Oxford - Andrew Lang - E-Book

Oxford E-Book

Andrew Lang

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"Oxford" by Andrew Lang is a compilation of notes on the history of the famed English city. Known for its university, one of the oldest in the world, the book shows that there is so much more to this fascinating place. Lang writes in a way that is both informative and easy-to-understand, a refreshing change from other, drier texts.

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Andrew Lang

Oxford

 
EAN 8596547067146
DigiCat, 2022 Contact: [email protected]

Table of Contents

PREFACE
CHAPTER I THE TOWN BEFORE THE UNIVERSITY
CHAPTER II THE EARLY STUDENTS—A DAY WITH A MEDIEVAL UNDERGRADUATE
CHAPTER III THE RENAISSANCE AND THE REFORMATION
CHAPTER IV JACOBEAN OXFORD
CHAPTER V SOME SCHOLARS OF THE RESTORATION
CHAPTER VI HIGH TORY OXFORD
CHAPTER VII GEORGIAN OXFORD
CHAPTER VIII POETS AT OXFORD: SHELLEY AND LANDOR
CHAPTER IX A GENERAL VIEW
CHAPTER X UNDERGRADUATE LIFE—CONCLUSION

PREFACE

Table of Contents

These papers do not profess even to sketch the outlines of a history of Oxford. They are merely records of the impressions made by this or that aspect of the life of the University as it has been in different ages. Oxford is not an easy place to design in black and white, with the pen or the etcher’s needle. On a wild winter or late autumn day (such as Father Faber has made permanent in a beautiful poem) the sunshine fleets along the plain, revealing towers, and floods, and trees, in a gleam of watery light, and leaving them once more in shadow. The melancholy mist creeps over the city, the damp soaks into the heart of everything, and such suicidal weather ensues as has been described, once for all, by the author of John-a-Dreams. How different Oxford looks when the road to Cowley Marsh is dumb with dust, when the heat seems almost tropical, and by the drowsy banks of the Cherwell you might almost expect some shy southern water-beast to come crashing through the reeds! And such a day, again, is unlike the bright weather of late September, when all the gold and scarlet of Bagley Wood are concentrated in the leaves that cover the walls of Magdalen with an imperial vesture.

Our memories of Oxford, if we have long made her a Castle of Indolence, vary no less than do the shifting aspects of her scenery. Days of spring and of mere pleasure in existence have alternated with days of gloom and loneliness, of melancholy, of resignation. Our mental pictures of the place are tinged by many moods, as the landscape is beheld in shower and sunshine, in frost, and in the colourless drizzling weather. Oxford, that once seemed a pleasant porch and entrance into life, may become a dingy ante-room, where we kick our heels with other weary, waiting people. At last, if men linger there too late, Oxford grows a prison, and it is the final condition of the loiterer to take ‘this for a hermitage.’ It is well to leave the enchantress betimes, and to carry away few but kind recollections. If there be any who think and speak ungently of their Alma Mater, it is because they have outstayed their natural ‘welcome while,’ or because they have resisted her genial influence in youth.

CHAPTER ITHE TOWN BEFORE THE UNIVERSITY

Table of Contents

Most old towns are like palimpsests, parchments which have been scrawled over again and again by their successive owners. Oxford, though not one of the most ancient of English cities, shows, more legibly than the rest, the handwriting, as it were, of many generations. The convenient site among the interlacing waters of the Isis and the Cherwell has commended itself to men in one age after another. Each generation has used it for its own purpose: for war, for trade, for learning, for religion; and war, trade, religion, and learning have left on Oxford their peculiar marks. No set of its occupants, before the last two centuries began, was very eager to deface or destroy the buildings of its predecessors. Old things were turned to new uses, or altered to suit new tastes; they were not overthrown and carted away. Thus, in walking through Oxford, you see everywhere, in colleges, chapels, and churches, doors and windows which have been builded up; or again, openings which have been cut where none originally existed. The upper part of the round Norman arches in the Cathedral has been preserved, and converted into the circular bull’s-eye lights which the last century liked. It is the same everywhere, except where modern restorers have had their way. Thus the life of England, for some eight centuries, may be traced in the buildings of Oxford. Nay, if we are convinced by some antiquaries, the eastern end of the High Street contains even earlier scratches on this palimpsest of Oxford; the rude marks of savages who scooped out their damp nests, and raised their low walls in the gravel, on the spot where the new schools are to stand. Here half-naked men may have trapped the beaver in the Cherwell, and hither they may have brought home the boars which they slew in the trackless woods of Headington and Bagley. It is with the life of historical Oxford, however, and not with these fancies, that we are concerned, though these papers have no pretension to be a history of Oxford. A series of pictures of men’s life here is all they try to sketch.

