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  • Writer's pictureOscar Patton, MA

A Brief History of The Divinity School in Oxford

What is The Divinity School?

The Divinity School is a famous medieval building in Oxford that’s hosted lectures, debates and discussions for more than 500 years.

Divinity School Interior

Divinity School History

The Divinity School is Oxford University’s oldest purpose-built structure. In the 15th century, it was used for lectures, oral exams, and discussions on theology, which explains its name. The school’s vaulted ceiling, its most enthralling feature today, is a masterpiece. Designed by William Orchard in the 1480s, it consists of 455 sculptural roof bosses, with four hanging pendants in each bay, and the 455 crests of the families and institutions who donated to support the project. A door in the west wall leads through to Convocation House, meeting place of the senior members of the university, where today they still congregate. Above the Divinity School is Duke Humfrey’s Library, the oldest of the archives that make up the Bodleian. It opened in 1488, and for the next 60 years provided the scholars debating in the Divinity School with a rich arsenal of contemporary texts with which to equip themselves, before stepping up to the Divinity Room pulpits, perhaps with more than a little nervousness, for formal disputations and orations. A nascent humanist tradition was interrupted by a purge of pre-Reformation texts in 1550, but restored by Sir Thomas Bodley’s erection of the Bodleian Library, which allowed access to a rich range of over 2,000 texts in a variety of languages, from across the known world.

Two wooden pulpits stand at the centre of the room, where students and tutors positioned themselves for debates. These could be attended by members of the university, and sometimes also certain members of the public. Next to one of the pulpits is a wooden armchair, carved from the wood of privateer and naval explorer Sir Francis Drake’s ship, The Golden Hind, in which he circumnavigated the globe in the late 16th century. There’s also a chest, once belonging to Sir Thomas Bodley, the founder and patron of the Bodleian Library.

As the university grew, and visits from the reigning monarch became increasingly common, the Divinity School became the standard venue in which the king or queen would hear academic debates, almost always in Latin, by the most precocious scholars of the day. Many of these, hoping that their education might bring them preferment for a court position, were in a sense auditioning.

In 1625, the House of Commons used the Divinity School as a temporary meeting place, when the plague ran so rife in London that the Palace of Westminster was deemed too dangerous. 19 years later, after King Charles I had been forced by Parliamentarian troops to move his court to Oxford, the Royalist House of Commons convened again in the Divinity School, while the Royalist House of Lords used Convocation House.

The north door of the Divinity School was a much later addition, built in an elaborate Gothic style by Sir Christopher Wren in 1669, for the purpose of providing access to his recently completed Sheldonian Theatre. Today, the theatre hosts talks and concerts, but has always been used by the university for its graduation ceremonies. In recognition of this fact, Wren’s doorway shows a cartouche on the exterior, with an open book whose inscription, in Greek, is from the Gospel of Luke: Jesus as a child goes missing, until ‘they found him sitting in the midst of the doctors’. Every graduate of the university, having been in the midst of the doctors for a few years, passes under these words before the Vice-Chancellor (or their representative) declares them official graduates.

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