How Oxford University’s buildings evolved, and how its ‘chiefest wonder’ came into being

'Where is the University?' It's the most common tourist question in Oxford. Geoffrey Tyack looks at the evolution of the university's buildings, while John Goodall takes an in-depth look at the Divinity School, once dubbed the city's 'chiefest wonder'.

Every Tuesday, we delve into Country Life’s peerless architecture archive to enjoy a tale from the past. Today, we look back at John Goodall and Geoffrey Tyack’s 2017 piece on Oxford’s university buildings.

‘Where is the University?’ ask the visitors who flock to Oxford. The answer is that it is both everywhere and nowhere. Universities are, first and foremost, communities of scholars and aspiring scholars, not collections of buildings and, when the first European universities began in the 12th century, they had no buildings of their own and were forced to use spaces in churches, monasteries and private houses.

In so far as the medieval University of Oxford had a central building, it was the church of St Mary the Virgin – still called the University Church – in the high street. Ceremonies and disputations (structured debates) were held there and, in the 1320s, a congregation house was built onto it for meetings of the university’s governing body, with a library above. Lectures were given in rented rooms in School Street (now vanished) to the north of the church.

In the 1440s, a two-storeyed range of lecture rooms called the Oseney Abbey Schools formalised this arrangement. The range stood at the end of School Street against the city wall and accommodated rooms for teaching the liberal arts and the common curriculum up to MA level: metaphysics, moral philosophy, geometry, arithmetic and rhetoric on the ground floor and natural philosophy, astronomy, music, dialectic (that is, logic) and grammar upstairs.

The Bodleian Library and Divinity School. Photographs Will Pryce © Country Life Picture Library

The Gothic detailing of Schools Quadrangle signals the connections of the university to the medieval past – The Bodleian Library and Divinity School. Photographs Will Pryce © Country Life Picture Library

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Next to the Oseney Schools, and at right angles to them, was the Divinity School, begun in the 1420s for the teaching of theology, ‘Queen of the Sciences’, and one of the three ‘higher faculties’ leading to a doctorate (the other two were law and medicine).

The present Schools Quadrangle replaced this arrangement, swallowing up the Divinity School in the process, along with the 15th-century library built above it.

Its construction directly followed the re-establishment of the university library by Sir Thomas Bodley in 1598, after whom the Bodleian is named. He was a Fellow of Merton College, Oxford, where he had lectured in Greek; he later served as a diplomat before marrying a rich widow in 1586 and inheriting her fortune. This enabled him to refurbish the existing library, denuded of its books after the Reformation, and to pay for an eastward extension – Arts End – in 1610–12. It was the first example in Britain of a library with shelving along the walls, the upper levels of which were reached by timber galleries, as in Philip II’s earlier library at his palace-monastery of El Escorial in Spain.

The building of Arts End entailed the demolition of the old Oseney Schools, presenting the university with an opportunity both to increase its teaching accommodation and to assert its own architectural identity as distinct from that of its constituent colleges.

During Elizabeth’s reign, the number of students doubled and numbers continued to grow until the 1630s, as the university attracted the sons of the gentry and aspirant clergy. All students now lived in colleges and a handful of academic halls and they also received much of their tuition there, but it was the university which awarded them their degrees and it continued to organise courses of lectures.

The desire to articulate the importance of the university would continue throughout the 17th century and would later involve the construction of the Convocation House and Chancellor’s Court in the 1630s beyond the Divinity School, and the Sheldonian Theatre adjacent to it (see Country Life, November 27, 2013).

The Bodleian Library and Divinity School. Photographs Will Pryce © Country Life Picture Library

The new Schools Quadrangle was, in the words of the 17th-century Oxford antiquary Anthony Wood, a ‘compleat quadrangular pile, wherein the Schools of the superior and inferior Arts, as also the Tongues [languages] might be continued’.

The first English university to arrange its lecture rooms around a courtyard was Cambridge, where the 14th- and 15th-century buildings still survive as university offices, barely noticed in the shadow of King’s College Chapel. The same pattern was followed abroad as at Padua, a place much visited by English travellers and seekers after knowledge. There, the ‘palazzo dell’università’ of 1546–87 boasted not only lecture rooms and a magnificent aula for ceremonies, but also an anatomy theatre that still survives.

