As I coast toward 150 posts over 10 years (maybe a point to retire the blog…), this one brings together a few of its recurrent preoccupations, chronograms, Oxford, poetic metre, and it’s all, needless to say, in Latin.
The route to the cafe within the Town Hall in Oxford takes you past a display of the Oxford City Plate, the silverware used in Oxford civic ceremonies. Among the items is one I learned about last week from an unlikely source, the journal Chemistry and Industry in its June 24, 1961 issue, pp. 889-90. It is a piece of late Victoriana, and like a lot of that category of silverware looks like the FA Cup, and is a comparable kind of size. But the “Sheriff’s cup” was gifted to the City by Charles Lancelot Shadwell in 1908, according to the notice alongside it, and “is used to serve wine at Mayor-making ceremonies. The guests pass it around the table so everyone can drink from it.” I doubt the latter tradition persists, and I also have a hunch (see below) it isn’t quite what it was designed for.
On the bell of the “cup”, in any case, are the City of Oxford’s arms, and in the upper register a Latin text, on one side CIVITAS OXONIAE GAVDET IN SCABINO and on the other (currently out of sight) ET CRATERA PORRIGIT VOBIS PLENVM VINO — taken together, “The City of Oxford takes joy in its Sheriff, and offers you a mixing bowl full of wine”. (The word cratera maybe suggests a receptacle from which wine could be drawn, rather than any kind of actual cup.) But anyone to whom the name of Charles L. Shadwell is familiar will not be surprised to see that some of the letters of this inscription are larger than others.
Here it is again with the inflated letters in bold:
CIVITAS OXONIAE GAVDET IN SCABINO || ET CRATERA PORRIGIT VOBIS PLENVM VINO
It is, need I say, a chronogram, a text that additionally encodes a date by including letters that can also serve as numbers totalling up to a significant date. This can’t be done in English, which uses Roman script but not Roman numerals, but can be done in Latin (and Greek, Hebrew, and languages that use Arabic script, on which see this fascinating article, with some beautiful examples, by Mehr Afshan Farooqi).
In this case the letters doubling as numerals, CIVIXIVDICICIIVILVMVI, add up, counting each letter independently, to 1894, the year, his “Schrieval year”, when Shadwell served as Sheriff of Oxford, an entirely ceremonial position as far as I can gather. The cup was evidently something he had made for himself, then gifted to the City in 1908, by which time he was Provost of Oriel College.
But I mentioned metre, and this for me is the most interesting aspect of Shadwell’s cup. Of the chronograms of Shadwell I am aware of, one is a dactylic hexameter and the other, on the facade of the Rhodes Building in Oriel, is not metrical. The example in Kingsdown, Deal, which I have attempted to link to Shadwell, is another hexameter. The Latin on the Oxford City cup is certainly verse, but of a very different kind.
Civitas Oxoniae gaudet in Scabino/ et cratera porrigit vobis plenum vino has a medieval form, trochaic, but ruled by stress and rhyme, not by syllable quantity as in classical poetry. The most familiar example of this Vagantenstrophe or goliardic verse is the twelfth-century Confession of the Archpoet, which you can read more about here, and which begins Estuans intrinsecus ira vehementi / in amaritudine loquar mee menti, “Boiling inwardly with intense anger/ I shall address my mind in bitterness”. This specific poem was very familiar: I’ve come across no less than three Oxford takes on the Confession from the end of the nineteenth century in the last week, though with the poem attributed to Walter Map, as it once tended to be.
But my main interest in poetic metre has always been in the “ethos” of its various forms, what difference it makes to the meaning of poetry if it is couched in hexameters, hendecasyllables–or goliardic. In those other late Victorian goliardic poems, in every case (two by A. D. Godley of Omnibus fame, and the other included in James Williams’ 1901 collection The Oxford Year), the metre accompanies accounts of youthful misbehaviour and general fecklessness true to the character of medieval goliardic poetry.
In the case of the cup, opting for the medieval form suits well enough the function of the item inscribed: the goliardic poet was a heavy drinker, or claimed to be. In the same poem the Archpoet expresses his memorable ambition, meum est propositum in taberna mori/ ut sint vina proxima morientis ori, “It is my purpose to die in a tavern, so that there may be wine right by my mouth as I die”. But I think goliardics speak most of all to Shadwell’s perception of his role as Sheriff of Oxford, his sense of it as a medieval role in a medieval city. The non-classical word scabinus sets the tone. There may well be a social charge too when a University man celebrates his grand house in a classical hexameter and his role in city affairs in scurrilous goliardics: Shadwell was fastidious, self-important and an undoubted snob (there’s an anecdote of his dealings with City officials at the bottom).
