The Christian History of Oxford


The Christian History of Oxford

The first principle of Catholic social teaching is the infinite dignity and value of each individual human being. We call this personalism, because it places such emphasis on the person. But no person exists in isolation. We are each of us part of a complex web of relationships. Our family, our country, our friendships, our tradition, our Church – all these things make us what we are. We are part of a history. In order to understand ourselves better we have to understand or history, our past, our tradition.

That may be why God became incarnate. In order to save us he had to become part of history. To redeem persons you have somehow to redeem history. And by becoming part of history he freed us from it: made possible a new start, a new freedom within history itself.

The philosopher George Santayana said: "Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it" (1905). Every day in the newspapers we see people repeating the mistakes and tragedies of history - in the Balkans, in the Holy Land, in Ireland, in Africa.

Going through life without knowing any history is like living on the surface of life instead of in three dimensions - like living in Flatland. History adds a fourth dimension to your view of reality. That is most obvious if you are in a city like Rome or Oxford, where you are surrounded by physical reminders of the past in the form of monuments, buildings, ruins, streetnames, and so on.


St Frideswide [680-735]

Once upon a time, after King Arthur but before King Alfred, there was a Saxon Princess living in Oxford who did not want to marry. Her name was Frideswide. She was a Christian, and she prayed to be delivered from her fate. The Prince who wished to marry her, and to whom her father the King wished to give her, was blinded by a thunderbolt. The Princess had escaped marriage, and lived to found a religious community in 727 for celibate men and women. In fact she went on to become the Patron Saint of Oxford. The story had a happy ending for the Prince too, since after striking him blind, the Princess considerately dipped her hands into the waters of a well, and touched the man’s eyes, whereupon he began to see again.

[St Frideswide’s holy well (though for some reason named after St Margaret!) is still visible in the churchyard at Binsey – take the road that goes past The Perch to the very end.... It is the same well that Lewis Carroll put into Alice in Wonderland as the treacle mine.]

The Priory that she founded survived over 200 years, until it was burnt around the turn of the first millennium by marauding Vikings (a common hazard in those days, even as far inland as Oxford). Restored in 1121, it was suppressed four hundred years later by Cardinal Wolsey, then in favour with his master Henry VIII, in order to raise money to found his own College in Oxford on the site, which he called Cardinal College (after himself).

After his fall from grace, the College was taken over by the King and renamed, more modestly, the House of Christ or Christ Church. Its Chapel, on the site of the old Priory and inside the grounds of Christ Church, became the Cathedral for the city of Oxford. This is worth a visit, even though Frideswide’s body was taken from her tomb in the Cathedral (in 1538) and desecrated – because the Reformation didn’t hold with the veneration of saints. [She is remembered on 19 October.]


How the University was Founded

Oxford is one of the oldest universities in the world. It is now around 800 years old. It isn’t the first of all universities. That was probably Plato’s Academy, founded in Greece in 380 BC, which lasted 900 years till it was closed by the Emperor Justinian in AD 529. Christians re-invented the University around 900, in Salerno and Bologna in Italy, then Paris.

The story of Oxford University begins, I suppose, with one date everyone can remember: the Norman Conquest in 1066. Four years later, Oxford Castle was built, dominating the little town that had grown up around what is now Carfax. [You can still see and visit the Castel today.] Thirty years after the Conquest, Oxford had already become known as a centre of learning as well as trade. But the reason it became a University was the fact that the Normans had joined England to France. For almost exactly one hundred years after the Conquest, in 1167, English students were barred - for various political reasons - from attending the great University of Paris, and Oxford was where where they eventually came to settle. So 1167 could be called the year of the birth of the University of Oxford (although the name uniuersitas or ‘corporation’ was only given in 1231.)

Now, one more thing you need to know about Oxford is the long history of tension between "town" and "gown" (townspeople and students). This long-running conflict has been called the "Seven Hundred Years’ War". (In fact Cambridge University was founded in 1209 by a group of students who some say were fleeing Oxford in fear of their lives.

