Merrie England – At Oxford

Who could resist the temptation of walking in the gentle morning through a country pleasant to the eye, and with one who knew and loved every step of the way and was both lively in conversation and keen in observation ? So, passing up the Swan lane, we began our early journey. A lovely day, the sun veiled now and then with fleecy clouds, birds singing in the hedges and trees by the wayside, the grass by the road fresh and springy to the tread, and everything such as to make the heart beat with delight and the mind dwell upon pleasant reminiscences and mirthful suggestions.

The road runs about three miles till it crosses the famous Fossway, the great Roman street already spoken of in these pages. The traveller to Moreton turns by the Porto Bello and walks where the imperial legions once rode. A. little distance on is an inn, the Golden Cross, down in a hollow by the old tramway-track from Moreton to Stratford. Once it was a busy place; now the sign is undecipherable and an ass eats the weeds which grow about the front door. The steep bit of hill leading down by it is somewhat awkward for drivers of heavy wagons; even lighter vehicles have to be guided carefully. In Egyptian darkness ‘a trap laden with three happy-hearted fellows was once dragging its way up. They were laughing and joking, when suddenly one of them cried out, ” Where is the horse ?” Some part of the harness had broken, and the horse was quietly walking out of the shafts ; another step, and the riders would have been thrown out, and perhaps killed. It is a place where necks have been broken. There is, indeed, an uncanny suspicion that some who have died there come back again ; any way, most people who go by, especially in the evening, find it necessary to refresh their spirits at the Golden Cross. Another high hill lies before them, on the right side of which is the village of Stretton. Pluck a handful of wild flowers by the way and watch the honey-bee settling on them utterly regardless of your presence. In the little brook crossing the road have been found trout; indeed, in days gone by boys used to tickle them there. The operation is simple. Watch a fish lying in the mingling light and shade near the bank or under the bridge; lie down noiselessly on the earth and slip the bared arm into the water under the fish ; tickle him: he seems to enjoy the operation, and gradually rises to the surface ; then, when near enough, strike the hand hard and fling him out on the bank. Neither Dame Juliana Berners nor Izaak Walton has anything to say upon this pastime ; notwithstanding,the trout is “a right deyntous fyssh,” and tickling is second only to angling.

But we must move on.

This is Moreton-in-the-Marsh a small town consisting of one wide street half a mile long and containing a church, a manufactory and a railway-station. We may not tarry ; here comes the train.

Away across the quiet Oxfordshire country; pleasant, if not romantic. Once we catch a glimpse of Blenheim, the seat of the duke of Marlborough. We have been there. The grounds are exquisite, gardens and park perfect; the house is heavy and ugly. Close by is Woodstock, the town of cheerful memories, where kings dwelt and once Fair Rosamond was concealed in a maze. Here Henry III. was nearly murdered by a false priest ; the wretch was caught, and torn to pieces by wild horses. Here Edward the Black Prince was born and the princess Elizabeth imprisoned by her sister Mary. The Puritans were troubled by the tricks of the ” merrie devil,” who turned out to have more of earth about him than ghosts generally have. Not one stone of the royal palace now remains ; only the name and the memories abide. Chaucer would not know his old home were he to go back again; Alfred the Great and Henry II. would be lost.

The words of Camden concerning Oxford have the same force and truth now as they had when written in the reign of James I.: ” A delicate and most beautiful city, whether we respect the neatness of private buildings, or the stateliness of publick structures, or the healthy and pleasant situation. For the plain on which it stands is walled in, as it were, with hills of wood, which, keeping out on one side the pestilential south wind, on the other the tempestuous west, admit only the purifying east, and the north, that disperses all unwholsome vapors.”

The city and the university are of considerable antiquity, but both have been shorn of much of their reputed age. Tradition says that the city was founded about a thousand years before the birth of Christ by Memphric, king of the ancient Britons, and was named Caer-Memphric. Other legends connect it with Brute the Trojan and the Druids, but these stories are utterly without foundation. In like manner the university has been ascribed tò Alfred the Great, and some have claimed that the place was a seat of learning in pre-Roman times ; these stories are also inventions.

