A thistle and a rose
I’m doing what I spend a big chunk of the summer doing: staring at the west wall of St Mary’s, Oxford’s University Church.
That’s the view I get as I sit at the computer, waiting for inspiration to hit me: in the photo above, which predates the age of computers just a little, I’m in the curtained window jutting out above the street. Between me and the church is an alleyway, St Mary’s Passage, running from High St into Radcliffe Square, the heart of Oxford University: you can see one side of the circular Radcliffe Camera, a library, that dominates the square, and the Old Bodleian Library behind it.
Needless to say, I’m ridiculously lucky in where I go to work every morning. But I have been known to grumble about the tourists. Twice or three times a day, and in the summer months closer to fifteen times a day, a tour guide will halt his group under my window and explain how C.S. Lewis was inspired to write The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by what he saw in the alleyway beneath me: a Victorian lamppost, a couple of fauns carved at the top of the main door to the building, and an image of the Green Man on the same door which bears a passing resemblance to a lion with a mane. Hence, the theory goes, Aslan, Mr Tumnus and the mysterious lamppost Lucy sees when she first stumbles into Narnia.
How true that story is, I really don’t know. To be honest, after listening to several thousand retellings of it by now I’m beyond caring. But that isn’t to say I’m not fascinated by my surroundings as I sit in that window. The building, known as St Mary’s Entry, is old, dating back to around 1600, but we know very little about its history: for a long time up until the 1880’s it was a pub, the City Arms, and it only came into full use by the college in 1919. That’s more or less all we know.
But there are some clues, and the best of them happen to be in my office. According to An Inventory of the Historical Monuments in the City of Oxford (1939), it contains a number of features that seem to date to the early seventeenth century.
There is an elaborate Jacobean overmantel:
Two fauns that echo the two around the door downstairs, but are much older: the ones outside seem to be Victorian. Here’s one of the fauns inside:
Most intriguingly of all, there is a design around the door of the room featuring roses in the spandrels at the top:
and at the bottom (the authors of An Inventory missed this), thistles:
I suppose all the recent discussion of Scottish independence has made me pay more attention to the roses and thistles, and I had assumed some connection with the Acts of Union in 1706/7, but when I thought about it (with the Jacobean carvings inside the room in mind, especially), the more obvious link was to James I of England and VI of Scotland, a century before the Act of Union, whose coins carried images rather similar to those around my door. James had wanted a full union of Scotland with England, but the issue was as controversial then as now, and they remained sovereign states under one monarch until the reign of James’ great-granddaughter, Anne.
Well, it’s a good excuse to speculate. And whatever I come up with can’t be any less likely than the spiel of the tourist guides.
Once James was in the frame, and a date for the woodwork (independently reached) of the early seventeenth century, what caught my attention was an event I hadn’t previously been aware of, a visit by the king, accompanied by Queen Anne and his eldest son Henry (and the five-year-old Charles, future Charles I), to Oxford at the end of August 1605, two years after his accession to the English throne.
There was nothing low-key about this visit: all Oxford was galvanized to put on the best possible show of itself. We have three extended accounts of it, Rex Platonicus (Oxford, 1607) by the University Orator Isaac Wake, in Latin, which is too busy hymning the king’s praises to provide much in the way of useful detail, but evidently did Wake’s career no harm: he went on to be knighted, an ambassador in Venice and elsewhere, and M.P. for the University of Oxford. What he has to say about James’ arrival will give you a flavour of the whole work: certe ingresso iam Jacobo sensit Civitas quiddam se amplius capere quam quod murorum suorum angustiis comprehendi posset, “For sure, now James had made his entry, the City felt that it held something greater than the narrow compass of its walls could contain.” Flattery will get you everywhere.
Anthony Nixon’s Oxfords Tryumph (London, 1605), is as relentlessly panegyrical as Wake, but a little more concerned with the nitty-gitty of the visit, even though Nixon is seriously confused about Oxford geography. But the real gem of a source for the visit is a document surviving in a manuscript in Cambridge University Library, an anonymous account by a “spy” from Cambridge, The preparacion at Oxford in August 1605 against the comminge thither of King James, with the Queen and young Prince; together with the things then and there done and the maner thereof. This Cambridge witness may, according to John R. Elliott Jr. in The History of the University of Oxford Vol. IV (p.648, n.32), have been one Henry Mowtlowe; but apparently Cambridge sent as many as forty spies “to view in secret and note the whole event” staged by their arch-rivals. For whatever reason, The preparacion at Oxford… provides the kind of realistic detail Wake and Nixon meticulously avoided: the King falling asleep in a long theatrical performance, and waking up to say, testily, “I marvell what they think me to be!”; or the hundred or so “scholars” sent to prison the day before the king’s arrival for some kind of “uncivill” behaviour (apparently involving inappropriate headwear) in St Mary’s church.