The most famous clash of this kind was on St Scholastica’s day 1355. It started in a pub. A group of students in a Carfax tavern refused to pay for what they said was "filthy wine". The landlord replied in "stubborn and saucy language" and a riot ensued. Armed townies attacked a group of scholars in St Giles, leaving several dead. Students rushed out to join in and the whole thing escalated. Several priests were killed – and before being killed, were scalped.

The fighting went on for three days, until 100 corpses were lying in the streets. As a result the whole town was excommunicated, and for 500 years the Mayor of Oxford was required to do public penance each year at the high altar in St Mary’s.

The first halls of residence or colleges in Oxford were also established in the 13th century, after the first of these riotous clashes. The Franciscan and Dominican Friars saw these halls as a way of keeping their students (mostly in training for the priesthood and a career in the Church or political life) separate from the rest of the townspeople. The colleges soon attracted endowments from wealthy patrons, starting with University, Balliol and Merton (between 1249 and 1264). As academic communities they followed a clerical and monastic model, but governed themselves. The tradition of celibacy persisted until the 19th century, when dons for the first time were permitted to marry (thus sparking the development of North Oxford as a residential area of large houses).


Rosamund the Fair and the Kings of Oxford

Oxford’s ‘royal’ connections persisted right through history (although it is probably not true that Alfred the Great established the town). Oxford has a particular connection with the Plantagenets. It came about in this way. A young descendant of William the Conqueror called Henry II married a beautiful queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and became the absolute ruler of an empire that stretched from Scotland to the Pyrenees.

Remember that this was the Age of Chivalry. Successive waves of barbarians had overwhelmed Europe since the fall of Rome, and each in turn had been gradually converted to Christianity. (The Normans, for example, were "Northmen", a branch of the marauding Vikings, who had been allowed to settle in France by Charles the Simple.) The influence of Christianity, preserved by the great monasteries, had begun to soften and civilize the lifestyle of these warring dynasties.

Aquitaine in central France (cap. Poitiers) was the home of the troubadours, a movement of wandering poets who sang in praise of Christian and erotic love. (Duke William of Aquitaine went to the Crusades with his mistress painted on his shield, saying that he wanted to bear her in battle as she had borne him in bed.) The troubadours, and their northern French counterparts who invented the novel (le roman) picked up on the stories of King Arthur and the Knight of the Round Table. These were the stories that were told in the courts of Henry II and the beautiful Queen Eleanor, and in many ways they tried to live them out in real life.

Despite the glamour of the Queen, Henry fell in love with Fair Rosamund, the daughter of a nobleman. He kept her hidden away from the Queen in a palace at Woodstock, just north of Oxford. The palace was cunningly constructed like a maze, but eventually the Queeen found her way in. In 1176 she had Rosamund killed - some say with a poisoned cup, others by bleeding her to death in a bath.

Henry was devastated, and buried Fair Rosamund in a magnificent tomb in front of the high altar at nearly Godstow nunnery (which is now a ruin alongside the Oxford canal, at the north end of Port Meadow or just past the Trout pub, depending on your point of view). The shrine was removed after Henry’s death by St Hugh, Bishop of Lincoln.

By the way, another Plantagenet palace stood in what is now Beaumont Street, near the site of Worcester College. It was there that Queen Eleanor bore Richard I (the Lionheart), and probably Robin Hood’s arch-enemy King John also - the one who was forced by his barons to sign the Magna Charter at Runnymead in 1215, thus beginning the process by which the Crown became subordinated to the Law.

The absolute monarchy of the Normans and Plantagenets had begun to unravel and would never be quite the same. England was on its way towards parliamentary democracy and constitutional monarchy. The next big confrontation was called The Peasants’ Revolt, and happened in 1381 - but the drama continued to be played out right up to the seventeenth-century Civil War between the Roundheads and the Cavaliers (Puritans and Catholics, roughly speaking). The University was a Royalist stronghold, and Charles I made it his capital for four years, his palace being Christ Church College.