At the University of Würzburg in Germany, rebuilt by the Prince-Bishop in the full flush of the Counter-Reformation in 1582, there was room for between 150 and 200 students, along with a church, refectory, rooms above for trainee priests, lecture rooms, an aula and a library, all arranged around a three-storeyed courtyard.

The building of the new quadrangle in Oxford involved buying up property facing Catte Street, to the east of the former Oseney Schools. An appeal was launched among old members and eventually brought in £4,500. Bodley promised to pay 10% of the final cost himself and, in his will (1613), he left money for a third storey, which could serve in the short term as a picture gallery and eventually as ‘a very large supplement for the stowage of books’.

Arts End, the first British library with wall shelving – The Bodleian Library and Divinity School. Photographs Will Pryce © Country Life Picture Library

Work began immediately. The two lower floors housed lecture rooms for each of the academic disciplines currently taught, with the names of the subjects picked out in gold over the doorways from the quadrangle. The two higher faculties of law and medicine occupied rooms on the first floor to the west, now reached from the vaulted entrance hall or proscholium under Arts End – which also gave access to the Divinity School – by staircase towers; the stairs with their twisted wooden balusters date from later in the 17th century.

Lecture rooms for the seven liberal arts, leading to the BA and MA degrees, were housed on two floors in the rest of the building, along with rooms for the teaching of Greek and (later) Hebrew – essential components of Humanist (Classical) learning as understood at the time.

The rooms were, in Wood’s words, ‘ample and spacious auditories, each with a chair for the lecturer and benches for students’, but none of the original furnishings have survived successive changes of use. The groundfloor lecture rooms are now offices, those on the first floor, including the former Anatomy School (used as a museum of bizarre specimens in the late 17th and early 18th centuries) as the Library’s Lower Reading Room.

The third floor, now the Upper Reading Room took the form of a gallery running around three sides of the quadrangle. It housed the university’s portrait collection and there were cabinets for coins and medals, together with ‘curiosities’, which included a chair made out of timbers from Sir Francis Drake’s ship Golden Hind.

The Bodleian Library and Divinity School. Photographs Will Pryce © Country Life Picture Library

The Upper Reading Room can claim to be Britain’s first public art gallery. The frieze of bust portraits dates to about 1616–19 – The Bodleian Library and Divinity School. Photographs Will Pryce © Country Life Picture Library

The gallery was open to visitors at stated times and has a claim to being the first public art museum in Britain. In 1949, its painted frieze of 200 portraits of writers and philosophers, dating from about 1616–19, was uncovered and restored; the subjects were chosen by Bodley’s first librarian, Thomas James, drawing upon André Thévet’s Pourtraits et vies des hommes illustres (1584), with writers on the liberal arts in the north range, on medicine and law to the east, and on theology to the south. A muniment room and an observatory – a sine qua non of any up-to-date university of the time – occupied the top two floors of the gate tower.

The quadrangle takes its architectural cue from Arts End and, more distantly, from the Divinity School. Best seen from Radcliffe Square, it is a massive rectangular block with large windows, the outline enlivened by battlements and pinnacles. Entrance is through a giant gatehouse, which is internally decorated with the five orders of Classical architecture – Tuscan, Roman Doric, Ionic, Corinthian and Composite – neatly stacked one above the other and a profusion of strapwork, curlicues and obelisks surrounding the royal coat of arms at the top.

The Bodleian Library and Divinity School. Photographs Will Pryce © Country Life Picture Library

In England, the Classical orders – as a French borrowing – were perhaps first used decoratively in the Gate of Honour at Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge (1567) and were tentatively introduced to Oxford in the entrance to St Alban Hall in Merton Street in 1599. They were more prominently displayed in the Classical frontispiece to the Fellows’ Quadrangle at Bodley’s college, Merton, in 1608–10, the first collegiate quadrangle to be built of three storeys throughout; there is a similar ‘frontispiece’ at the centre of the Hall and Chapel range of the newly funded Wadham College (1610–12).

The Warden of Merton, Sir Henry Savile (1549–1622), was a Classical scholar and polymath who had taught Greek to Elizabeth I, had lectured on Copernicus and who subsequently founded endowed chairs in astronomy and geometry, the intellectual discipline that traditionally encompassed architecture (incidentally, the point of Christopher Wren’s entry into the discipline).