But Charles L. Shadwell was also responsible for creating some rather beautiful epigraphic Neo-Latin. I think I have now identified examples on stone, wood and silver.
If anyone knows of comparably peculiar Latin inscriptions, with elongated Is and Vs etc. and dating between around 1870 and 1920, I’m on the lookout for further potential Shadwellograms, so do please let me know!
I did indicate in my last blog that an item in the Proceedings of the Cotteswold Naturalists’ Club was intriguing me, and here it is. As far as I can tell from my perusal of these Proceedings (you too are welcome to peruse them here), this “Ode to the Cotteswold Society” (the Cotteswolds or Coteswolds are what we now call the Cotswolds, the comparatively elevated country that reaches roughly from Oxford in the east to Stroud in the west) was written probably in very early 1850, and is a jocular plea to be admitted as a member of the Society. It advertises itself a parodical version of Horace’s Integer vitae ode, 1.22.
The author, I confidently believe, is W. Henry Hyett, of whom this is an interesting account, mentioning his love of Horace, short career as a Whig MP for Stroud, and Fellowship of the rather more eminent Royal Society. His interests match well those of the Cotteswold Naturalists’ Club, which is a jolly-sounding group that gathered at hostelries in towns across the western Cotswolds to discuss the geology, history and natural history of the area. It is pleasing to note how happily the scientific interests of Hyett and his fellow members coexisted with the classical educations also much in evidence. Knowledge of Horace here functions, in a way readily paralleled, as a mark of elite status. “Clubbable himself, Horace granted access to the club”, I have written in my Horace: VSI draft, never expecting to find quite such a literal illustration.
Below is a translation of the text and notes (it is set out in the Proceedings to resemble a contemporary annotated classical text), and below that my notes on Hyett’s poem and notes. There is much I am unsure about, and I’ll have made mistakes. I welcome any further ideas.
I have a special reason for enjoying Hyett’s parody. The places he refers to have become familiar to us in the last three years while my elder son has attended a special college in Nailsworth, while living most of the year in Stonehouse (there’s a map elucidating this and Hyett’s geography at the bottom). He will probably be moving on from there this year, but we have grown very fond of the area and the people who have looked after him so brilliantly. With my Horace hat on, it tickles me, too, that an ode of Horace based in the Sabine country can provoke recognition in Srinagar and be replayed in Stroud.
- An ostracism was an Athenian mechanism for deciding if any citizen should be expelled from the city for ten years, and Hyett suggests melodramatically that a failure to give him membership of the Society would be tantamount to exile.
- The reference in “Steam” may be to the fiendishly complex manner in which Gloucester became connected to the growing railway network. “Baker” is Thomas Barwick Lloyd Baker, president of the club, and a figure very active in efforts to rehabilitate (particularly younger) criminals.
- Beneath Hiatus lies Hyett, but the sense of the line is difficult, and I wonder if there is also some play on “hiatus” meaning a pause or gap.
- A traditional rhyme. See the map below.
- Michael Wood, now best known as a Services on the M5.
- Very good…
- “Champagne mousseux” is what we would simply call “Champagne”, heavy drinkers of which are notoriously prone to gout.
- Lutetia Parisiorum being the classical name for Paris.
- Reading impulsa.
- Ovid, Met. 15.44, from the story of Myscelus, founder of Croton.
It can’t be claimed that Irene Frude’s memorial has a very pretty setting.
Off the south side of Little Clarendon St, just north of the centre of Oxford, is a covered entrance serving 25 Wellington Square. This building has graduate flats on the upper storeys and shops on the ground floor. The covered space is used for parking and for the rubbish bins.
On the eastern wall of this unappealing space, very easily missed, is a small cast-iron plaque, 27” x 7”, with the following text:
HOC IN LOCO IRENE FRVDE
COLLEGII KEBLENSIS ALVMNORVM BENIGNISSIMA ALTRIX
XXXV FERME PER ANNOS COTIDIE SVPPEDITAVIT
CVIVS REI BENE MEMORES EIDEM ALVMNI
HOC MONVMENTVM FACIENDVM CVRAVERVNT.
A.D. IV KAL. NOV. MCMLXXVI
IN THIS PLACE IRENE FRUDE,
MOST KINDLY FOSTER-MOTHER OF THE STUDENTS OF KEBLE COLLEGE
PROVIDED HUGE BREAKFASTS FOR ALMOST 35 YEARS
IN FOND MEMORY OF WHICH THE SAME STUDENTS
HAD THIS MEMORIAL MADE
OCTOBER 29 A.D. 1976
A bin fire “around 2008” has caused the plaque to buckle slightly, and one side is discoloured. Vehicles are constantly parked close against the wall to which it’s attached, and it’s consequently very hard to find it when you’re first looking for it, and to get a decent photo when you do.
