Fons et origo

Well well

My winning blog topic this evening is a hole in the ground.

But not just any old hole in the ground. This hole is smack in the middle of my college and, as the more perceptive among you will already have spotted, a well.

We had no idea it was there. The quad in which it was found, Chapel Quad a.k.a. the Deer Park (our ironic competition with Magdalen College’s Deer Park, which contains real deer), is being re-landscaped, but the well doesn’t appear on any plans, and gets no mention in our records, so it was quite unexpected. There’s no sign of it either on Loggan’s engraving of the college from 1675 (the red line marks the spot), and the college records of works thereafter are pretty comprehensive. That said, there is some writing within the well, the letters H G(?) and 18 (the well is about 5m. deep, so that might be its height/depth in feet, but what do I know), so someone’s been down it at some point. (The lead pipe in the picture is a later addition, presumably dating to whenever it was that the well was capped, and designed to provide pumped water from it.)

Brasenose_College_from_Loggan's_Oxonia_Illustrata

So the well is older than the late seventeenth century, and we also have a terminus post quem: in the fill of the well’s construction trench archaeologists from Oxford Archaeology (source also of the photo at the head of this post) found a single sherd of pottery datable to the fifteenth/sixteenth century.

That places us at a very interesting time. Brasenose College was founded in 1508-12, on the cusp of the reigns of Henry VII and Henry VIII. But the well is close to, and likely closely associated with, a building now known as the Medieval Kitchen (just behind it on Loggan’s engraving), which stands at an odd angle to the other college buildings and is presumed to be a survival from before the foundation of the College. Assuming that the well and the Medieval Kitchen are coordinated, it seems likely that the well predates the College, too.

Before Brasenose College was founded, this part of Oxford was a jumble of smaller academic institutions, the halls which preceded the establishment of the larger, endowed colleges. Then, as now, the vicinity of St Mary’s church, the University Church, was the heart of the University: in 1408-9 as many as thirty-two halls lined (the aptly named) School St. This now survives as the west side of Radcliffe Sq, mainly taken up by one side of Brasenose College. It once extended to the northern wall of the city, until blocked by an extension to the Bodleian Library.

These academic halls were places where small numbers of students would live and receive lectures: they typically had the form of medieval town houses, a ground-to-roof hall with rooms attached, the hall for eating and lecturing, the rooms for study and sleep. On the site now occupied by Brasenose, as the map below (from Volume 1 of the Quatercentenary Monographs produced by the College in 1909) indicates, there were at least ten academic halls, Broadgates, Haberdashers’, Little St. Edmund, St. Mary’s Entry, Salesurry, Brasenose, Little University, Ivy, St Thomas’ and Shield. Brasenose Hall, in existence since the thirteenth century, had its entrance where the current College entrance is, and is its most significant precursor. The first Principal of “The King’s Hall and College of Brasenose” (to give us our full name), Matthew Smyth, had been Principal of Brasenose Hall, and of course the new foundation adopted its peculiar name.

Over the centuries Brasenose College expanded to fill the space occupied by these halls, but the bit of college we’re concerned with, the Deer Park, only really joined the College when laid out as a second quad in the seventeenth century, just a few years before Loggan’s image. On this map of the site of Brasenose in 1500, just before the college was founded, it is marked VII, and this was the location of the academic hall known as St Mary’s Entry (I here acknowledge my debt to my polymathic colleague Jonathan Jones).

image-2 copy

St Mary’s Entry, Introitus Sanctae Mariae in Vico Scholarum in contemporary records, seems to have been a comparatively recent establishment, dating to the second half of the fifteenth century. It and Salesurry Hall (VIII) were granted in perpetuity to one of the founders of Brasenose, Sir Richard Sutton, by Oriel College, its owner, on February 20, 1509/10 (at a rent of 13s. 4d). That “Medieval Kitchen”, meanwhile, is a mystery: “It has a fine open-timber roof, apparently of an earlier date than anything else we have, and has every appearance of being an older building, incorporated into the College,” in the words of Quatercentenary Monograph. My entirely uninformed guess is that the Medieval Kitchen and the hall of St Mary’s Entry are one and the same, and that it and its associated well belong to that time just before the foundation of the College by Royal Charter, at which point most, but evidently not quite all, of what preceded it was flattened and replaced.

MK inside

Medieval Kitchen” (St Mary’s Entry?) interior

I like wandering around this city and imagining the very different appearance it had in the past. It’s a paradoxical thing, since Oxford’s cityscape is already so very old. But Oxford is also a place where building has never stopped, and the centre of the University, Radcliffe Sq, is especially transformed from its appearance 500 years ago. Our “Medieval Kitchen” may well be a fragment of that earlier, more ramshackle University of Oxford. I’m also fascinated by the hidden history of its buildings: I speculated on the history of another part of Brasenose College here, and also imagined the suburb of Oxford where I live when it was still open fields, hosting an encounter between James I and dignitaries from the City and University in 1605.

But there’s nothing more evocative than a well for representing the distant, forgotten past, reaching deep down into the ground beneath us.

P.S. For another blog on the subject, and this one written by an archaeologist who knows what she’s talking about, Francesca Anthony, see here.

MK outside

“Medieval Kitchen” exterior (with the well beneath the metal fencing to the right)

Map4

Map of the College shortly post-foundation, suggesting that the “Medieval Kitchen” is an element retained from St Mary’s Entry.

About Llewelyn Morgan

I'm a Classicist, lucky enough to work at Brasenose College, Oxford. I specialise in Roman literature, but I've got a persistent side-interest in Afghanistan, particularly the scholars and spies and scholar-spies who visited the country in the nineteenth century.

7 responses to “Fons et origo”

  1. decaux2014 says :

    That’s a lead pipe going down to the left of the picture? Presumably to pump water up?

    • Llewelyn Morgan says :

      Yes, good question, and that’s right. I’ve added a sentence to that effect. The archaeologists say it no doubt dates to whenever it was that the well was capped, most likely I suppose when Chapel Quad was being laid out in the seventeenth century.

  2. Dylan says :

    The letters H G, you say… I hereby dub this well “H. G. Well”.

  3. Christopher Dickenson says :

    “H G” in a Well. Sounds like a coded message by a certain time traveller……..

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