There is in Oxford much that is not as old as it looks. The buildings of the Bodleian Library, University College, Oriel, Exeter, and some others, medieval or half medieval in their style, are Stuart in date. In Oxford the Middle Ages lingered long. Yon cupola of Christ Church Is the work of Wren, you towers of All Souls’ are the work of a still later hand. The Headington stone, quickly growing black and crumbling, gives the buildings a false hue ‘of antiquity. An American visitor, misled by the blackness of University College, remarked to his host that the buildings must be immensely old. “No,” replied his host, “their color deceives you; their age is not more than two hundred years.” It need not be said that Palladian edifices like Queen’s, or the new buildings of Magdalen, are not the work of a Chaplain of Edward III., or a Chancellor of Henry VI. But of the University buildings, St. Mary’s Church and the Divinity School, of the College buildings, the old quadrangles of Merton, New College, Magdalen, Brasenose, and detached pieces not a few are genuine Gothic of the Founders’ age.
Here are six centuries, if you choose to include the Norman castle, here are eight centuries, and, if you choose to include certain Saxon remnants in Christ Church Cathedral, here are ten centuries, chronicled in stone. Of the corporate lives of these Colleges, the threads have run unbroken through all the changes and revolutions, political, religious, and social, between the Barons’ War and the present hour. The economist goes to their muniment rooms for the record of domestic management and expenditure during those ages.
Till yesterday, the codes of statutes em-bodying their domestic law, tho largely obsolete, remained unchanged. Nowhere else in England, at all events, unless it be at the sister University, can the eye and mind feed upon so much antiquity, certainly not upon so much antique beauty, as on the spot where we stand. That all does not belong to the same remote antiquity, adds to the interest and to the charm. This great home of learning, with its many architectures, has been handed from generation to generation, each generation making its own improvements, impressing its own tastes, embodying its own tendencies, down to the present hour. It is like a great family mansion, which owner after owner has enlarged or improved to meet his own needs or tastes, and which, thus chronicling successive phases of social and domestic life, is wanting in uniformity but not in living interest or beauty.
Oxford is a federation of Colleges. It had been strictly so for two centuries, and every student had been required to be a member of a college when, in 1856, non-collegiate students, of whom there are now a good many, were admitted. The University is the federal government. The Chancellor, its nominal head, is a non-resident grandee, usually a political leader whom the University delights to honor and whose protection it desires. Only on great state occasions does he appear in his gown richly embroidered with gold. The acting chief is the Vice-Chancellor, one of the heads of Colleges, who marches with the Bedel carrying the mace before him, and has been sometimes taken by strangers for the attendant of the Bedel. With him are the two Proctors, denoted by their velvet sleeves, named by the Colleges in turn, the guardians of University discipline.
The University Legislature consists of three housesan elective Council, made up equally of heads of Colleges, professors, and Masters of Arts; the Congregation of residents, mostly teachers of the University or Colleges; and the Convocation, which consists of all Masters of Arts, resident or non-resident, if they are present to vote. Congregation numbers 400, Convocation nearly 6,000. Legislation is initiated by the Council, and has to make its way through Convocation and Congregation, with some chance of being wrecked between the academical Congregation, which is progressive, and the rural Convocation, which is conservative. The University regulates the general studies, holds all the examinations, except that at entrance, which is held by the Colleges, confers all the degrees and honors, and furnishes the police of the academical city. Its professors form the general and superior staff of teachers. Each College, at the same time, is a little polity in itself. It has its own governing body, consisting of a Head (President, Master, Principal, Provost, or Warden) and a body of Fellows. It holds its own estates; noble estates, some of them are. It has its private staff of teachers or tutors, usually taken from the Fellowss,, tho the subjects of teaching are those recognized by the University examinations. . . .
The buildings of the University lie mainly in the center of the city around us. There is the Convocation House, the hall of the University Legislature, where, in times of collision between theological parties, or between the party of the ancient system of education and that of the modem system, lively debates have been heard. In it, also, are conferred the ordinary degrees. They are still conferred in the religious form of words, handed down from the Middle Ages, the candidate kneeling down before the Vice-Chancellor in the posture of medieval homage. Oxford is the classic ground of old forms and ceremonies. Before each degree is conferred, the Proctors march up and down the House to give any objector to the degree-an unsatisfied creditor, for examplethe opportunity of entering a caveat by “plucking” the Proctor’s sleeve. Adjoining the Convocation House is the Divinity School, the only building of the University, saving St. Mary’s Church, which dates from the Middle Ages. A very beautiful relic of the Middle Ages it is when seen from the gardens of Exeter College. Here are held the examinations for degrees in theology, styled, in Oxford of old, queen of the sciences, and long their tyrant. Here, again, is the Sheldonian Theater, the gift of Archbishop Sheldon, a Primate of the Restoration period, and as readers of Pepys’s “Diary” know, of Restoration character, but a patron of learning.