I’m indebted to Antigone Magazine for drawing my attention to something that I’ve ridden past unknowingly countless times. I am also more grateful than words can express to the Oxford University Archives, especially Anna Petre, for information both about the inscription and the circumstances of its installation. It is described in R. H. Adams, Latin inscriptions in Oxford, a useful book vitiated by occasionally dodgy Latin, and on this excellent page which I nevertheless think gets a bit confused about Bedford House School and the site of Mrs Frude’s lodging house.
Let’s clear that up first.
Mrs Frude’s lodging house, which she ran from 1936 until 1972 and which was an example of a licensed lodging house for students, a phenomenon now long since extinct, was at 130 Walton St., just around the corner from Little Clarendon St. Some years before, 130 Walton St had briefly accommodated Bedford House School, run by John H Thorogood, before he had a purpose-built school built a little way up Walton St at 122, where it still stands.
While running the school at 122, Thorogood lived at 135 Walton St (he was there with his family in the 1881 and 1891 censuses, and his wife was still there in 1901; he died in 1902). He called 135 Walton St. Bedford House (the name is over the front door), and that is the house pictured on the webpage about Mrs Frude that I mentioned earlier. In the 1881 census it is clearly a “school house” for boarders: lots of “scholars”, schoolboys, are listed as living there alongside the family. But Thorogood no longer had anything to do with 130 Walton St., and there can be no glimpse of it on Google Maps because 130 Walton St. no longer exists.
Behind Little Clarendon St. and Walton St. lies Wellington Square, where the offices of Oxford University stand, and which was previously the location of the city workhouse. The University bought the site in 1865 (information gleaned from this interesting document), and it was developed on 99-year leases which fell in around the mid-1960s, at which point the University commissioned the architect Leslie Martin to replan the entire area. In the event, the University Offices and the graduate accommodation in 25 Wellington Sq. were all that was realised of Martin’s plan, but the latter building did for 130 Walton St.
Before the new buildings Walton St. (itself in this stretch the product of those 99-year leases) began south of Little Clarendon St. at No. 128, and 128-31 inclusive, four houses, were demolished to make room for the west end of 25 Wellington Sq. (and another space for bins and parking). A detail below of an aerial photo that predates the demolition, from the Oxfordshire County Council image collection, shows the corner of Walton St. and Little Clarendon St. The last four houses on the left are no longer there (compare with the image above), and third from the end of the row is 130.
The construction of 25 Wellington Sq. was supposed to run from the spring of 1973 to the middle of 1975, but there were the inevitable delays, and it was only finally completed in July 1976, receiving its first residents the following month. This last information is from Anna Petre in the University Archive, and she also found letters indicating that Mrs Frude moved out of 130 Walton St. and “into alternative accommodation … provided by the University” on November 8 1972 (apparently a flat in Divinity Rd.), in advance of the demolition of the building in January 1973. The minutes of the Buildings Committee make reference in September 1974 to a letter from a graduate student at Keble by the name of John Findon requesting permission, along with other ex-lodgers of Mrs Frude, to install “on the wall of the building that will eventually replace her house” a plaque in honour of someone who had a “reputation … second to none among Oxford landladies”. By November it had been agreed that an inscription, in Latin, would be placed “in the undercroft through which those entering the building from Little Clarendon Street will pass”, and a provisional text had been proposed. The text given is at some remove from the final text, and the committee also decided to send the submitted text to the Corpus Christi Professor of Latin “for an opinion”, which means that we can safely credit Robin Nisbet, Professor from 1970 to 1992, for some, at least, of the elegance of the final product.
It was evidently at the earliest possible opportunity after the opening of the new building, October 1976, that the inscription was actually inaugurated. It sits some little distance from the site of Mrs Frude’s house, it’s fair to say: the satellite image above marks 130 with a blue arrow and the plaque with a red. A location for it near the entrance to the flats at their west end would have expressed hoc in loco more faithfully, but the Buildings Committee minutes imply that it was deemed preferable to place it inside the building, and where it might be seen by anyone using one of the entrances to the flat complex–and it might be so seen if there weren’t vehicles constantly parked up against it.
It deserves to be noticed, as it is charming, in content if not, after the fire, in physical appearance.
