Oxford’s chiefest wonder
The Divinity School, Oxford, part II In the second of two articles on the Old Schools, John Goodall examines one of Oxford’s architectural marvels. He reappraises the complex development of this long-admired building
John Goodall appraises the complex development of the university’s Divinity School
IN September 1603, the Cambridgeeducated 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 (Fig 5).’
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 (Fig 2). 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 was the purposebuilt 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 (Fig 1).
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 (Fig 3). A series of begging letters calling for financial support makes it clear that work to the building was contemplated from 1423, although
The interior speaks the language of great church architecture
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.
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.
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 wallheads 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
‘Then, as now, this building seems to root the university, offering it a firm foundation’
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.
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.
Look, for example, at the end walls, which we know from the mouldings were substantially built by Winchcombe (Fig 4). 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 creation, 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.
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.
Fig 1: The Divinity School, with its spectacular pendant vault
Fig 2 above left: 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. Fig 3 above: 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. Fig 4 facing page: The east end of the Divinity School. Notice the surviving sculpture integrated within the design
Fig 5: The interior of Duke Humphrey’s Library, the medieval library chamber, which lies directly over the Divinity School. The bookshelves date from the reorganisation of the library in the 17th century, as does the painted decoration on the ceiling. At the far end is visible the library extension called the Selden End, added in the 1630s. Its Gothic window possibly imitates the form of a gable window in the medieval building