It was in or before the ninth century that a religious house was established some few miles from the then ancient Dorchester, the see-town of the great Mercian diocese, near to the shallow channels close by the confluence of the Cherwell and the Isis. The house was dedicated to St. Frideswyde, and around it grew a village. A school for youth also sprang up in connection with the priory. In the latter part of the ninth century it is probable a mint was established there, for coins have been discovered of that date with the legend ” Oksnaforda.” The earliest undoubted mention of the town is in the English Chronicle, under the year 912. From that time Oxford speedily rises in importance. The kings were frequent visitors ; Edward the Elder died there in 924 and Edmund Ironsides in 1017, which gave rise to the idea that it was an ill thing for a king to enter Oxford. The place was besieged and burnt by the Danes in 1010, and in 1013 submitted to Sweyn. Here, in 1018, the great Canute held a Witanagemot in which the laws of Edgar were adopted, and in 1036 here Harold I. was crowned. During the reign of Edward the Confessor the town continued to flourish, and in 1067 made a bold, though unsuccessful, resistance to William the Conquerer. When taken by him, he gave it to Robert d’Oily, who about 1071 built a castle. In 1086 the town contained seven hundred and twenty-one houses, of which four hundred and seventy-eight had been so damaged by the siege nineteen years earlier as to be untaxable, and of the mansions one hundred and ninety-two were habitable and one hundred and six waste. The population was then about seventeen hundred. But under the strong government of D’Oily the place recovered itself, and from that time on occupied a high position in the history of England. The seat of the Mercian bishopric had long since been removed to Lincoln, and it was not till the Reformation that the diocese of Oxford was founded. Of the part the city took in the great struggles of the reigns of Stephen and Charles I. it is unnecessary to speak. Loyalty and conservatism have ever been the distinguishing features of Oxford.

It is probable that the school connected with St. Frideswyde’s house continued and increased. It was, like all monastic schools, simple in its aim and small in its scope. The scholars were largely boys. However, it is not till the reign of Henry I. that we have certain information of the existence and popularity of the schools at Oxford. Why teachers and scholars gathered there we do not know, nor does the community come into prominence before the reign of John. In 1238 the schools are spoken of as the University of Oxford, though it is not known that there was any charter of incorporation. Up to 1268 the university had no buildings of its own ; then the colleges began to come into being, and Oxford was recognized as the second university of Christendom. Indeed, the time came when it outshone its rival of Paris.

Notwithstanding the comparatively recent origin of the city and the university, one of their first attractions is that of age. There is that subtile charm in the very Atmosphere which only a noble history and a delightful romance can give. One becomes conscious that this place is the glory of England, enwoven in all that is great and soul-quickening in her life, the home and source of her intellectual and social power, the shrine of exalted and excellent scholarship, and the abode of that beneficent spirit which, while ever pressing onward into the new, lovingly and gently cherishes and seeks to preserve all that is good and true in the old.

A pity it is that the visitor enters the city by the rail-way, for, though the Great Western station stands on the site of the ancient abbey of Osney, neither it nor the way into the town has any attraction. On the contrary, an unfavorable impression is apt to be made, and, instead of a quiet, studious-looking place, one is disappointed with the bustle and noise of a modern one. Drive along the Cowley road and over Magdalen bridge, and nothing can exceed the satisfaction which Oxford can give. Stand on the old bridge, quaint with its balusters, and look upon the still, shaded waters of the Cherwell a narrow stream peaceful beneath the summer sunshine, its smooth surface gently rippled by a punt or boat occasionally passing up or down, and its onward flow suggesting its course from the hills of Warwickshire to the royal river, by ancient Banbury and the Confessor’s birthplace, Islip, into Oxford itself. The building on the right side of the street is Magdalen College, the first of many noble structures, and the most beautiful of them all. It was built by Bishop Waynflete of Winchester about 1480, the society having been formally chartered by him some years earlier, and was dedicated as ” Seinte Marie Maugdalene College to the honor and praise of Christ crucified, the Blessed Virgin his Mother, St. Mary Maugdalene and the various apostles and martyrs, the chief of whom are patrons of the cathedral of Winchester.” Among its scholars have been many bishops and states-men, not the least of whom was the great Wolsey. Its position in the university is supported by its renown and its wealth an annual income from endowments of over forty-one thousand pounds and the presentation to forty-two benefices. Its most distinguishing architectural feature is the stately tower. Here on the morning of May-day an ancient and pleasing ceremony is performed. On the summit of the tower assemble singers in surplices and members of the university. “As the last stroke of five dies upon the breeze all heads are reverently uncovered, and the singers, amid deep silence, pour forth the solemn old Latin hymn in honor of the Holy Trinity, ` Te Deum patrem colimus ;’ ” after which, the pealing bells welcome in the spring.