I like its Roman date, literally “four days before the Kalends of November”, with a wry A.D. just in case we’re misled. I like the play on the word alumnus, meaning a pupil as well as an old member of the college (this last a US usage but familiar enough in the 1970s). It hovers between these two senses in its two appearances, but also, in its basic sense of nursling, connects with altrix for Irene, a nurse and her foster-children—as Armand D’Angour suggests, the root in alo, “feed, nourish”, brings in the food dimension: she feeds, altrix, and they get fed, alumni. Meanwhile ingentissima ientacula is just superb, so funny yet so full of affection. A shabby old memorial in a shabby location, but such warmth.
John Findon informs me that by the time he was Mrs Frude’s lodger (I think in 1971-72) she wasn’t able to conjure up the “huge breakfasts” any more, but did produce “magnificent Victoria sponges for us as a treat.” Irene Frude died in April 1977 at the age of 78. I expressed the hope in an earlier version of this blog that this gave her time enough to learn how much her alumni loved her, and I learn from John that he and his friends took her to see the plaque, so she did.
I’ve been teaching Juvenal’s satires for the first time in a while this term, and it reminded me of something.
Oxford, a satire is a version of what is probably Juvenal’s most celebrated satire, No. 3 on the city of Rome (it’s between this one and 10, on the vanity of human aspirations, at any rate). Oxford was first published, privately and anonymously, in 1910 and republished in 1922, and in it Rome is replaced as the target of criticism with “Oxford, whose fogs and enervating air/ The brain befuddle and the health impair” — the University specifically. It is an extremely accomplished piece of work, a successful reinvention of Juvenal, and that entails being just as mordantly disagreeable as the Roman satirist.
Satire is a troubling and controversial form, one that sets out to cause offence and yet was also considered by the Romans an expression of their most cherished civic virtues. The satirist is well characterised by Alvin Kernan as a figure who “believes that the case of man and society is desperate, and he applies appropriate therapeutic treatments: the whip, the scalpel, the strappado, the emetic, the burning acid. But each of these cruel methods of treatment suggests that the man who uses them exclusively enjoys his work. The more powerfully the satirist swings his scourge — and he usually does so with considerable gusto — the more he will appear to have a marked sadistic tendency” (The Cankered Muse: Satire of the English Renaissance , 26). Juvenal, as Kernan makes clear, is the archetype of this savage satirist.
In this version of Juvenal from 1910, too, no feelings are spared. Here, for instance, the target is an academic like me (though students cop it too):
Vile is the tradesman that our purse has stole,
But viler still the Don that steals the soul.
The young enthusiast comes with heart aflame
For wisdom, learning, poetry, and fame;
He sees the hills of Rome in every dream,
And peoples with Greek nymphs each English stream.
'Let me drink deep,' he cries, 'of ancient lore,
And make my soul what Shelley's was before!
All joys I'll barter such a prize to gain!'
Poor youth, thy prayer how noble! yet how vain!
Can pigs grow wings and fly, unwonted birds?
Can the salt sea grow black with grazing herds?
Can the lean thistle blossom into figs?
Or Oxford aught produce save fools and prigs?
Doomed now, deposing reason from its throne,
To spend whole days with boredom and with Bohn,
To read each commentator's endless reams,
And learn for one Greek word two German names,
To hear some greybeard, chattering and perplexed,
Destroy all meaning and corrupt the text,
Or, reading out whole volumes on one word,
Hold 'nunc' in scorn, and show why 'tunc's' preferred;
Compelled in sterile toil whole months to waste,
Nor e'er to use his judgement, wit, or taste,
[He hears the Don primaeval views impart,
Scribbles them down, and learns them off by heart. 1910]
He goes to lectures; only hears a part;
Miswrites half that; and learns his note by heart.
This has Juvenal’s aggression and rhetorical point, his mock-elevated style, and his ability also to make us laugh at things we know we shouldn’t laugh at, the latter perhaps the very essence of satire.
Well, what I’m going to do here is fill in some hitherto missing details about the author of this work, anonymous at its publication, and study some of the nastiest material in a bit more detail, identifying ways in which they both tie Oxford to 1910 or 1922 and illustrate the precision of its reworking of Juvenal.
Juvenal’s third satire features the long complaint of Umbricius, a friend of the satirist who has had enough of Rome and is leaving. In Oxford Patroclus is the satirist’s friend, and the scene of the satire is transferred from the Porta Capena at the edge of Rome, from where the Appian Way began, to Oxford railway station. Patroclus has been sent down by “B_ll_l’s Dons“, but insists that he’s better off this way.
"Though Oxford hath dismissed her generous son For toils neglected and for tasks undone, Small cause of triumph to my foes I leave, Least cause of all for you, my friends, to grieve. No theme for pity on this joyous day Am I who leave, but rather you who stay; Pent in so vile a 'varsity and town, Their fate is hardest who are not sent down."