Catholics and Protestants

The University had, of course, quickly become a centre of the national intellectual life and of scientific research. Penicillin was discovered here, for example. In Post-Reformation times, however, under the Penal Laws, Roman Catholics were not permitted to attend the University. If that seems harsh, you have to remember that feelings ran high on both sides after the English Reformation. The Martyrs Memorial in St Giles commemorates the burning at the stake outside Balliol in 1555 by the Catholic Queen Mary Tudor of Protestant Archbishops Latimer, Ridley and Cranmer. The Protestants got their revenge, of course, by torturing, hanging and murdering a large number in the subsequent period. There are about 70 beatified or canonized Catholic martyrs associated with Oxford, starting in 1589.

The Penal Laws were finally repealed in 1829, the Catholic hierarchy re-established in this country in 1852, and Catholics began to attend the University by the 1860s. [It should perhaps be added that women were not admitted until academic halls were established for them in 1878, and they became members of the University in 1920. Today, only St Hilda’s is an all-woman college: the other colleges admit both sexes.]

Today, Oxford is about as ecumenical an environment as you could wish for (as you see if you walk along St Giles past the Oratorians, Benedictines, Christian Scientists, Quakers and Dominicans). It has both a Greek and Russian Orthodox Bishop. John and Charles Wesley started Methodism here in the eighteenth century (1729 - see the notices in St Mary’s), and the nineteenth saw the rise of the famous Oxford Movement, which transformed the Church of England, and launched John Henry Newman, one of Oxford’s most famous sons (and another popular preacher in St Mary’s), in the direction of Roman Catholicism. He was finally received into the Catholic Church at Littlemore in 1845, where there is now a thriving retreat centre run by a wonderful group of sisters called The Sisters of the Work. For more on Newman, click here.

In the twentieth century, a small group of Christian writers – both Protestants and Catholics - called the Inklings met regularly in the Eagle and Child on St Giles: a pub that has since become a pilgrimage site for admirers of their writings. C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and Charles Williams were the leading figures in this group. For more on the Inklings, see next section.


Further research on the Web

From the University Website

Daily Information about Oxford

A list of websitres that offer timelines of British history



John Henry Newman was born in London on 21st February 1801. His father was a banker; his mother's family were originally French Huguenot refugees. He was educated from the age of seven at a boarding school in Ealing, and went to study at Trinity College Oxford when he was only sixteen. He was a gifted student, winning a scholarship, and yet his final exam results did not reflect his abilities. He went on to win a Fellowship at Oriel College, and upon being ordained in the Church of England became Vicar of the University Church, St Mary the Virgin.

Although the early influence of a Classics master at school, combined with a youthful conversion experience during a period of illnesss, had given him something of an evangelical bent, his time in Oxford, and the scope of his studies, drew him more and more in the direction of Anglo-Catholicism. He had begun to study and write about the Church Fathers, and was increasingly concerned to identify the legitimacy and continuity of the Christian faith as handed down through the centuries. He was at this point trying to show that the Church of England was a legitimate part of this tradition. He began, along with other Anglo-Catholics such as Keble and Pusey, to struggle against the liberalising tendencies within the Anglican Church, and from the late 1820s to the early 1840s preached a series of remarkable homilies in St. Mary the Virgin later published as Parochial and Plain Sermons.

Late in 1832, Newman travelled to Italy on vacation with some friends. He had the chance to witness Roman Catholic culture at first hand. The experience of another illness, this time serious enough to be life-threatening, whilst staying alone in Sicily, marked a watershed for Newman. It is here that he wrote his famous poem, "Lead Kindly Light", and pledged himself to undertake the work of renewing and purifying the Church of England, no matter what the cost.

Immediately on his return, Keble preached his famous sermon "On National Apostasy" and the Oxford Movement was launched. Those involved published a series of Tracts (hence the other name for the leaders and adherents of the movement, the "Tractarians") in which they challenged the current state of affairs, theologically and otherwise, in the Church of England. Newman was an accomplished controversialist, capable of employing a brilliant and even satirical literary style, but it was not long before he became the target of misunderstanding and suspicion, regarded as a secret "Romanist" years before he was in any way convinced that he must become a Roman Catholic. He lost favour with both university and ecclesial authorities. Yet his intellectual integrity obliged him to continue wrestling with the problem of which Church was in legitimate continuity with that of the Apostles.