Savile’s monument by Nicholas Stone in Merton College chapel is flanked by figures of Euclid and Tacitus, whose works he had edited, and he owned a copy of Vitruvius, which he gave to the Bodleian Library. A close friend of Bodley – who said that he had ‘the judgment of a mason’ – he brought in two stonemasons from his native West Yorkshire, John Akroyd and John Bentley, to work both at Merton and on the Schools Quadrangle, enraging the local Oxford masons in the process, and he took over the architectural direction of the whole project following Bodley’s death in 1613.

The Bodleian Library and Divinity School. Photographs Will Pryce © Country Life Picture Library

The Convocation House, built in the 1630s. It served as a parliament chamber on several occasions.
– The Bodleian Library and Divinity School. Photographs Will Pryce © Country Life Picture Library

Savile must have determined the design of the gatehouse as a ‘tower of the orders’: a feature that, as Roger North remarked in the 1690s, was ‘very suitable for an academy’. Ackroyd was described in the register of Oxford University as the ‘chief builder’ of Arts End and the Schools Quadrangle, but he died in 1613 and was succeeded by Bentley, described on his monument (1615) as ‘the most skilful architect of the library and schools’. Bentley’s brother then took over and, after his death, a carpenter, Thomas Holt, supervised the final stages of the building.

In 1620, James I gave the university a copy of his published works on theology. The University commemorated the gift by commissioning a sculpture (originally painted) for the inner face of the fourth floor of the gate tower. It shows the King enthroned under a canopy bearing the words ‘Blessed are the peacemakers’ and attended by Fame and Learning, the former blowing a trumpet. The sculptor was probably John Clark, who may have been Ackroyd’s son-in-law.

The building has remained superficially unchanged since its completion in the early 1620s, but there have been many internal, and some external, changes since then. In 1876–82, the whole building was taken over by the Bodleian Library following the building of Thomas Graham Jackson’s exuberantly detailed Examination Schools in the High Street. Today, the Schools Quadrangle is still the intellectual heart of the University, the citadel to the ‘Republic of Letters’ to which Sir Thomas Bodley dedicated his library more than 400 years ago.

The Divinity School that is ‘the chiefest wonder in Oxford’

The Bodleian Library and Divinity School. Photographs Will Pryce © Country Life Picture Library

The vaulted entrance hall or proscholium encloses the 15th-century façade of the Divinity School. – The Bodleian Library and Divinity School. Photographs Will Pryce © Country Life Picture Library

In September 1603, the Cambridge-educated lawyer Sir Roger Wilbraham passed through Oxford. His diary is predictably grudging in its praise of the rival university, but one building undeniably impressed him. ‘The chiefest wonder in Oxford,’ he wrote, ‘is a faire Divinitie Schole with church windoes: and over it the fairest librarie.’

The French scholar and philologist Isaac Casaubon, who visited Oxford in 1613, was similarly impressed: ‘Nothing attracted me so much as the Bodleian Library, a work rather for a king than a private man… In the lower part is a divinity school, to which perhaps nothing in Europe is comparable. It is vaulted with peculiar skill… I passed whole days in the library; for books cannot be taken out, but the library is open to all scholars for seven or eight hours every day.’

The library and Divinity School that Wilbraham and Casaubon admired occupied a medieval building that was already in the process of becoming the architectural heart of the Stuart university. As we saw last week, these two interiors, set one above the other, were integrated by stages with a courtyard of classrooms, an entrance porch, two library extensions and a convocation chamber. Much of this complex has today been taken over by the Bodleian Library.

Founded in 1598, the library continues to grow. Most recently, in March 2015, the adjacent New Bodleian reopened after a major renovation by Wilkinson Eyre Architects. But why did the 17thcentury university develop around the Divinity School and link its architectural future to its medieval past in this way?

The Divinity School, with its spectacular pendant vault – The Bodleian Library and Divinity School. Photographs Will Pryce © Country Life Picture Library

The Divinity School was the purpose-built setting for theological disputations, in effect, the teaching space for the most senior academic discipline of the medieval (and Stuart) university. Accordingly, the interior – with its massive windows and stone vault – speaks the language of great church architecture. However, this is very clearly not a great church.