The King arrived at Oxford on Tuesday August 27th 1605, riding south from his ramshackle palace at Woodstock. The officials of the University and City of Oxford rode out to welcome him on the Woodstock Road in what was then countryside a mile north of Oxford, and is now the northern suburbs where I live. In a “fair meadow” near Aristotle’s Well (which now lies under a house on the corner of Kingston Rd and Aristotle Lane, but I think what is these days the intersection between Woodstock Rd and Polstead Rd is meant, very near the childhood home of Lawrence of Arabia) there was a bit of timeless town v. gown needle as the city authorities, led by the Mayor, attempted to upstage the University, and were put firmly in their places. It’s great to see that certain things (town v. gown; Oxford v. Cambridge) haven’t changed much in 400 years, and I’ve been enjoying imagining all the houses away as I walk the dog, picturing the Chancellor, Vice-chancellor, “the Doctors, Proctors and certaine Senior Masters … upon their foote-cloath [caparisoned] Horses, verie richlye furnished to meete the King” (Nixon), the speeches to the King from University (in Latin) and City (in English), and the presentation of gifts (the City’s considerably more valuable than the University’s), before James and his entourage continued their progress towards the city.
Just outside the North Gate, James stopped to be entertained by the first of a series of dramatic performances during his four-day stay in Oxford. James was very keen on academic debate, less so (as we’ve already seen) on the theatre. What’s interesting about this short performance is that it bears some kind of relation to Shakespeare’s Macbeth. In front of St John’s College, which stood outside the city walls, three “sibyls” recalled the prophecy given to Banquo that his descendants, the Stuarts, would rule Scotland, and added their own prediction of James’ glorious future. The connection has been made with the three witches’ prediction to Banquo at Macbeth 1.3 (“Thou shalt get kings, though thou be none”), and some have even speculated that William Shakespeare might have been in the audience outside St John’s. From there James made his way across the city to Christ Church, where he and the Queen were accommodated: as they rode from north to south of Oxford, according to Nixon, the left side of the street, between Christ Church and St Giles’ church, was lined with academics in precise order of seniority from Doctors of Divinity at the gate of Christ Church to plain old undergraduates up at St Giles’.
Here’s John Speed’s map of Oxford, as it happens dating to around 1605, though much indebted to earlier maps: south is at the top, so James was approaching Oxford from the bottom right. From St Giles’ to Christ Church is about 1,000 metres.
In total, James spent four days in Oxford, from Tuesday August 27th to Friday the 30th. On the last day, after visiting the Bodleian Library, he stopped in at my college, Brasenose, but I don’t think my roses and thistles can have anything to do with that since in 1605 St Mary’s Entry, while owned by Brasenose, was not an integral part of the College proper, and was let out to tenants. A slightly earlier map of this part of Oxford here, by Ralph Agas, illustrates this, “Brasen nose Coll” stopping well short of “Saint Maries”.
But there’s another possibility. James’ and the Queen’s accommodation was at Christ Church, Prince Henry’s at Magdalen College; in the course of his time in Oxford James visited New College, All Souls’ and Magdalen as well as Brasenose, St John’s and the Bodleian Library. But by far the majority of the king’s time was spent in the University Church, St Mary’s, just across the alleyway from here.
On Wednesday and Thurday, August 28 and 29, James attended “disputations” in St Mary’s, Latin speeches delivered in favour or against propositions by academics in five subjects, Theology, Law, Physic (Medicine), Natural Philosophy (roughly, Physics) and Moral Philosophy. The form of the exercise, formal and rhetorically sophisticated speeches in Latin, had its roots in the medieval university, and reflected the importance that continued to be attached to the fluent and persuasive presentation of academic knowledge, but the topics addressed were entirely contemporary. Since we’re in 1605, that still leaves them, for us, interestingly poised between the familiar and the archaic. During the Physic disputation, for example, the question was addressed, An creber suffitus Nicotianae exoticae sit sanis salutaris, “Whether the often taking of Tobacco be wholesome for such as are sound and in health”; whilst when the discipline was Natural Philosophy a topic of debate was, An opera artis possit aurum conflari, “Whether Golde may be made by Arte.”
James was tremendously keen on these exercises, regularly making his own contributions to the learned disputes, and allowing the sessions to continue in St Mary’s without complaint for as long as five hours: hardly surprising that he fell asleep in the play that followed. But King James clearly left the Oxford men convinced that in the new king they had someone who shared their own intellectual appetites.
Now, my room with its peculiar decorations is in the shadow of St Mary’s church. If the roses and thistles have anything to do with James’ visit (which is undoubtedly a very big “if”, but I’m stumped for another explanation), it may just be that they are part of the general beautification of the city that was undertaken in preparation for the royal visit. However, the Cambridge witness talks, as one would expect, of a polishing up of the externals: “Against the King’s coming to Oxford, it was provided, that all rayles, posts, barrs of windows, casements, and pumpes, should be newly paynted, and all armes were newly tricked. The like was done also in all the streets of the City, and at the severell Gates thereof, with dials and such like; the streets were very finely paved and well swept.”
The decorations in my room are quite invisible from the street, and I can’t help wondering whether this building beside St Mary’s church was prepared for the use of the royal entourage during those two days of “disputation”, for rest, refreshment, or, who knows, a lavatory break. I can’t explain the rose/thistle motif except as some kind of reference to James, while the quality of the carved fauns and the fireplace decoration seem to me to bespeak a room that expected some important visitors.
What I’m letting myself wonder, of course, is whether James VI of Scotland and I of England took his ease, one day 409 years ago, in what is now my teaching room.
But perhaps I should settle for Mr Tumnus.