The Clarendon was built with the proceeds of the history written by the Minister of the early Restoration, who was Chancellor of the University, and whose touching letter of farewell to her, on his fall and flight from England, may be seen in the Bodleian Library. There, also, are preserved documents which may help to explain his fall. They are the written dialogs which passed between him and his master at the board of the Privy Council, and they show that Clarendon, having been the political tutor of Charles the exile, too much bore himself as the political tutor of Charles the king. In the Clarendon are the University Council Chamber and the Registry. Once it was the University press, but the press has now a far larger mansion yonder to the northwest, whence, besides works of learning and science, go forth Bibles and prayer-books in all languages to all quarters of the globe. Legally, as a printer of Bibles the University has a privilege, but its real privilege is that which it secures for itself by the most scrupulous accuracy and by infinitesimal profits.
Close by is the University Library, the Bodleian, one of those great libraries of the world in which you can ring up at a few minutes’ notice almost any author of any age or country. This Library is one of those entitled by law to a copy of every book printed in the United Kingdom, and it is bound to preserve all that it receives, a duty which might in the end burst any building, were it not that the paper of many modern books is happily perishable. . . . We stand in the Radcliffe, formerly the medical and physical library, now a supplement and an additional reading-room of the Bodleian, the gift of Dr. Radcliffe, Court Physician and despot of the profession in the times of William and Anne, of whose rough sayings, and sayings more than rough, some are preservcd in his “Life.” He it was who told William III. that he would not have His Majesty’s two legs for his three kingdoms, and who is said to have punished the giver of a niggardly fee by a prediction of death, which was fulfilled by the terrors of the patient. Close at hand is the Ashmolean, the old University Museum, now only a museum of antiquities, the most precious of which is King Alfred’s gem. Museum and Medical Library have together migrated to the new edifice on the north side of the city.
But of all the University buildings the most beautiful is St. Mary’s Church, where the University sermons are preached, and from the pulpit of which, in the course of successive generations and successive controversies, a changeful and often heady current of theology has flowered. There preached Newman, Pusey, and Manning; there preached Hampden, Stanley, and the authors of “Essays and Reviews.” . .
On the north of the city, where fifty years ago stretched green fields, is now seen a suburb of villas, all of them bespeaking comfort and elegance, few of them overweening wealth. These are largely the monuments of another great change, the removal of the rule of celibacy from the Fellow-ships, and the introduction of a large body of married teachers devoted to their profession, as well as of the revival of the Professorships, which were always tenable by married men. Fifty years ago the wives of Heads of Houses, who generally married late in life if they married at all, constituted, with one or two officers of the University, the whole female society of Oxford. The change was inevitable, if education was to be made a profession, instead of being, as it had been in the hands of celibate Fellows of Colleges, merely the transitory occupation of a man whose final destination was the parish. Those who remember the old Common Room life, which is now departing, can not help looking back with a wistful eye to its bachelor ease, its pleasant companionship, its interesting talk and free interchange of thought, its potations neither “deep” nor “dull.”
Nor were its symposia without important fruits when such men as Newman and Ward, on one side, encountered such men as Whateley, Arnold, and Tait, on the other side in Common Room talk over great questions of the day. But the life became dreary when a man had passed forty, and it is well exchanged for the community that fills those villas, and which, with its culture, its moderate and tolerably equal incomes, permitting hospitality but forbidding luxury, and its unity of interests with its diversity of acquirements and accomplishments, seems to present the ideal conditions of a pleasant social life. The only question is, how the College system will be maintained when the Fellows are no longer resident within the walls of the College to temper and control the younger members, for a barrack of under-graduates is not a good thing. The personal bond and intercourse between Tutor and pupil under the College system was valuable as well as pleasant; it can not be resigned without regret. But its loss will be compensated by far superior teaching.