Rather than a towering internal space, the apex of the vault is suspended a mere 32ft above the floor. Covering its surface is a spectacular array of more than 450 bosses. A series of begging letters calling for financial support makes it clear that work to the building was contemplated from 1423, although the plot of land on which the Divinity School stands only properly passed to the university in 1427. Then, on August 4, 1430, the mason Richard Winchcombe was appointed surveyor of the new building with a livery, a house, a horse and a generous pension of 40 shillings a year during his employment. This income was to be augmented by four shillings for every week he was present on site, a reminder that senior masons might work on many projects concurrently.

Winchcombe presumably came from the town of this name in Gloucestershire. It is possible that he trained or worked on the lost buildings of the great Benedictine monastery there. His documented career, however, begins in royal service. In 1398–9, he was employed on Richard II’s apartments at Portchester Castle, Hampshire. He subsequently passed into the service of New College, then in architectural and institutional terms by far the most splendid university collegiate foundation in the kingdom. On behalf of the college, he oversaw, from 1408 to 1418, the construction of a new chancel at Adderbury, Oxfordshire’s largest medieval parish church.

The east end of the Divinity School. Notice the surviving sculpture integrated within the design- Bodleian Library and Divinity School. Photographs Will Pryce © Country Life Picture Library

In the same period, in 1408–9, Winchcombe is also recorded as the master mason of the Earl of Warwick. This connection probably explains some distinctive technical details of his work – such as the flat-sided window arches – which are directly drawn from the great 14th-century collegiate church of St Mary in Warwick and its circle of related buildings. Winchcombe’s appointment in 1430 coincided with a major fundraising campaign by the university and work probably began in earnest at roughly the same time; the plinth on the north side bears the arms of Thomas Chace, the University Chancellor from 1426 to 1431.

The new building was begun in an extraordinarily opulent fashion with complex – and correspondingly costly – moulded detail and sculptural ornament. It was laid out as a rectangle, with a doorway at each end, one of them (to the east) encased by a porch. Deep buttresses divided the structure into five broad bays and the interior was lined with a stone bench.

Then, on January 16, 1440, the university contracted a new mason to the project, one Thomas Elkyn. He was retained on a slightly lower salary than Winchcombe and was explicitly charged to simplify his predecessor’s designs: ‘to take away – as he had already begun to take away – the unnecessary curiosities of the work, that is to say in the niches for statues… casements and fillets, and other frivolous curiosities, which do not to pertain, but are unnecessary and involve the university in great expense and which are delaying the said work’.

It is noteworthy that the simplification of the design, which is clearly legible in the architecture, followed almost immediately upon the first of three celebrated gifts of books to the university by the King’s uncle, Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester. That the university retrenched at this moment strongly suggests that the Duke – contrary to long-held belief – had no interest in the Divinity School or in paying to accommodate this founding collection of the university library.

The 450 bosses of the vault are exquisitely carved with heraldry, devotional imagery, foliage, inscriptions and lettering. The whole display survives virtually intact, a comment on the relative care it has enjoyed over more than 500 years. – The Bodleian Library and Divinity School. Photographs Will Pryce © Country Life Picture Library

Instead, for reasons that will become apparent, this library chamber over the Divinity School was probably intended from the first. Only in 1447 did the university find proper patronage for the Divinity School project. In that year, the executors of Cardinal Beaufort were persuaded to contribute 500 marks (or £333) if they could have surety that it would be completed in five years. This generous gift promised materially to advance the work and galvanised another round of begging letters.

One of the recipients was the formidable Duchess of Suffolk, who was thanked in 1454 for her ‘right noble gifts in books and gold to our mother the university’, including £20 more to the Divinity Schools. Her generosity, however, merely brought more demands, as, in the same letter, she was also urged to give ‘faith and credence unto our right well-beloved Master William Churche, supervisor of the said schools in such matters as he shall declare unto your high and noble ladyship’. Presumably, Churche came armed with details of the project to this notable architectural patroness, possibly even drawings of what was proposed.

It is difficult to be certain what progress was made with the building in the ensuing decade. In 1464–5, straw was bought to protect the wall-heads from frost, clear evidence that the building remained structurally incomplete. Nevertheless, a contract the following year for making 37 desks and benches for the interior suggests that it was roofed by this date. There are also later references to upper windows, proof that the building comprised two storeys.