The end of Oxford mimics Juvenal, too, both Umbricius and Patroclus imagining they will meet the satirist again when he goes home, in Juvenal’s case to Aquinum (3.318-22):
"But thou, my friend, the partner of my heart, When that time comes that thou must hence depart, O come, and read thy satires to thy friend, And mock at Oxford, safe in Ponders End!"
In the body of the poem the irritations of a frustrated Roman are replaced by scenes from undergraduate life. These cleverly parallel Umbricius’ concerns at times, dreadful student journalism standing in for the debased literary life of Rome, for instance — another respect we’ll consider later.
I first came across this version of Juvenal in Martin Winkler’s fine Penguin Classics collection Juvenal in English from 2001, where the author is identified as Geoffrey Howard, but Winkler appears to have no further information about him. Geoffrey Howard clearly was the author, as will emerge, but I’m not quite sure how his name came to light. It seems to be something to do with the second publication in 1922, when the author identified himself as G.H., and his address as “Temple”, and there is evidence here that his identity was known in some circles in 1929. The author of this copy of Oxford, a satire, Charles W. Baty, who inscribed it in around 1920, was equally confident:
Confusion reigns to the present day, nevertheless, among antiquarian book dealers and in bibliographical works such as Minor British Poets, 1789-1918 (Davis, Calif., 1983-6), Vol. 4 no. 302, the issue being, aside from the anonymity of the original publication, an unfortunate coincidence that a work with exactly the same title, Oxford, a satire, had been published by Sir Andrew Caldecott in 1907. The minimal authorial indications provided by the 1922 edition of Howard’s satire, at any rate, initials and a legal connection, are the key to a fuller biography.
By 1922 Geoffrey Howard was a practicing barrister, called to the Bar at the Inner Temple in 1919. He was a quietly successful lawyer, a County Court Judge from 1952 until his retirement in 1963, but he had broader interests than the Law, as we shall see. He died in 1973 at the age of 83.
At the time of his composition of Oxford, a satire Howard was an undergraduate at Christ Church, Oxford, studying Modern History between 1908 and 1911 (my thanks to Judith Curthoys, Archivist at Christ Church, for those details). One thought I had after working out his dates was that between an undergraduate publication in 1910 and a republication in 1922 most likely lay service during the First World War, and he did indeed serve in France as an officer in the Royal Fusiliers. A poignant memorial on the Christ Church site records the death of his older brother Arthur (who had attended the same college, and served in the same regiment). Arthur Howard had been severely wounded in 1917, but died of his wounds only in 1923. Three poems by Geoffrey Howard feature in the wartime publication Soldier poets, songs of the fighting men (1916), important context for the poetry of Sassoon and Owen, as explained by P. Norgate, “Wilfred Owen and the Soldier Poets”, The Review of English Studies 40 (1989), 516-530, and they offer strong incidental confirmation that Howard’s talent lay in comic verse.
The most significant thing I’ve discovered, though as always not necessarily ahead of someone else whom I’ve missed, is that the author of Oxford, a satire, alongside his legal career, enjoyed modest literary celebrity between the wars, and that his post-war publications betray a clear affinity with his Oxford juvenilia/juvenalia.
The evidence (starting from a hint in a posting on Ancestry.com) comes from a short obituary of Howard in The Times on May 31, 1973 and a personal reminiscence by the eminent lawyer Graham Swanwick on June 8. In addition, one of Howard’s pupils was Elizabeth Lane, the first woman High Court Judge in England, and her autobiography, Hear the other side (Audi alteram partem) (1985), has a little more detail on him. It emerges, at any rate, that under the pseudonym “Marmaduke Dixey” Howard wrote extensively for Punch and produced, alongside two satirical novels, a collection of poems, and an extended humorous poem, published in the early days of contract bridge, on how to play that game. The collection, Words, Beasts and Fishes (1936), consists of amusing animal fables displaying the same deftness and wit as Oxford. His model in this book is interesting, too, the Fables of John Gay, one of the Golden Age of English satirists sometimes referred to as Scriblerians. The Beauties of Bridge (1938) similarly suggests the mock heroics of Pope in The Rape of the Lock, while the cover of the 1922 edition of Oxford imitates in language and presentation an eighteenth-century Scriblerian publication. To imply as this cover does that Juvenal is the fons et origo of at least one thread of English verse satire is of course uncontroversial.
