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  • Writer's pictureRebecca Marks, MA

A Brief History of the Clarendon Building in Oxford

What is the Clarendon Building?

The Clarendon Building is a grand 18th-century building that was designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor as an entrance to the University of Oxford.

Clarendon Building

Clarendon Building History

Oxford’s Clarendon Building has been a student hub since the 18th century. If you visit during term time, you may find students sitting on its steps chatting or busy chaining their bicycles to its railings, ready for an afternoon of hard work in the Bodleian Library. This Neoclassical building sits haughtily abreast of Oxford’s Broad Street, between many of the university colleges. Dating from the early 1700s and designed by architect Nicholas Hawksmoor, the Clarendon Building is Grade I-listed, making it an architectural marvel of exceptional interest and merit.

It boasts many elements typical of 18th-century Neoclassical style. Imposing in scale and symmetry, the library possesses the portico, Doric columns and simple geometric forms associated with Ancient Greek architecture. Atop it can be seen seven of the original nine lead statues of the Muses by artist James Thornhill – the other two are replicas after the originals were damaged. The building was conceived by Hawksmoor, a student of Sir Christopher Wren, as a stately entrance to the university, a metaphorical ‘gateway’ to learning.

Originally, the Clarendon Building acted as the headquarters of the Oxford University Press, the university’s academic printing company, which still runs today. At this time, the building was known as ‘The Printing House’, but later acquired the name by which we refer to it today. This derives from its early patron, Lord Clarendon (otherwise known as Edward Hyde, Lord Chancellor of England), who bankrolled its construction in the 1700s and is commemorated by a statue housed in an alcove on the building’s west side.

In 1829, it was adapted for use by the university police, who made it into a station house with prison cells in the basement. This didn’t last very long, and three years later, the Clarendon Building was converted into the university’s registry, which is how it was used for over a century. Currently, it serves as an entrance to the Bodleian Library as well as housing library staff.

The steps of the building occasionally become the scene of protests by university students. For example, in one well-known episode in 2009, protesters occupied part of the building for seven hours, calling for changes to the university's stance on conflict in the Middle East. More frequently, however, the portico is used as a spot for a quick lunch – somewhere students can eat a sandwich between lectures and catch up with friends.

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