In 1842, in the midst of the storm unleashed by Tract 90, Newman moved out to Littlemore, and there lived through several years of intense prayer and discernment. In 1843 he resigned his ministry at St. Mary's, in 1845 is fellowship at Oriel. That same year he wrote his book on the development of doctrine.

Newman was looking for the signs or characteristics which legitimate development in Church teaching should display, and which theologians had for the past eighteen centuries implicitly accepted as criteria. These signs show that an idea is founded on something real (an emphasis on the "real" is characteristic of Newman's thought throughout his life), which is both revealed by God and understood more deeply by men as the centuries unfold. "The development then of an idea is not like an investigation worked out on paper, in which each successive advance is a pure evolution from a foregoing, but is carried on through and by means of communities of men and their leaders and guides; and it employs their minds as its instruments, and depends upon them, while it uses them." This applies in the first place to the revealed truth of Scripture. Developments in doctrine after the completion of the Bible, that is to say throughout Church history, should display "certain a test to discriminate between them and corruptions." Newman uses "corruption" in a sense analogous to human biology, where a malfunction of the body leads to its eventual death. The characteristics of authentic doctrinal development (Newman lists seven) are analogous to those of a well-functioning, organic body.

On the night of October 8th 1845, an Italian Passionist priest called Dominic Barberi arrived at a small village just outside Oxford, in the midst of a rain-storm. He had been riding on the top of the coach and was soaked to the skin. Fr. Dominic was shown into the library at the converted stables where John Henry Newman and his friends were living, to dry himself in front of the fire. It was then that Newman rushed into the room and cast himself at Fr. Dominic's feet, asking to be received into "the one true Fold of the Redeemer", and begging him to begin hearing his confession immediately.

The confession continued the following day, as did those of two of Newman's companions, and in the evening they all made the profession of faith and received conditional baptism. On October 10th, the very table on which Newman had spend the previous few years writing On the Development of Christian Doctrine - and writing himself into the Catholic Church - was used to celebrate the Mass during which Newman made his first Holy Communion.

Newman was then obliged to leave his peaceful haven at Littlemore and place himself at the service of the Church. He was at the mid-point of his life, no longer a young man, with a wealth of learning and experience behind him, and yet he submitted himself to a completely new life, leaving behind uncomprehending and often unsympathetic friends and family. After years of holding a respected position as Fellow of Oriel College Oxford and the Vicar of the University Church, not to mention his central role in the Oxford Movement, he was now to be instructed and prepared for the priesthood in Rome alongside much younger and less knowledgeable men. Yet he did all this without a murmur, peaceful in the knowledge that after years of painstaking deliberation he had made the right choice. He had said that he wanted to be sure to act from reason, not from feeling alone. Having done so, he became a guide for multitudes of others in the integration of head and heart on the path to Rome.

As a Roman Catholic, Newman encountered as much controversy and misunderstanding as he did in the Church of England. He and his companions founded the first English Oratory, having decided that the model created by St Philip Neri in the 16th century in Rome was most appropriate for their situation in 19th century England (cf.

The Catholic hierarchy in the British Isles was formally reestablished in the years following Newman's arrival as an Oratorian priest back in his native country. At the first synod of the new hierarchy at Oscott on 13th July 1852 that Newman preached a famous homily on the reconversion of England to the Faith, called "The Second Spring". In it he celebrated the historic moment in which this Church, whose detractors had believed defunct, had risen from the ashes. Newman used a prophetic analogy based, appropriately enough, on the English weather, speaking of the new springtime in the Church as "an English spring, an uncertain, anxious time of hope and fear, of joy and suffering, - of bright promise and budding hopes, yet withal, of keen blasts, and cold showers, and sudden storms."

Newman was to suffer many of these storms personally. In 1851 he had given a lecture in which he had denounced an ex-Dominican priest, Giacinto Achilli, who had become a Protestant after being condemned by the Roman Inquisition for sexual immorality and assault. Yet Achilli had been touring England claiming that he had been punished for heresy, and denouncing the corruptions of Rome. Newman based his denunciation of Achilli on an article published by Wiseman, soon to be the new Archbishop of Westminster, but unfortunately Achilli sued Newman, and Wiseman mislaid the documentary evidence on which he had based his own denunciation. In spite of witnesses against Achilli being found (a special fund was set up for this purpose), Newman still lost the case, the judge being prejudiced against him. Ironically, the injustice done to him did a great deal to discredit Achilli and his supporters, and to elicit public sympathy for Newman himself.

At the same time, he was travelling regularly to Ireland to help set up the new Catholic University in Dublin, under the auspices of Archbishop Cullen of Armagh, and giving a series of lectures on education in relation to faith. His thinking on higher education is contained in The Idea of a University, in which he tries to balance the merits of a classical liberal education against the necessity of giving a central place to religion, without thereby shackling free intellectual enquiry with transient manifestations of religious bigotry. However Newman's role in the Irish University eventually came to an end due to lack of sustained commitment to him and his ideas from Irish Catholics in general, including differences of view among the bishops. Newman envisioned the laity playing a major role in the governing of the new university, which went against Irish clerical tradition. He was also busy with the affairs of the Oratory in England, where conflicts were occurring between the London and the Birmingham houses.

The tensions experienced in relation to the university work in Ireland and the Oratory were symptomatic of a larger dilemma which Newman had to face in relation to the English Catholic Church: how to provide the means whereby the laity could be educated in the faith to a sufficient extent as to make a meaningful contribution to the life of the Church, a contribution which was both informed and loyal to the magisterium. In many ways Newman's reflections on this problem were ahead of his time, as was his stance on the necessity for Catholic apologetics not foundering on a narrow ultramontanism, particularly in the delicate context of the newly revived status of Catholics in a cultural scene which had for centuries been dominated by Protestantism.

He became involved in several controversies around this issue, including one to do with the Rambler, a lay Catholic review, and the often-muddied waters that surrounded the definition of Papal Infallibility promulgated at the First Vatican Council. His famous article, On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine, a reflection on the place of the laity in the Church, was an attempt to explain in detail how "each constituent portion of the Church has its proper functions, and no portion can safely be neglected". If it was the body of the faithful, rather than the majority of the episcopate, who largely opposed the Arian heresy in the fourth century, there could well occur other occasions when it was vital to have an informed and educated body of "enthusiastic partisans". Newman's long-sighted perspective seems positively prophetic for our own times.

This whole period of his life was marked by the intense suffering of knowing himself misunderstood both within the Church (where suspicion of him was being sown by the ultramontane party, who had the sympathy of Cardinal Manning in Westminster), and by his one-time Anglican friends and followers, yet unable to defend himself to either party. Newman was always concerned that the development of doctrine should take place within the body, and thus in harmony with the mind, perceived in all its historical context, of the Church, something which required obedience, in order to maintain unity. Only this integrity of the body, moving slowly and with constant reference to the lessons of the past, in prayer and humility, could inspire real respect among outsiders such as those he had left behind him in the Anglican communion. At the same time, his sufferings contributed to the great depth of wisdom and sympathy he was able to bring to his correspondence with a wide range of men and women who by this time constantly wrote to him for advice, spiritual direction or consolation. His ministry to them must be regarded as an important part of his life's apostolate, and its continuing effects throughout society after his death, as those who were touched by his understanding or compassion in their turn passed on his influence to others, is incalculable.