It is not possible in the few pages which can be given to Oxford to mention, much less speak of, its many stately buildings, its halls, colleges and churches and their many historical and architectural features. There is not a corner in the older part of the city which is not full of interest. Beyond Magdalen, High street opens in all its dignity and beauty. On the right in rapid suc-cession come St. Edmund’s Hall, Queen’s College, All Souls’ College, St. Mary’s church and All Saints’ church, while at the back of these, like choice jewels hid away in careful seclusion, are such places as New College, Hartford College, the Radcliffe and Bodleian Libraries, the theatre, Brasenose, Lincoln, Jesus and Exeter Colleges. The other side of High street has the schools, University College and St. Mary’s Hall, with Merton, Corpus Christi and Oriel Colleges beyond. High street is crossed at right angles with Cornmarket and St. Aldate’s streets, St. Martin’s church standing at the inter-section. Some distance to the north from this cross, known as Carfax, are Baliol, Trinity and St. John’s Colleges, the street widening out into the noble tree-lined thoroughfare of St. Giles. Hereabouts is the ” Martyrs’ Memorial,” a Gothic structure after the fashion of one of the Eleanor crosses, in memory of Latimer, Ridley and Cranmer. The three martyrs are represented by statues placed in the niches. On the north side is the following inscription :

” To the Glory of God, and in grateful commemoration of His servants, Thomas Cranmer, Nicholas Ridley, Hugh Latimer, Prelates of the Church of England, who, near this spot, yielded their bodies to be burned, bearing witness to the Sacred Truths which they had affirmed and maintained against the errors of the Church of Rome, and rejoicing that to them it was given not only to believe on Christ, but also to suffer for his sake, this monument was erected by public subscription, in the year of our Lord God, 1841.”

Since the memorial was built, while the honesty of Latimer and the piety of Ridley have remained undenied, the character of Cranmer has been severely and to his discredit examined, and the canse for which they died widely questioned. There is no little irony in the whole thing when seen in the light of facts. Oxford has not been altogether faithful to the spirit which dictated the inscription and raised the monument. The martyrdom is supposed to have taken place some short distance from the cross, near the corner of Broad street. Latimer and Ridley were burnt on October 16, 1555. From the tower of St. Michael’s church, close by, Cranmer saw them perish ; he did not hear what the world has never forgotten since the words of good old Latimer : ” Be of good comfort, Master Ridley, and play the man. We shall this day light such a candle by God’s grace in England as I trust shall never be put out.”

It took three loads of wood-fagots and one of furze to burn these men ; the total cost of the execution was twenty-five shillings. Before the year was out, Dr. Palmer, one of the most zealous of their persecutors, became a Protestant, and in the following July he suffered the same penalty. On the 21st of March, 1556, a dull, rainy day, Archbishop Cranmer was burnt on the same spot, the same stake, chain and staple being used, and the cost amounting to twelve shillings. The bailiffs of the city charged the government sixty-three pounds, but the zeal which was vigorous enough to send men to the stake was not so ready to pay the charges thereof. Lord Williams of Thame made himself conspicuous by drowning the archbishop’s words with his shouts of ” Make short ! make short !” It was not long before the reactionary party discovered their mistake in laying hands upon so high a dignitary as Cranmer. They erred fatally: from the time the blood of the primate of England was shed the return of England to the Roman obedience became impossible. Rome stung many a noble soul in those days, but she lost her sting when she hurried to death the man who, worthy or unworthy, was undoubtedly at the head and front of the English Reformation.

Times were rude and rough, and we must admit the fact that Protestants persecuted Romanists as readily as their opponents persecuted them : these very men who were burnt on the street at Oxford had helped and sanctioned the martyrdom of others. Both sides regarded heresy as the most dangerous of all sins ; stealing meant the loss of property, and murder the loss of life, but false doctrines involved the ruin of the immortal soul. They believed what they professed : what more laudable work, then, could there be than the silencing for ever of men who were leading people to everlasting perdition ? We shiver at the recital of the extreme deeds done; we could not believe them in any way excusable did we not know that even in this our day the most amiable feelings and the most friendly inter-course possible do not exist between those who follow Rome and those who follow Geneva. Which hates and dreads the other most it is not easy to say.

In St. Giles’s street is held every September “the holiday of the season,” a large business and pleasure fair a veritable relic of other times. The good saint was an anchorite in the forest of Languedoc in the seventh century. There he was supported by a hind which came daily to give him its milk ; in a similar manner ravens fed Elijah at Cherith, and one of the supporters to the arms of the city of Edinburgh is the figure of St. Giles’s hind. He was the patron-saint of cripples and was held in great veneration, many churches being dedicated to his memory. A good citizen of the Scotch capital once bought at a great price an arm-bone of St. Giles. All about the hermit himself has long since been forgotten by the people who frequent this famous fair, if, indeed, they ever knew of him. As of everything else of by-gone days, the cry is, ” The fair is not what it was.” The glory has not wholly departed, but it is only the old, gray-haired folk who can tell the story of its lost splendor of the times when from all parts of the country came the carriers’ wains laden with men and women, and rustic music livened the place, and stalls and shows were many and well frequented, and the ale ran like water.

