I had a sight-filled first day in Oxford, but there is more Oxford and I had another day, Wednesday. Part of my day was spent in bookstores, looking for Christmas presents. Books are my favorite present to give. I suppose it’s because I love them so much.
Book stores abound in Oxford, but I think only one of them qualifies as a “sight” to see. Blackwell’s originated in Oxford. The first, and for many years the main store, opened January 1, 1879, at 50 Broad Street. Its founder was Benjamin Henry Blackwell, the son of Benjamin Harris Blackwell, the first librarian at the Oxford City Library, which opened in 1854. Customers can still see the first bookcase to be fitted into the 1879 book shop, which was 14 feet square.
By 1938, Blackwell’s had taken over numbers 51, 48, and 49 on Broad Street, and in 1966, they opened the Norrington Room in the basement, which had two and a half miles of book shelves. Two years after the Norrington Room, Blackwell’s opened 53 Broad Street to house the bookshop section that stocked art books, graphic novels, posters, and manga publications.
By 2022, Blackwell’s, by now with stores all over the U.K., was suffering a decline in business, like so many bookstores, independent and chain alike. It had been a family-run business for 143 years, but in that year, Toby Blackwell sold the business to Waterstones. The Waterstones chain was founded in London in 1982, and in 1987, their store on Broad Street in Oxford was opened. Joined in 2022, Blackwell’s and Waterstones, operating their separate stores, dominate three blocks of Broad Street in Oxford.
There was another place I wanted to visit on Broad Street – the History of Science Museum, next to the Sheldonian Theater.
These nameless heads, according to yesterday’s guide, degrade over time due to weather effects – rain, snow, sun, etc. – and so the heads that we are looking at are actually the third set. No one is very sure what happened to the first two sets. In the old days, the old heads were just old. The guide speculated that some of them “might have made their way into a few local gardens,” which strikes an authentic note – I would have put one into my garden, if available. Now there is a move to recover the heads and make some kind of display with them. I’m sure you can thank the local tourism organisation for that idea.
Admission to the museum is free and it’s well worth a visit. Two of the most popular displays are the collection of orreries and Einstein’s Blackboard.
The name of the device, “orrery,” is from the 4th Earl of Orrery, Charles Boyle (1674 – 1731). Boyle attended Christ Church at Oxford, was a Fellow of the Royal Society, and a supporter of horology. I had to look that up. According to Merriam-Webster, it is the study of clocks and other time-keeping devices. George Graham, is credited with creating the first mechanical solar system, which is, after all, the largest time–keeping device we know. He named the orrery in honor of his patron, Charles Boyle.
Boyle is buried in Westminster Abbey. He left his collection of scientific instruments and his collection of books to the Christ Church Library, who in turn donated them to the museum. These instruments, particularly his collection of orreries, now make up a significant part of the displays at the History of Science Museum.
A side note I discovered while reading about orreries – the Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics, at the University of Manchester, UK, is home to what is believed to be the largest orrery in the world at 16.4 feet in diameter (5 meters.) That orrery uses a system of 52 brass gears connected to a large crank. The gears keep the planets orbiting in the correct positions and speeds in relationship to each other as the crank is turned. The crank can be operated by visitors, who are thereby orchestrating the movement of the solar system themselves. Needless to say, it has proved enormously popular. I’m sure Charles Boyer would be delighted, and when I get back to the UK, I will be visiting Manchester.
Einstein’s blackboard was the result of three lectures on the Theory of Relativity that Einstein gave in May, 1931. A couple of attendees were instructed to remove – after Einstein finished – the blackboard, intact. They placed a sheet of glass over the blackboard, thereby preserving the formulas written by Einstein himself. Priceless.
After lunch at the Weston Library Cafe and a visit to their book store and gift shop to look for potential Christmas presents, I walked toward Radcliffe Square, past the Bridge of Sighs and the Old Schools quad. The tour had visited those yesterday, but had skirted the Radcliffe Camera on the west side to visit St. Mary’s Passage with the faun doorway, bypassing the All Souls’ College and the University Church of St. Mary. Today I could take the path not traveled yesterday.
I waited until the people left, then stepped forward, trying to find a place where I could position my camera and get a photo of the college without the bars of the gate in the way. A small pickup truck pulled up and a man got out. He was dressed as a groundskeeper or maintenance staff, and put a key in the gate’s lock. I asked if the college was opening. He said no, but seeing my camera, he added that I could come in to take a photo if I would like. People are frequently very nice when they have the chance. I stepped in behind him as he entered. He stood by, clearly waiting for me to be done and he would lock the gate again. I focused, so to speak. The photos are below.