It is hard, though not impossible, to form a picture in the mind of Oxford as she was when she is first spoken of by history. What she may have been when legend only knows her; when St. Frideswyde built a home for religious maidens; when she fled from King Algar and hid among the swine, and after a whole fairy tale of adventures died in great sanctity, we cannot even guess. This legend of St. Frideswyde, and of her foundation, the germ of the Cathedral and of Christ Church, is not, indeed, without its value and significance for those who care for Oxford. This home of religion and of learning was a home of religion from the beginning, and her later life is but a return, after centuries of war and trade, to her earliest purpose. What manner of village of wooden houses may have surrounded the earliest rude chapels and places of prayer, we cannot readily guess, but imagination may look back on Oxford as she was when the English Chronicle first mentions her. Even then it is not unnatural to think Oxford might well have been a city of peace. She lies in the very centre of England, and the Northmen, as they marched inland, burning church and cloister, must have wandered long before they came to Oxford. On the other hand, the military importance of the site must have made it a town that would be eagerly contended for. Any places of strength in Oxford would command the roads leading to the north and west, and the secure, raised paths that ran through the flooded fens to the ford or bridge, if bridge there then was, between Godstowe and the later Norman grand pont, where Folly Bridge now spans the Isis. Somewhere near Oxford, the roads that ran towards Banbury and the north, or towards Bristol and the west, would be obliged to cross the river. The water-way, too, and the paths by the Thames’ side, were commanded by Oxford. The Danes, as they followed up the course of the Thames from London, would be drawn thither, sooner or later, and would covet a place which is surrounded by half a dozen deep natural moats. Lastly, Oxford lay in the centre of England indeed, but on the very marches of Mercia and Wessex. A border town of natural strength and of commanding situation, she can have been no mean or poor collection of villages in the days when she is first spoken of, when Eadward the Elder ‘incorporated with his own kingdom the whole Mercian lands on both sides of Watling Street’ (Freeman’s Norman Conquest, vol. i. p. 57), and took possession of London and of Oxford as the two most important parts of a scientific frontier. If any man had stood, in the days of Eadward, on the hill that was not yet ‘Shotover,’ and had looked along the plain to the place where the grey spires of Oxford are clustered now, as it were in a purple cup of the low hills, he would have seen little but ‘the smoke floating up through the oakwood and the coppice,’

Καπνὸν δ’ ἐνὶ γέσσῃ ἔδρακον ὀφθαλμοῖσι διὰ δρυμὰ πυκνὰ καὶ ὕλην

The low hills were not yet cleared, nor the fens and the wolds trimmed and enclosed. Centuries later, when the early students came, they had to ride ‘through the thick forest and across the moor, to the East Gate of the city’ (Munimenta Academica, Oxon., vol. i. p. 60). In the midst of a country still wild, Oxford was already no mean city; but the place where the hostile races of the land met to settle their differences, to feast together and forget their wrongs over the mead and ale, or to devise treacherous murder, and close the banquet with fire and sword.

Again and again, after Eadward the Elder took Mercia, the Danes went about burning and wasting England. The wooden towns were flaming through the night, and sending up a thick smoke through the day, from Thamesmouth to Cambridge. ‘And next was there no headman that force would gather, and each fled as swift as he might, and soon was there no shire that would help another.’ When the first fury of the plundering invaders was over, when the Northmen had begun to wish to settle and till the land and have some measure of peace, the early meetings between them and the English rulers were held in the border-town, in Oxford. Thus Sigeferth and Morkere, sons of Earngrim, came to see Eadric in Oxford, and there were slain at a banquet, while their followers perished in the attempt to avenge them. ‘Into the tower of St. Frideswyde they were driven, and as men could not drive them thence, the tower was fired, and they perished in the burning.’ So says William of Malmesbury, who, so many years later, read the story, as he says, in the records of the Church of St. Frideswyde. There is another version of the story in the Codex Diplomaticus (DCCIX.). Aethelred is made to say, in a deed of grant of lands to St. Frideswyde’s Church (‘mine own minster’), that the Danes were slain in the massacre of St. Brice. On that day Aethelred, ‘by the advice of his satraps, determined to destroy the tares among the wheat, the Danes in England.’ Certain of these fled into the minster, as into a fortress, and therefore it was burned and the books and monuments destroyed. For this cause Aethelred gives lands to the minster, ‘fro Charwell brigge andlong the streame, fro Merewell to Rugslawe, fro the lawe to the foule putte,’ and so forth. It is pleasant to see how old are the familiar names ‘Cherwell,’ ‘Hedington,’ ‘Couelee’ or Cowley, where the college cricket-grounds are. Three years passed, and the headmen of the English and of the Danes met at Oxford again, and more peacefully, and agreed to live together, obedient to the laws of Eadgar; to the law, that is, as it was administered in older days, that seem happier and better ruled to men looking back on them from an age of confusion and bloodshed. At Oxford, too, met the peaceful gathering of 1035, when Danish and English claims were in some sort reconciled, and at Oxford Harold Harefoot, the son of Cnut, died in March 1040. The place indeed was fatal to kings, for St. Frideswyde, in her anger against King Algar, left her curse on it. Just as the old Irish kings were forbidden by their customs to do this or that, to cross a certain moor on May morning, or to listen to the winnowing of the night-fowl’s wings in the dusk above the lake of Tara; so the kings of England shunned to enter Oxford, and to come within the walls of Frideswyde the maiden. Harold died there, as we have seen, but there he was not buried. His body was laid at Westminster, where it could not rest, for his enemies dug it up, and cast it forth upon the fens, or threw it into the river. Many years later, when Henry III. entered Oxford, not without fear, the curse of Frideswyde lighted also upon him. He came in 1263, with Edward the prince, and misfortune fell upon him, so that his barons defeated and took him prisoner at the battle of Lewes. The chronicler of Oseney Abbey mentions his contempt of superstitions, and how he alone of English kings entered the city: ‘Quod nullus rex attemptavit a tempore Regis Algari,’ an error, for Harold attemptavit, and died. When Edward I. was king, he was less audacious than his father, and in 1275 he rode up to the East Gate and turned his horse’s head about, and sought a lodging outside the town, reflexis habenis equitans extra moenia aulam regiain in suburbio positam introivit. In 1280, however, he seems to have plucked up courage and attended a Chapter of Dominicans in Oxford.