The period in which, after his reception into the Catholic Church, Newman suffered from neglect and misunderstanding came to a dramatic end in an unexpected way. The well-known writer Charles Kingsley, virulently anti-Catholic, made a personal attack on Newman, involving the habitual charge that he was lacking in integrity, a fault which Kingsley alleged was endemic among his co-religionists. Newman saw that by explaining in public his own religious trajectory he would be defending the faith which he had embraced in 1845, and thus broke his silence and wrote his autobiography: Apologia Pro Vita Sua. The book, published in 1864, was an immense success, and many of his old Anglican acquaintances resumed contact with him because of it. In fact Newman now became one of the most popular churchmen in the country. It was followed by the equally successful Dream of Gerontius (later set to music by Elgar) and finally in 1870 by a more specialised work: The Grammar of Assent. The latter constitutes his main contribution to the field of philosophy, and is increasingly recognised as a remarkable achievement far in advance of its time.

In the Grammar, Newman makes his case for a radically new understanding of human reason, rejecting both Cartesian rationalism and Lockean empiricism. He looked at the type of reasoning involved in religious faith, and his challenge was to show that the philosophers of the Enlightenment had been wrong to conclude that such faith must be not merely false, but irrational. He shows that it may be justifiable to believe what one does not wholly understand, and establishes a distinction between 'notional' and 'real' assent to the object of belief, depending on whether it is grasped as a mere notion (an abstraction) or as a fact of experience. He gives an important role to the imagination in this process. The 'real assent' to religious dogma is based on the experience, for example, of the human encounter with God in conscience. It may be 'certain' even in the absence of strict logical proof because it depends not on the relationship between abstractions, but on the imaginative grasp of a fact by the 'Illative Sense'. It is this intuitive faculty which apprehends a pattern in converging probabilities that individually might not suffice to convince, but taken together convey a meaning. Newman's theory makes sense of the failure of apologetic arguments to convince the religious sceptic, for without the involvement of the Illative Sense, in a judgement that is an act of the entire soul and therefore may also possess a moral aspect, an intellectual argument cannot touch the assumptions or first principles around which a person's mental life revolves.

At this late stage in his life, Newman's old college, Trinity, asked him to be an honorary Fellow. Once again (having been for many years prevented from returning) he was able to visit Oxford as a loved and respected figure. The suspicion of him among Catholics was finally brought to an end by the accession of Pope Leo XIII, who in 1879 made Newman a Cardinal. He took as his motto Cor ad Cor Loquitur (Heart Speaks to Heart), words coined by St. Francis de Sales, another defender of the faith in controversial times, using as his weapons a keen insight and sympathy for the dilemma of his interlocutors.

On 11th August 1890, Cardinal Newman died, the battles fought and his personal sanctity tried in that passionate fire over nearly nine decades of a century when faith had become something that needed, more than ever, to be fought and suffered for in the face of an increasingly secularised world. The elements of that fateful evening in October 1845 - the storm, the man on his knees, and the fire blazing between the two men from such different backgrounds (echoing the flame of Christ's love shown on the Italian missionary's Passionist habit) - all in a sense give the key to Newman's life. He was beset by storms and controversies, both as an Anglican and as a Catholic; he was completely submitted to the authority of the Church even in the midst of misunderstandings and intense theological debate; and he was himself possessed by the love of God to such a degree that he gave his whole life over to His service, a devotion which showed itself not only in an outstanding intellectual contribution, but also in his pastoral work, much of it carried out among simple people in places like Littlemore and Birmingham.

Newman’s legacy stands and has been developed in this past century too, so that at the eve of the new millennium, Newman is remembered as a father of Vatican II, an advocate of balance and loyalty, concerned always with the roots of good health and orthodoxy in the ecclesial body. His intellectual precision, his great humanity and his love for Christ and His Church, reminds us that not every passing show is of ultimate importance, that whilst we must live in the world and be realistic about the contemporary situation, we are not of this world, but of God's eternal kingdom. The words on his gravestone sum this up: Ex umbris et imaginibus in veritatem.


Further Reading

John Henry Newman: Apostle to the Doubtful (Catholic Truth Society, £1.95), by Meriol Trevor, revised and expanded by Léonie Caldecott


On the Web