 June, and from this point, Oxford’s symbolic position as an ancient hierarchical capital, as well as its military role, were over. John Nixon, an alderman who had been stripped of his power during the Royalist occupation, returned to the city and was elected mayor, and in March 1647 Parliament ordered the destruction of Oxford’s fortifications.

In many ways, therefore, the development of Oxford after the War could be seen as a natural progression from the expanding town and university of the early 17th century, briefly interrupted by a military occupation of little long-term impact. In less practical terms, however, the emergence of the city, which had been shaped and dominated by medieval authoritarian patronage, from a period where these ideals were championed by a king who was ultimately defeated and beheaded, did have an impact on its development. Oxford continued its involvement in political squabbles – and purges of the council took place again after the Restoration – but the city’s ties to its medieval past were more definitively broken. Instead, the university itself continued to grow in status, and the Enlightenment brought a great leap forwards in scholarship and learning. The town and colleges mixed more than ever before, spurred on by the social and cultural changes of the period such as the coffeehouse movement.

English Parliament brings King Charles I to justice. A Restoration print of Charles making his speech upon the scaffold.

The end of the 17th century marked the most impressive building phase of the university’s history, and such monuments were no longer designed for the benefit of a lord’s soul, but for the college or place of learning itself. Christ Church, at the centre of Wolsey, Henry VIII, and Charles’ ambitions for Oxford, also built one of the most iconic monuments of the post-Civil War period. Tom Tower was designed by Christopher Wren in 1681 in a Gothic style clearly building on the principles of Christ Church’s earlier founders. The tower, however, is forward-facing, and its ogee dome technologically modern. The monument could be seen as an assertion of the university’s grandeur over the town, but it does not hide itself away from the city behind college walls. Instead, Tom Tower is a symbol of the new, powerful university of the Enlightenment, free of medieval kings and patrons, and facing an evolving, modern city.

By William Blackburn


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