The last of the meetings between North and South was held at Oxford in October 1065. ‘In urle quæ famoso nomine Oxnaford nuncupatur,’ to quote a document of Cnut’s. (Cod. Dipl.DCCXLVI. in 1042.) There the Northumbrian rebels met Harold in the last days of Edward the Confessor. With this meeting we leave that Oxford before the Conquest, of which possibly not one stone, or one rafter, remains. We look back through eight hundred years on a city, rich enough, it seems, and powerful, and we see the narrow streets full of armed bands of men—men that wear the cognisance of the horse or of the raven, that carry short swords, and are quick to draw them; men that dress in short kirtles of a bright colour, scarlet or blue; that wear axes slung on their backs, and adorn their bare necks and arms with collars and bracelets of gold. We see them meeting to discuss laws and frontiers, and feasting late when business is done, and chaffering for knives with ivory handles, for arrows, and saddles, and wadmal, in the booths of the citizens. Through the mist of time this picture of ancient Oxford may be distinguished. We are tempted to think of a low, grey twilight above that wet land suddenly lit up with fire; of the tall towers of St. Frideswyde’s Minster flaring like a torch athwart the night; of poplars waving in the same wind that drives the vapour and smoke of the holy place down on the Danes who have taken refuge there, and there stand at bay against the English and the people of the town. The material Oxford of our times is not more unlike the Oxford of low wooden booths and houses, and of wooden spires and towers, than the life led in its streets was unlike the academic life of to-day. The Conquest brought no more quiet times, but the whole city was wrecked, stormed, and devastated, before the second period of its history began, before it was the seat of a Norman stronghold, and one of the links of the chain by which England was bound. ‘Four hundred and seventy-eight houses were so ruined as to be unable to pay taxes,’ while, ‘within the town or without the wall, there were but two hundred and forty-three houses which did yield tribute.’

With the buildings of Robert D’Oily, a follower of the Conqueror’s, and the husband of an English wife, the heiress of Wigod of Wallingford, the new Oxford begins. Robert’s work may be divided roughly into two classes. First, there are the strong places he erected to secure his possessions, and, second, the sacred places he erected to secure the pardon of Heaven for his robberies. Of the castle, and its ‘shining coronal of towers,’ only one tower remains. From the vast strength of this picturesque edifice, with the natural moat flowing at its feet, we may guess what the castle must have been in the early days of the Conquest, and during the wars of Stephen and Matilda. We may guess, too, that the burghers of Oxford, and the rustics of the neighbourhood, had no easy life in those days, when, as we have seen, the town was ruined, and when, as the extraordinary thickness of the walls of its remaining tower demonstrates, the castle was built by new lords who did not spare the forced labour of the vanquished. The strength of the position of the castle is best estimated after viewing the surrounding country from the top of the tower. Through the more modern embrasures, or over the low wall round the summit, you look up and down the valley of the Thames, and gaze deep into the folds of the hills. The prospect is pleasant enough, on an autumn morning, with the domes and spires of modern Oxford breaking, like islands, through the sea of mist that sweeps above the roofs of the good town. In the old times, no movement of the people who had their fastnesses in the fens, no approach of an army from any direction could have evaded the watchman. The towers guarded the fords and the bridge and were themselves almost impregnable, except when a hard winter made the Thames, the Cherwell, and the many deep and treacherous streams passable, as happened when Matilda was beleaguered in Oxford. This natural strength of the site is demonstrated by the vast mound within the castle walls, which tradition calls the Jews’ Mound, but which is probably earlier than the Norman buildings. Some other race had chosen the castle site for its fortress in times of which we know nothing. Meanwhile, some of the practical citizens of Oxford wish to level the Jews’ Mound, and to ‘utilise’ the gravel of which it is largely composed. There is nothing to be said against this economic project which could interest or affect the persons who entertain it. M. Brunet-Debaines’ illustration shows the mill on a site which must be as old as the tower. Did the citizens bring their corn to be tolled and ground at the lord’s mill?