Well, if I have reunited “Marmaduke Dixey” with his earlier composition in and about Oxford, that is one thing achieved. But I did say that Oxford also successfully captures some less palatable aspects of his model. Any authentic reinvention of Juvenal is going to be distasteful by the very nature of Juvenalian satire, as I’ve suggested, a poetry of critical abuse that respects nothing and is indiscriminate in whom it offends. Here, by way of illustration, depressingly predictable, both satirists, 1,800 years apart, engage in a passing, almost casual, anti-semitism, and in both cases this oldest and most persistent of prejudices attributes to Jews a reprehensible commitment to money-making.
But perhaps the key component of Juvenal 3, on the evidence of its many imitators, at least, is the more extended attack that it contains on a people, the Greeks, who by their migration to Rome, it claims, combined with the deceitful character that the satire attributes to them, have made the city uninhabitable for “authentic” Romans like Umbricius. A trend in the numerous post-Renaissance versions of Juvenal’s poem is to replace those Greeks with whatever contemporary group offered the best equivalent scapegoat. For Samuel Johnson and his rather snappier predecessor John Oldham (1653-83), both of whom relocate Juvenal’s satire from Rome to London (Johnson’s London was first published in 1738), it was the French who had ruined it, while in Edward Burnaby Greene’s The Satires of Juvenal Paraphrastically Imitated, and Adapted to the Times (1763), Juvenal’s non possum ferre, Quirites,/ Graecam Vrbem, “I cannot endure, fellow Romans, a Rome turned Greek”, becomes “unmoved I cannot see/ poor England sink a Scottish colony.” Passages from all these authors can be found in Winkler’s excellent anthology.
Oxford, a satire also targets an out-group responsible for Patroclus’ alienation from Oxford, and while Howard’s victims feature only momentarily, it is an interesting target he chooses. He has been pillorying student publications:
Yet, O my friends, these wretched rags forgive! Who could write English where few English live? Dark, alien tribes have driv'n our native far, And all the Ganges flows into the Cher. Such Ethiopian hosts the 'High' adorn, Such crowds of Rajahs jostle in the 'Corn,' That should the timid Briton come in sight They start, affronted, at a face that's white!
The ingenuity here, for instance the transformation of iam pridem Syrus in Tiberim defluxit Orontes, “Long since has the Syrian Orontes flowed into the Tiber”, is undeniable, and as offensive as Juvenal’s xenophobia. A further point, though, is that, whether Howard considered this or not, the target matches Juvenal’s Greeks quite precisely, since the presence of these Indian and African students at Oxford was as much a consequence of empire as the Greek inhabitants of Rome.
Sumita Mukherjee’s Nationalism, emigration and migrant identities: the England-returned (2010) is an interesting study of Indian students in the U.K. in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, in particular for providing the perspective of those students, often from personal archives. One detail will convey Oxford’s Juvenalian exaggeration: in the Lee-Warner “Report into the Position of Indian Students in the UK” of 1907 (not officially published until 1922), out of 700 Indian students at universities in the UK the vast majority were in London, while in Oxford there were a sum total of 32 (Mukherjee p.17). Numbers at Oxford did increase rapidly after 1906, when the requirement to sit Responsions, entrance examinations including compulsory Latin or Greek, were relaxed (English could be taken instead of the ancient languages, Mukherjee p.22). But they were never as large as Oxford, a satire implies, needless to say. A pie chart reproduced by Mukherjee (p.24) giving the proportions of “Dominion and Indian” students at UK universities or related institutions gives 45% for Indians and 37% for Africans (including 11% Egyptians, counted separately), incidentally, bearing in mind Howard’s reference to students from Africa.
The aim in making British higher education available to students from India (and African colonies) was to give the elites of India and elsewhere in the Empire an investment in the continuation of British rule, especially if, as in many cases, they returned to government service such as the Indian Civil Service (ICS). In practice, though, an inevitable consequence of gathering together students from all over India as Indians was to promote nationalist discussion and feeling (Mukherjee 47), additionally raising the reasonable question in the minds of these students why suitably qualified Indians should not be running their own country. It is possible that when Howard was writing his satire the status of Indian students was particularly on the agenda, as in July 1909 an Indian student in London, Madan Lal Dhingra, had assassinated William Curzon Wyllie, a high official of the British Indian government. This story also emerges from the same milieu, on a warmer note.
What we have in Oxford, a satire, then, is an early work by a writer who would achieve some prominence between the wars, and it offers some evidence why. Howard/Dixey was a poet steeped in Classical and eighteenth-century satire, and achieved an idiom — mock-elevated, rhetorically pointed, hyperbolic — that captures unusually well the Juvenalian voice, and targets its victims just as disproportionately as his notorious Roman model. I encourage my students to see that Juvenal, though writing in the early second century AD, was often rehearsing highly conventional lines of attack dating back as far as his great precursor, C. Lucilius, at the end of the second century BC. Details of Juvenal’s exposure of the Greekness of Rome in Satire 3 closely (and self-consciously) evoke complaints that Lucilius had made — but then Romans had been worrying that they were turning into Greeks for as long as they’d been Romans, and satire was always a privileged vehicle for Rome’s deepest self-expression and anxieties.
