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  • Writer's pictureAlex Beeton, PhD

A Brief History of the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford

What is the Sheldonian Theatre?

The Sheldonian Theatre is a 17th-century theatre that hosts university graduations and ceremonies.

Sheldonian Theatre

Sheldonian Theatre History

The Sheldonian Theatre is a beautiful building both inside and out. Built in the 1660s by the renowned architect Sir Christopher Wren, it’s a glorious work of Neoclassical architecture, modelled on the Roman theatre of Marcellus. The building, which seats around a thousand in a circular theatre, boasts a magnificent interior featuring a ceiling painting by Robert Streater which depicts the triumph of the Arts and Sciences over moral vices.

The building reflects the meeting of some of Oxford’s finest minds. Wren was Savilian Professor of Astronomy at Oxford; his design of the roof, cleverly supported only with braces and screws rather than more obvious and intrusive wooden crossbeams, was inspired by the work of John Wallis, the Oxford Professor of Geometry. The entire work was largely financed by Gilbert Sheldon, Archbishop of Canterbury and a former warden of All Souls College. Sheldon gave around £2 million in today’s money and his name to the theatre.

The purpose of the building was to offer the university a new place for ceremonies such as graduations and degrees. Traditionally, these had taken place at the University Church of St Mary, but in the 1660s there was a desire for a new and secular location, since the rowdiness of the celebrations was deemed unsuitable for a church. The first such event took place in the newly opened Sheldonian in July 1669, with huge numbers of people in attendance and celebrations lasting well into the evening.

The major events of the Oxford calendar take place in the Sheldonian. Students beginning their university journey attend their matriculation (or formal entry into their studies) here, dressed in ‘subfusc’, special dark formal clothing that includes an academic gown and mortar board. When they finish their degrees, students then return to the Sheldonian to graduate.

The Sheldonian is also the location for the Encaenia. This ceremony, from the Greek word for a ‘festival of renewal’, consists of handing out honorary degrees and commemorating the university’s benefactors. The day begins with the attendees, in full academic dress, enjoying peaches, strawberries, and champagne at a college before walking through town to the Sheldonian in a grand procession. Once at the theatre, the degrees are handed out accompanied by formal speeches, before moving onto further meals and parties.

The Sheldonian’s beauty and quintessentially academic look have made it one of the most easily recognisable Oxford landmarks. Today, it’s used for a number of functions as well as its traditional university ceremonies. The theatre is the home of the Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra and throughout the year students, scribbling away in the nearby Bodleian Library, can hear musicians rehearsing for upcoming concerts. Despite its venerable age, the Sheldonian is still a place full of energy and life.

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