Joy in numbers

Frewin chronogram

I do like a chronogram, an inscription (preferably Latin, for me) that encodes a date. In fact so big a fan am I that my one regret, should the proposal to remove the memorial to Cecil Rhodes on the High St facade of Oriel College in Oxford be realised, is that it would also obliterate a rather nice chronogram.

This example at Oriel can illustrate the principle of the exercise. The inscription, E LARGA MVNIFICENTIA CAECILII RHODES, “Out of the bountiful munificence of Cecil Rhodes”, is in perfectly natural Latin, but if one adds up all letters which could also be Roman numerals (highlighted here: E LARGA MVNIFICENTIA CAECILII RHODES), one gets 50 + 1,000 + 5 + 1 + 1 + 100 + 1 + 100 + 100 + 1 + 50 + 1 + 1 + 500 = 1,911, or 1911, the date when the Rhodes Building, on the facade of which this memorial is set, was completed.

But it’s another, less controversial, Oxford chronogram I’m concerned with today. Frewin Hall is a grand house in the centre of Oxford now incorporated into an annexe of undergraduate accommodation for Brasenose College. From 1887 to 1907 it was rented from Brasenose by Charles Shadwell, friend of Walter Pater and future Provost of Oriel. Over the main entrance to the house is written FREWINI CAROLVS LAETAT SHADWELLIVS AVLAM, with the numerically-meaningful letters, as I hope you can see at the top, highlighted. 5 + 5 + 1 + 1 + 100 + 50 + 5 + 50 + 500 + 5 + 5 + 50 +50 + 1 + 5 + 5 + 50 + 1,000 = 1888.

This strikes me as a particularly sophisticated example of the genre. The reading of an upper-case double-u as two Vs is witty, and the line is both metrical, a dactylic hexameter, and perfectly symmetrical in the disposition of the Latin words.

Which makes odder the things that have been (and are still) said about it.

An Oxford Childhood by Carola Oman describes the very privileged existence of the daughter of a Fellow of All Souls before the First World War. From 1908 the Oman family rented Frewin Hall from C. B. Heberden, the Principal of Brasenose who preferred to live on the main site. (Heberden was a Classicist, and before becoming Principal my predecessor-but-three.) At a remove of nearly seventy years (An Oxford Childhood was published in 1976), Oman slightly misremembers the details as she describes the inscription (p. 106):

There was never any chance of us buying Frewin Hall. It had belonged to Brasenose College since 1580. By New Year 1908 it had stood empty for seven years. Dr Heberdon, who had taken a lease from Dr Shadwell, who had gone off to become Provost of Oriel, had at last decided against retiring there. Shadwell had been an Oxford eccentric. He had rebuilt the west wing and added a sundial with what was called a chronogram to his facade. This read–

FREVVINI CAROLVS LAETAT SHADVVELLIVS AVLAM

People who knew said he had not got it quite right. Instead of saying that Frewin Hall delighted Charles Shadwell, it was saying that he delighted Frewin Hall. There was no doubt he had loved the house, and particularly his spacious lawn. If he detected a weed he would drop a massive bunch of keys as an order that it be instantly removed.

My question is, did Shadwell, as Oman suggests, really get it wrong? It would certainly be odd if such a perfectionist (the keys), who delighted in the eccentric precision required to compose a chronogram, even making perfectly symmetrical hexameters out of them (it’s hard enough in prose, experto credite), admitted an elementary mistake in Latin.

Let’s look at that Latin. What it certainly means is “Charles Shadwell brings joy to the Hall of Frewin”, and this has not seemed an appropriate sentiment to attach to the front door of a beloved house. Here is someone else, claiming a close acquaintance with Shadwell even (and being spectacularly patronised by the author James Hilton FSA), interpreting it in a way that the Latin won’t admit, but seems more natural: “Charles Shadwell rejoices in Frewen’s Hall.” But that would require the deponent laetor with an ablative, not the active laeto governing a direct object that we have.

I am here to rescue Shadwell’s reputation, in respect of his Latin at least. And I think the key to understanding that laetat lies in Shadwell’s activities at Frewin.