Howard was in obvious ways applying a critical template of hoary antiquity to Oxford University, but some of the most Juvenalian details of this poem also offer glimpses of circumstances in 1910, not least the irrational anxiety, expressed in spectacularly racist terms, that the colonised were usurping the privileges of the coloniser.
A final thought, though, returning to the indiscriminate character of satire in the tradition of Juvenal. There are a few minor changes between the 1910 and 1922 editions of Oxford, a satire, and four lines added to the 1922 version are perhaps worth noting. It is a supplement to a list of tedious visitors an undergraduate can expect to his rooms, and “Miles” is the Latin miles, “soldier”:
No longer to my rooms shall Claudius stroll, Drink all my whisky, and explain his soul, Or, sitting hourly in my easy chair, Twiddle his thumbs and wonder if they're there! The melancholy Miles shall no more Spread out his matches and re-win the war In tones so tedious, and with slang so stale, You'd rather face the battle than the tale. 
There is truly nothing, and nobody, that Juvenal and his imitators are unprepared to satirize, it seems.
What follows is sheer speculation, but I should start with an explanation.
Last summer I went with my family to Deal in Kent for a week, and one day, intrigued by theories about Julius Caesar’s landing place in 55 and 54 BC, as one is bound to be, I took a long walk down the coast from Deal to within sight of the White Cliffs at Kingsdown.
In Kingsdown I found myself walking past something fine and unexpected, a beautifully presented Edwardian house by the sea with a Latin text carved in its façade.
The text reads si mea laeta placet casa tu precor hospes adesto, or with punctuation, si mea laeta placet casa, tu, precor, hospes, adesto; in English literally, “If my happy cottage is pleasing, do, I pray, stranger, be here”, or more fluently, “If you like my cheerful cottage, stranger, do please come in.” You may notice, though, that some of the letters are larger than others (I pick them out in bold): SI MEA LAETA PLACET CASA TV PRECOR HOSPES ADESTO. These larger letters, understood as Roman numerals, add up (I + V + L + L + C + C + C + D + M) to 1906, apparently the date when the house was constructed. In other words, it’s a chronogram, about which I blogged here, while here I pondered a connection between this chronogram in Deal and the examples from Oxford (including my own college, Brasenose) that I’d discussed in that blog. I so pondered because this example in Deal is a great piece of work, the nicest I’ve seen. Like the chronogram at Brasenose it is in verse, a dactylic hexameter, and it would be an extremely elegant composition even if it weren’t also a dating formula.
Well, I did some rapid research on the internet yesterday, and I started with one slighter stronger assumption, and one decidedly weak. The strong one is that chronograms of this quality are not easy to produce and are thus likely to be the work of a limited number of people. The weak is the one I’ve mentioned: given that I’ve identified two chronograms in Oxford, one on the façade of Frewin Hall from 1888 and another on the front of the Rhodes Building from 1911, as the work of Charles Shadwell, Fellow and later Provost of Oriel College, Oxford, I suspected that this example might have something to do with him too.
What I established yesterday was that in 1963, in the will of Alan Bruce Blaxland, the house bearing the chronogram, named “Pleasaunce” (a name alluded to in PLACET), was given as his residence at the time of his death. Alan Bruce Blaxland C.B. O.B.E. had been a senior officer in the British Indian Army during the Second World War, his most controversial role perhaps coming after the war when he chaired the court-martials of men who had joined Subhas Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army: he died on September 2, 1963 in the Victoria Hospital, Deal, at the age of 71.
In the 1901 and 1911 censuses we find Alan Bruce Blaxland at the ages of 8 and 18 at home with his family, two further brothers and two sisters, his mother Constance and father Bruce, a Church of England clergyman. In 1901 Bruce Blaxland was vicar of St Michael and All Angels, Lilleshall, Shropshire, and in 1911 of the Abbey Church in Shewsbury.
And it’s with Bruce that I start to indulge in wild speculation. The first step is the observation that both Bruce and Constance were from east Kent, Bruce from Canterbury, and Constance from Eastry, which is just a few miles from Kingsdown — my guess is that the house Alan Bruce Blaxland was living in in 1963 was built by his parents as a holiday home back where they spent their childhoods. The next step, and the ice gets less and less secure the further out I venture, involves the Revd. Bruce Blaxland’s education, since according to this very comprehensive account of his career (and I’ve checked out some of the relevant details in The Times archive), he studied Modern History at Oriel College, Oxford from 1879 to 1882, achieving a First Class degree.
