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  • Writer's pictureOscar Patton, MA

A Brief History of Christ Church in Oxford

What is Christ Church?

Christ Church is a College of the University of Oxford that was founded in the 16th century and whose alumni include 13 British Prime Ministers, writer Lewis Carroll and King Edward VII.

Christ Church College in Oxford

Christ Church History

When Thomas Wolsey, chief advisor to King Henry VIII in the first half of his reign, fell from grace in 1529, the establishment Wolsey had founded as Cardinal College passed into the hands of the king. Henry refounded it as King Henry VIII’s College. In the following decade, the college was again refounded, as the House (or Church) of Christ, augmented by wealth gained from the Dissolution of the Monasteries. Now it was enveloped into the Church of England, which conferred cathedral status on its chapel.

The original quadrangle remains its most imposing and is the largest in Oxford. The turbulence visited by the Tudor court and the Reformation on Christ Church has left its mark: the arches which would have formed a monastic cloister remain unfinished. Now known as ‘Tom Quad’, the quadrangle is crowned with a large vertical gatehouse designed by Sir Christopher Wren. Its bell tower, known as Great Tom, rings 101 times at 9pm Oxford time, five minutes later than all other clocks, for the 100 original scholars of the college, plus one added in the 1660s. Originally this ceremony was performed at midnight, to signal the closure of the college gates, and as it takes 20 minutes for the chimes to ring out, Christ Church’s gates continue to close 20 minutes later than all other colleges, at 20 past midnight.

During the Civil Wars, the deanery of Christ Church became King Charles’s palace, and his Parliament was held in the college hall. (Christ Church, still known today by some as ‘The House’, boasted the largest dining hall among Oxford colleges until the 1870s, with the construction of Keble College, which beats Christ Church by a single smug metre.) Under Wolsey’s guidance, the hall was constructed in sumptuous early Tudor style and has been in continuous use ever since. The roof is the original Tudor hammer-beam ceiling, which was threatened in 1720 when some choristers attempted to burn Christmas decorations in the fireplace. The fire quickly travelled up the decorations, setting the beams alight. You may well recognise the college hall interior as it was one of many Christ Church locations used in the Harry Potter film series. However, Harry Potter’s Gothic aesthetic meant that it had little use for Peckwater Quad, just a short walk away, a stunning instance of Palladian architecture designed by Henry Aldrich.

The hall’s stained-glass windows were finished in 1985, designed by Patrick Reyntiens, with one window celebrating Lewis Carroll and the inspiration for his works, Alice Liddell. Lewis Carroll was a persona of Charles Dodgson, a shy and conservative mathematician who taught at Christ Church for many years; his friendship with Alice Liddell, daughter of the dean, brought to life the astonishing surreal and dark comedy of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Christ Church is unique among Oxford colleges, in that it’s governed by a member of the clergy, the Dean of Christ Church Cathedral. In running the college, the dean is supported by the chapter of the cathedral; in the 19th century, they were joined by the ‘Students’ of the College, who are not undergraduate or graduate students, as their name might suggest, but academics who fulfil the same role as fellows in other colleges.

Christ Church is also the only Oxford college to have its own picture gallery. The gallery contains an impressive range of artwork, including paintings by Annibale Carracci, Jacopo Tintoretto, and Anthony Van Dyck. In March 2020, three paintings, by Carracci, Van Dyck, and Salvator Rosa, were stolen from the gallery, at the start of the Covid-19 Lockdown in England. The frames for these paintings remain, as symbols of the college’s hope for their recovery.

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