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

Country Life Every Week - - Contents - Pho­tog­ra­phy by Will Pryce

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

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