All Souls was endowed by the Archbishop in the 1430s, and the college received its foundation charter from King Henry VI in 1438. All Souls had two purposes. The first was a religious function like the other colleges. The Warden and forty Fellows were supposed to pray in the chapel for the souls of the founders, for those who had fallen in the wars against France, and for “all of the faithful departed.”
The second function was unique among the Oxford colleges. It was a scholarly purpose, but unlike the other colleges, All Souls – as envisioned by the Archbishop – was to be the medieval equivalent of a graduate college, an institution designed for advanced study. From that day to this, with just a few exceptions, the college never has taken in undergraduates.
Fellows were supposed to have studied somewhere else for at least three years, and most of them had a BA when they came to All Souls. At All Souls, they would study for advanced degrees in theology, law (civil or canon, i.e. Church law), and medicine, but the emphasis was on theology and law. The idea was to prepare for service in government or for the Church. Chichele called them “an unarmed militia,” designed to restore national prestige and “good order in the face of heresy at home and stalemate abroad.” In the six centuries’ history, there were lapses, probably meaning the Reformation and the Civil War. Even so, All Souls still awarded degrees to luminaries such as Christopher Wren, William Gladstone, Lord Curzon, and Lawrence of Arabia, among others.
And speaking of Christopher Wren (again,) one of the standout features of All Souls is the sundial that he designed. It sits, facing south, on a building that forms the left side of the quadrangle.
University Church of St. Mary the Virgin – known interchangeably as St. Mary’s or University Church – sits on the south side of Radcliffe Square, a site long occupied by an Anglo-Saxon church. Not much is known about the founding or early history of the church, but by the 1100s, St. Mary’s had become an integral part of Oxford University. Before the Divinity School or the Sheldonian Theatre was built, awarding of degrees was held here, students and academics attended services here, and it was here that the academics would congregate when important business was to be discussed and voted upon.
The oldest part of the church is the tower, which dates from 1270. The spire on top of the tower was added in the early 1300s. A building next to the old church was added in 1320 to provide a meeting room for the congregation of academics on the ground floor, and a library on the upper floor, where it existed until Duke Humfrey’s library was opened in 1488. (Although, it must be said that the Divinity School doesn’t mention it.) The meeting room is now a cafe.
Those are the oldest parts because the old church itself was crumbling by the mid-1400s, worn by much time and much use. The chancel (the forward part with the altar) was rebuilt in the 1460s. The nave (where the worshipers gathered) continued to deteriorate, but was finally rebuilt in the “new Perpendicular style,” completed in 1510. These building projects fully replaced the old church building.
The chancel, according to St. Mary’s pamphlet, is “aligned at a very slight angle from the nave,” symbolizing Christ’s head leaning toward the repentant thief on the cross.” I couldn’t help but wonder if the symbolism was born to cover a design or construction error during building – an early example of reverse-engineering the story to fit the result. But, the pamphlet goes on to say that this is a common feature of many medieval churches, known as a “weeping chancel.” So, there you are.
The years between 1534, when Henry VIII separated the English church from the Roman Catholic church, and the Glorious Revolution of 1688, when the United Kingdom’s last Catholic monarch was deposed, were tense. The religious and political issues surrounding the Reformation, the Church of England, the Civil Wars, the Restoration, and the Glorious Revolution are deeply intertwined. The conflicts involved the Church of England v. Catholicism v. Protestant Reformation v. the monarchy v. Parliament, and the shift of power among them. Because of these, life in Oxford and all of Great Britain was uneasy for more than a hundred and fifty years.
St. Mary’s bore witness to dangerous times during the reign of Mary Tudor, a devout Catholic. Three men of the Church of England were charged with heresy and tried in St. Mary’s: Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer, and Bishops Latimer and Ridley. Latimer and Ridley were condemned and burned at the stake on Broad Street. Cranmer recanted, but several months later, when called upon to submit to the Catholic church, he withdrew his recantation, and was burned at the stake in 1556. There is a marker on Broad Street where the burnings took place, near St. Michael’s at the North Gate.
During the Civil Wars, in 1643, Charles I took refuge in Oxford for a time, making himself comfortable in Christ Church. Oxford supported the monarchy, which turned out to be the losing side – Charles I was later beheaded in London, January 30, 1649.
I left St. Mary’s by their High Street door, which was a source of Protestant ire during Elizabeth I’s reign, due to the statue of the Virgin Mary, and walked a couple of blocks to the Covered Market, still on the lookout for potential Christmas presents, but also a cup of coffee and a soft chair.
I found both in Gulp Fiction, a used book store that serves coffee.
Other places in Oxford: