Discussion / History

Neoclassical Architecture and the Civil War at Oxford

King Charles Gate CorpusThis vacation back home in Oxfordshire I’ve had the privilege of working at Corpus Christi College, Oxford. In the college’s boundary wall there is an old wooden door rejoicing in the grand name of ‘King Charles Gate’, which links it with its larger neighbour, Christ Church. Legend has it that the entrance was made in the dangerous days of the Civil War when Oxford served as Royalist HQ. King Charles I had co-opted Christ Church as the royal residence, and the gate allowed him to nip across the Corpus garden in secret to Merton College on the other side – the residence of his mistress. Merton College seems an unlikely location for a royal lovenest, but the story reflects the transformation of Oxford’s colleges into quarters for the King and his army.

About a third of a mile north of Corpus at the eastern end of Broad Street stands a cluster of neo-classical buildings in golden Headington limestone. The Sheldonian Theatre (1664-1669), the Old Ashmolean (1679-83, now the Museum of the History of Science) and the Clarendon Building (1711-15) are among Oxford’s most-photographed landmarks. These elegant classical structures, all, in one way or another, connected with academic study, are direct products of that vicious decade of civil conflict and upheaval that saw Oxford transformed into military headquarters and cost England an estimated 4% of its population, Scotland 6% and Ireland 41%.

L to R: Clarendon Building, Sheldonian Theatre, Old Ashmolean Museum (now Museum of the History of Science)

L to R: Clarendon Building, Sheldonian Theatre, Old Ashmolean Museum (now Museum of the History of Science)

Siege of Oxford by Jan Wyck

‘The Siege of Oxford’ by Jan Wyck (in the Museum of Oxford)

When Charles I arrived in Oxford in 1644 he had been fighting the army of the English Parliament (the Roundheads) for nearly two years. The country was bitterly divided. Even the two university towns were on opposite sides. Cambridge, Oliver Cromwell’s alma mater, had a strong tradition of Puritan preachers and found itself in Parliamentary territory relatively early on. Meanwhile Oxford’s loyalty to the King resulted in the town being besieged and eventually taken by Parliamentary forces in June 1646. Charles I was executed three years later, and the British Isles were ruled by Parliament under Lord Protector Cromwell.

Difficult times for Oxford. Many Oxford Royalists went into exile or kept their heads down. Among them was Gilbert Sheldon, the Warden of All Souls’ College and a close friend of the king. Removed from office when the Parliamentarians took Oxford in 1646, he successfully kept a low profile in the Midlands. The lawyer and antiquarian Elias Ashmole served as an officer in the King’s army at Oxford, and lodged at Brasenose College. He devoted the time to antiquarian pursuits and collecting, as well as sniffing round and eventually acquiring the collections of the dead king’s head gardener, John Tradescant the Younger. Edward Hyde, another Oxford lawyer, was appointed King Charles’ Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1645. He fled with the Prince of Wales into exile in 1646, where began to write his memoir and history of the Civil War.

However, the close relationship between gown and Crown ultimately paid off.  The Protectorate ended in 1660 and the Prince of Wales, now Charles II, returned from Europe. The Merry Monarch didn’t forget those who had been with him and his father at Oxford, and all three were conspicuously rewarded for their loyalty. Hyde was made Chancellor of the University in 1660, and Earl of Clarendon in 1661; his children married into the royal family. Sheldon became Archbishop of Canterbury in 1663 and succeeded Hyde to the Chancellorship in 1667. Ashmole had married a wealthy widow, and was given an important post in the royal revenue; the University recognised his academic achievements (including a complete catalogue of the Bodleian Roman coin collection) with a doctorate. The names of the trio were soon to be written permanently into Oxford’s topography.

The Sheldonian Theatre

Gilbert Sheldon

Gilbert Sheldon

Sheldon was the first to stamp his legacy onto Oxford’s streets (and the lives of every university graduate thereafter) by sponsoring the construction of a dedicated theatre for graduation ceremonies. The chosen architect was the Savilian Professor of Astronomy, better known to us as Sir Christopher Wren. For his first major project Wren (only 32 at the time) was inspired by the u-shape plan of the Theatre of Marcellus at Rome, which was familiar to him from engravings. To an ancient historian, the choice of model seems resonantly symbolic. The theatre at Rome named after Augustus’ nephew was part of the great late first-century BC wave of public building that affirmed the return of peace and prosperity after decades of Roman civil war. So too Sheldon’s Theatre proclaimed a newly confident Oxford secure in its role at the centre of the English Restoration.

The Sheldonian's facade

The Sheldonian’s facade

In as much as Wren’s design looked back to the grandeur of Rome, it was also startlingly innovative in a town that was dominated by medieval and Tudor architecture. The pure classicism of the Sheldonian’s ancient model, coupled with the revolutionary new ceiling design provided by Wren, proclaimed a new modern era. (The ceiling was in its day the largest unsupported floor in existence.) Next door at the Bodleian the Tower of the Five Orders, once daringly cutting-edge with its pile-’em-high approach to the classical architectural orders, now seems positively Jacobean in contrast. As the Oxford University Archive notes, ‘In its finer architectural aspects … [the Sheldonian] is seen as having been the standard-bearer for a renaissance in public building in seventeenth-century Oxford.’