The Hall dates back to about 1600, although its main cellar is much older, circa 1100, a remarkable survival of a wealthy Norman house that stood on the site. (There’s a fascinating analysis of the building here.) The name Frewin comes from Richard Frewin, who in the eighteenth century somehow managed to combine being a physician and Camden Professor of Ancient History, and gave the building a whole new wing. But Shadwell made his own significant additions to the building, bringing in the leading architect of nineteenth-century Oxford, Thomas Jackson, to add a full upper storey, in place of an attic, to the west wing above the main entrance. In November 1887 Shadwell informed the Bursar of Brasenose that he had “now settled with Jackson on the plans for the new storey at Frewen Hall” (details from Elizabeth Boardman’s research here.)

Jackson’s work at Frewin presumably kicked in after Christmas, and thus was carried out in 1888, as indeed the Arabic-numeral date under the sundial on the new facade indicates. (The sundial with its initials of Shadwell and his coat-of-arms is evidence also of his singular self-importance…) Our other witness reads the date in the chronogram as marking the year in which Shadwell took up residence at Frewin, but surely it’s rather to this work of renovation that it refers. The natural way to read Frewini Carolus laetat Shadwellius aulam, “Charles Shadwell brings gladness to Frewin Hall”, seems to me a reasonable expression of what architectural renovation achieves, at least given the constraints of the chronogram form. In other words Shadwell is telling us that he is bringing joy to Frewin, not Frewin to him, but what he’s talking about is how he turned the building into a much happier example of domestic architecture. I agree, as it happens, but you can decide for yourselves if he (and Jackson) succeeded, from images before the intervention (the main entrance is to the left),

Frewin pre Jackson

Royal Collection Trust https://www.rct.uk/collection/2922954/frewen-hall-oxford

and after:

Frewin after

The more attentive among you, incidentally, will have noted that the college containing the chronogram of Caecilius Rhodes and the college of which Shadwell became Provost are one and the same: Oriel. Shadwell was Provost of Oriel from 1905 to 1914, and we can safely assume he was responsible also for E LARGA MUNIFICENTIA CAECILII RHODES, and I would hazard for many other of these monumental brainteasers there may be scattered around Oxford.

Ll. (aged 51)

Some more images:

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Frewin Hall pre-renovation, from the Illustrated London News (1859)

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A drawing by Thomas Jackson of his proposed alterations

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Unconscionable misinformation on the wall of the present-day Frewin Hall

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Carola Oman and her dog Patch in front of Shadwell’s chronogram

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.

2 responses to “Joy in numbers”

  1. Ross McPherson says :

    Should I laugh or cry? I had never heard of chronograms till now, nor ever guessed what kind of esoteric shenanigans and sleuthing you cap-and-gown fellows get up to in and around architecture! The article is an absolute delight, and your conclusions compelling.
    So much for the joy. Now the sour taste – I suppose the push to have the Rhodes memorial removed is coming from the ‘progressive’ Left, because he is now on the wrong side of politics, being in the grave long enough to be a bit on the nose. Somewhat like ISIS, isn’t it! Obliterate all evidence of dissenting opinions. So let’s dig him up and scatter his bones to the winds, with an anathema hot on their heels. Then let’s dynamite the pyramids and colosseum – or are they too old to remove? Is it any wonder that people are drawn to the likes of Trump in reaction against shenanigans like these! Hopefully I am wrong and they only want to remove the memorial in case it drops on passersby – them, if he’s still alive enough to cause these tremors in their delicate minds.

  2. Ross McPherson says :

    One thing you left out maybe – if Shadwell really was clever, he must have known that ‘laetat’ would perplex a lot of people, and he was being deliberately mischievous. This would be easy to prove if the word can easily be replaced with something else, Even a Latin dummy like me can replace it without difficulty: ‘legat’/leaves as his legacy. He might still be living there in 1888, but he has made his mark by then, and that’s his legacy to Oxford – a better house than when he moved in. So why did he want to puzzle and maybe even provoke people with ‘laetat’? Maybe because, being an eccentric, he had puzzled and provoked them already. Just a thought.

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