We turn back to Carfax, and, passing down St. Aldate’s street, enter the noble quadrangle of Christ Church. This is the largest college in Oxford and was founded by Cardinal Wolsey. Everything about it bears witness to the magnificence of the founder a man as renowned for his tastes in art and architecture and for his liberality in the founding of schools as for his ability and integrity as a statesman. The massive tower contains, on the outside, niches, in one of which is a statue of the cardinal, and inside a remarkable staircase leading up into the glorious dining-hall. This hall is second only to those of Westminster and Hampton Court Palace. Its roof is lofty and open ; upon the walls hang portraits of Christ-Church men a host such as not only a college, but a nation also, may well be proud of. Henry VIII., Queen Elizabeth and Cardinal Wolsey are there ; Bishop Fell of rhythmic memory, and old Schoolmaster Busby, who would not take off his hat before the king in the presence of the boys lest they should imagine there was a greater man in the realm than he, and so discipline come to naught ; the three divines who read the Liturgy in the time of its prohibition under Cromwell ; and many others famous in the pages of history.

A few steps from the hall is the cathedral, an old building partly founded upon the site of St. Frideswyde’s chapel. In its tower are “the bonny Christ-Church bells.” Outside are the noble and exquisite walks, one along the banks of the river, another leading to the water, and another one of the loveliest avenues in England called the Broad Walk. Many are the attractions of. Christ Church ; some will admire “Great Tom,” the famous bell, and others will love the quiet, studious air of the place.

Oxford has a history as strange as it is interesting, but farther into that we may not venture. Even as we walk through its quaint streets, so fragrant with the aroma of olden time, we have to content ourselves with picturing it when in its medieval glory a glory not greater than that it has now, only more romantic. But there is Godstow, two miles away, in the nunnery of which the fair and frail Rosamond spent her last days. There is Cumnor Hall, three miles away, where Amy Robsart died murdered, some said, by her unworthy husband, the earl of Leicester. And there are other spots, each with its own story inwoven in the greater thread of England’s life. Oxford has had a noble past; its present is of rarest splendor, and its future, edged with the radiance flowing down the centuries, will have a magnificence unequalled.

Among the people who in years gone by were known at Oxford was one who, though a plain, simple country shopkeeper, had no small share of ready wit and keen, sharp thought. He lived in a town some twelve or more miles away, and to his shop he added the work of carrier. Twice a week, on Wednesdays and Saturdays, he drove to Oxford and transacted such business as was entrusted to him. In the city he put up at the ” Crown,” an old hostel with which Shakespeare was somehow or other mixed up. He was a little man, stout, ruddy, with small blue eyes, and wore a broad-brimmed beaver, a velveteen coat and. knee-breeches. His humor was great; such a fact as that which happened in the elections of this summer, in which two Irish members, Mr. O’Hea and Mr. O’Shea, failed to get reelected, would have furnished him with fun for hours. In the early days of the Oxford movement, he, being a man of extraordinary common sense, proclaimed himself in fullest sympathy with the leaders of the party, and many a battle he fought behind his counter, in his wagon and over his ale concerning a celibate clergy, fasts and services on week-days and candles in the sunshine. But he was confounded when his rector refused a white model of a horse such as veterinary surgeons have in their offices, which he in the enthusiasm of his soul gave to the church. Why doves, eagles and lambs should be al-lowed in the church, and not horses, was a puzzle to him equal in mystery to the fact that ministers in their sermons speak of roses, lilies and stars, but never of onions or potatoes. Some of the stories he told jogging along the country road from Oxford are too good to be forgotten. There was the squire whose keeper caught a poacher fishing in his waters. The man had a fish in his possession, and the squire sent him to the lockup for the night and had the fish stuffed and baked for his own breakfast. The same squire’s wife grew thin under her husband’s economy; her dresses were being continually taken in by the dressmaker, and the dressmaker was being continually taken in by the squire. We remember the old story-teller as he passed along the streets on market-days, touching his hat to a collegian, spying out ancient friends and meditating upon or making a bargain. He knew the corners of the city. A merry soul, dead and gone now.

And this is the sad thing about Oxford, perhaps more than elsewhere, the breaking up of old ties and the constant change of faces. The streets and the buildings remain so much the same that one feels the people should remain also a short acquaintance, and they change. Some men become fixtures the heads of the colleges, the hosts of the inns, the carriers from the neighborhood and the shopkeepers. Memories gather around them; and when they go, they are more missed than one can tell.

The visitor will find Oxford in every sense satisfying —a noble city, an atmosphere of scholarship, splendid in buildings,

” Majestic in the moss of time,”

and in every way worthy of the praise which it has received.