The Tower of the Five Orders (1613-19) at the Bodleian Library

The Tower of the Five Orders (1613-19) at the Bodleian Library

Work began in 1664, was completed in 1669, and reportedly cost Sheldon nearly £15,000. (The labourers who constructed it could hope for little more than £1 a year.) The visitor was left in no doubt about where the Chancellor’s loyalties had always lain. The portico was inscribed in Latin with the name of the King that Sheldon had known as a young prince at Oxford: CAROLVS II D.G. MAG. BRIT. FRAN. ET HIB. REX FI. DEF. (Charles II by the grace of God King of Great Britain, France and Ireland, Defender of the Faith.)

The Sheldonian's inscription

The Sheldonian’s inscription

The Ashmolean Museum (now the Museum of the History of Science)

Elias Ashmole

Elias Ashmole

A decade later, it was the turn of Elias Ashmole, who donated a large part of his antiquarian collection to the University in 1677. At the core of the bequest was the collection he had inherited (in somewhat dodgy circumstances) from John Tradescant in 1662, along with his library and manuscripts. The Ashmolean Museum building was finished in 1683 and cost a comparatively modest £4,500.

The Old Ashmolean viewed from Broad Street

The Old Ashmolean viewed from Broad Street

Museums are often unfairly stereotyped as dry, dusty places for storage and display, fortresses rather than outposts on the frontiers of knowledge. This was especially not the case in the seventeenth century. ‘Laboratory’ gets the right sense. Ashmole’s collection provided the University with an unusual and very modern opportunity. Tradescant had collected many botanical and zoological specimens from the New World (including a stuffed dodo). To these Ashmole added his valuable manuscripts, potentially sources for the philological breakthroughs of the future. For this new scholarly laboratory the architect adopted the neo-classical language of the neighbouring Sheldonian.

Grand entrance to the Old Ashmolean from the level of the Sheldonian Theatre

Grand entrance to the Old Ashmolean from the level of the Sheldonian Theatre

In the mid-19th century the Ashmolean was apotheozied to its present home in the  enormous classical building on Beaumont Street, but classicists will be interested to know that in 1935-1939 the middle floor of the building was the HQ for the Oxford Latin Dictionary.

The Clarendon Building

Edward Hyde, 1st Earl of Clarendon and bestselling author

Edward Hyde, 1st Earl of Clarendon and bestselling author

Unlike Sheldon and Ashmole, Edward Hyde, the 1st Earl of Clarendon, didn’t live to see his legacy monumentalised in Oxford. Although his star rose highest in the Restoration period, he made an enemy of King Charles’ mistress the Duchess of Cleveland and military disaster in the war with Holland in the late 1660s drove him into exile in France. He died in Rouen in 1674, leaving behind his completed memoirs, The History of the Rebellion and Civil Wars in England. Originally composed (as mentioned above) while in exile in the 1640s, and revised shortly before his death in the 1670s, this was one of Oxford University Press’s major commercial successes in an era when it was surviving on revenue from Bibles. The History of the Rebellion was first released in 1702, long after Clarendon and Charles’ death when Clarendon’s granddaughter Anne became Queen. The Cavaliers and Roundheads were battling again at this time through the memoirs and histories of Tories and Whigs, to OUP’s great financial benefit.

The Clarendon Building

The Clarendon Building

At this time, the OUP’s presses were implausibly housed in the basement of the Sheldonian Theatre, while its books were stored above Wren’s ceiling. The profits from Clarendon’s history now allowed the Press to commission the architect Nicholas Hawksmoor to produce a dedicated building named after the man whose work had made it all possible – the Earl of Clarendon. Clarendon’s name is found elsewhere in the city at the Clarendon Laboratory and, most illustriously, the Clarendon Shopping Centre. Like the Ashmolean, the OUP relocated in the 19th century to a grander neo-classical building on Walton Street. Today, the building serves as offices for the Bodleian Library.

It's beer o'clock!

Lewis and Hathaway head across Broad Street to the White Horse pub.

This trio of neo-classical buildings on the Broad now symbolise the picturesque timelessness of the University: the ever-rolling calendar of university ceremonial in the Sheldonian, the history of scientific endeavour of past eras in the Museum of the History of Science; they stand golden in the backdrop of a slow-paced episode of Inspector Morse or Lewis. On the one hand, that is precisely what they were designed to do – to give Oxford an antique grandeur removed from the horror of the conflict that produced them. On the other, it obscures how modern neo-classical architecture once was. Wren’s ground-breaking Sheldonian, the collections in the Old Ashmolean, and the reinvigorated University Press, all symbolised Oxford’s position at the forefront of academic study.


One thought on “Neoclassical Architecture and the Civil War at Oxford

  1. Thanks, Hannah, that’s really interesting. Was there any sense that, in recalling the grandeur that was Rome, the Royalists were making their king into a latter-day Roman emperor?

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