To confuse matters, however, the university began to petition for funds again in 1470, its letters implying that the building was far from complete. Finally, in 1478, it secured the necessary financial backing. By an indenture of September 3, Thomas Kempe, Bishop of London, agreed to pay 1,000 marks in five annual instalments towards the work. At the same time, the mason William Orchard, the builder of Magdalen College and a supplier of stone to the building works at Eton, took an oath to the university. This was presumably connected with a commission to complete the Divinity Schools. He did some work to the exterior of the building, but his chief concern was constructing its present vault.

The Bodleian Library and Divinity School. Photographs Will Pryce © Country Life Picture Library

The external shell of the Divinity School and the library above it was probably complete by about 1460. The range to the right incorporates the 1630s Convocation House and Selden End. – The Bodleian Library and Divinity School. Photographs Will Pryce © Country Life Picture Library

In great churches, vaults were always the last structural elements of the building to be completed. Typically, only the seating for a vault would be constructed as the walls went up. Then, when the roof had sealed the building, the complex and expensive business of turning the vault could be managed as money allowed. It is perfectly reasonable, therefore, to assume that the Divinity School was constructed in this way.

Having the naked seating for a vault would also explain why a building roofed and furnished in the 1460s struck the university authorities a decade later as being embarrassingly incomplete.

In 1480, the traveller William Worcester described ‘the new vault or arch now being worked’ and it must have been finished very soon afterwards. Incidentally, Worcester is apparently the first authority to mention that a library was accommodated in the chamber over the Divinity School.

It has always been assumed that the design of the Divinity School changed in the course of its long construction. Most importantly – and contrary to the narrative above – that Orchard’s vault is an afterthought of the 1480s. There are, however, good reasons for supposing that the Divinity School was completed substantially as was planned in about 1430. Most obviously, there is no evidence of the vault having been botched in. Rather, the present interior demands a vault in broadly the shape and form of the present structure.

The Bodleian Library and Divinity School. Photographs Will Pryce © Country Life Picture Library

Look, for example, at the end walls, which we know from the mouldings were substantially built by Winchcombe. These tidily accommodate the vault’s pitch and tripartite design, so, although the vault may have been built in about 1480, it nevertheless resembles something intended in 1430.

Even assuming that the vault was not an afterthought, however, what further proves that Orchard erected it to a pre-existing design rather than his own? It has long been understood that the vault of the Divinity School compares closely to that over the choir of St Frideswide’s Priory, now Oxford Cathedral. Both have consequently been attributed to William Orchard and dated to the 1480s, but it has recently been pointed out by the architectural historian Christopher Wilson that the St Frideswide’s choir vault is actually a much earlier cre-ation, incorporating sculpture that stylistically dates a century earlier.

In other words, the Divinity School vault was directly inspired by St Frideswide’s and could, therefore, as plausibly have been designed in about 1430 as 1480.

After the vault was completed, the interior was furnished. According to the 17th-century antiquarian Anthony À. Wood, the interior was furnished for debate with two stone seats on the north and south respectively for the Respondent and Opponent. The latter was decorated with the arms of Cardinal Morton (d.1500) and stood beneath the seat of the presiding Doctor of Divinity.

The Bodleian Library and Divinity School. Photographs Will Pryce © Country Life Picture Library

This was ‘a fair piece of polisht work erected on pillars of stone, curiously wrought, with a canopy of carved wood, supported by pillars of the same, and reaching almost to the roof’. These Tudor furnishings were replaced in 1669 by the present arrangement of timber benches raised on platforms at one end of the room. This change, overseen by the architect Christopher Wren, was bound up with the reorganisation of the Divinity School as a ceremonial thoroughfare leading to the neighbouring Sheldonian Theatre.

At the same time, a new doorway in the Gothic style was punched through the north wall and meticulously provided with a recycled medieval door. Nothing could more clearly articulate the continued admiration felt for this building. The doorway is the only significant alteration the Divinity School has undergone since the 17th century. Then, as now, this building seems to root the university, offering it a firm foundation in the medieval past as it aspires to serve the future.

By John Goodall and Geoffrey Tyack

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