This was, needless to say, precisely when Charles Shadwell was a fellow of Oriel, with his hobbies (as listed in Who’s Who) of “punting, billiards, chess problems, chronograms”. (One can read Walter Pater’s essay Diaphaneité, which describes an ideal personality, living a “purity of life”, modelled on his friend Charles Shadwell, and wonder about those recreations.) From 1874 to 1887, Shadwell, a man devoted to his college, was treasurer of Oriel, and from 1905 to 1914 its head. In between he lived at Frewin Hall, Oxford, carried out extensive renovations, and popped a Latin, hexametrical chronogram over the front door. I can think of any number of ways by which Blaxland and Shadwell might have become acquainted, and I’m obviously imagining that either Bruce Blaxland got into chronography himself when an undergraduate, inspired by Shadwell (in which case he was an excellent pupil), or (and I think this more likely) Blaxland requested a chronogram from Shadwell at a later date. The coincidence of an Oriel connection just seems too great to me otherwise.
Anyhow, it’s my blog, and I can speculate as much as I like.
Last week, strictly as a stress-reducing measure, I did what anyone else would do and researched the life of a nineteenth-century pastor.
100% to blame for all the time I wasted, and the time you are currently wasting, is Adele Curness, who tweeted an image of a graffito from the choir stalls of Brasenose College Chapel. E.S. Radcliffe, who had expended such loving care inscribing his name there, was easy enough to find once I opted for Edmund over Edward: he turned out to be Edmund Stringfellow Radcliffe, who was born on February 23 1775 and died on January 20 1826. A Lancastrian from a prosperous background, he was typical of the intake to Brasenose College at this period in its history.
Entering the church, like many of his student contemporaries, Radcliffe lived a comfortable and uneventful life, to all appearances. He secured the living of Walton-le-Dale near Preston in 1803, and adding a Perpetual Curacy of Burnley in 1817. This was pluralism, the holding of multiple offices, but a comparatively benign example if Radcliffe was also able (unlike many of his clerical contemporaries) to serve the parish of Burnley, around 25 miles away. In 1810 he married Frances Ford (born 1789, seemingly of a similarly well-to-do family), and between then and Edmund’s death they had a large family, nine children (by my count) in total. It was these that I found myself, in an entirely unsystematic fashion, chasing through the census records this week.
Here they are:
1. Edmund Ford, born 1811, dies as an infant in January 1812;
2. Edmund Ford, born 1812;
3. Frances Emily, born 1813;
4. Sarah Ann, born 1815;
5. Dulcibella, born 1817;
6. Robert Parker, born 1819;
7. Charles Wilbraham, born 1821;
8. John Randle, born 1823;
9. George Travis, born 1825.
After Edmund Stringfellow Radcliffe’s death in 1826, his widow Frances moved from Lancashire to Rugby, where all her sons went to school. Rugby School was enjoying its heyday under the direction of Thomas Arnold, headmaster from 1828, and by settling in Rugby Frances was ensuring that her sons enjoyed the free education available to local boys or “foundationers”. A few years earlier the mother of William Webb Ellis, left all but destitute after her husband’s death in the Peninsular War, had moved to the town and secured the same for her son: the rest is very dubious history. Of Florence’s children I’ve spent most time this week reading about Charles Wilbraham Radcliffe (no. 7) and his violent fate, but the other children also illustrate in their way nineteeth-century English not-so-genteel lives.
Frances’ first surviving child, Edmund Ford Radcliffe, who had been given exactly the same name (memorialising his father and mother) as his dead brother, subsequently entered the the Civil Service in Bengal, and became a judge: at the time of the 1851 census three of his daughters, all born in the “East Indies”, are staying with grandmother at Elm Cottage, Church Walk, in Rugby: this house, now listed, I think. He died in 1864, his place of death given as Rugby, presumably in his mother’s house.
Frances Emily Radcliffe (No. 3) married the heir to the tea firm Richard Twining III at the family’s local church in Rugby in 1831, at the age of 17. She lived a very privileged life in the Twining family house on the Strand (she, her husband and three children are all there in the 1841 census), but she died in childbirth in 1847.
Neither Sarah Ann nor Dulcibella (nos. 4 and 5, the latter, I think, a family name on her mother’s side: a couple of her nieces certainly share it) marry. When Frances their mother dies in 1872 (she was 83), they live on at Elm Cottage, describing themselves in the 1881 census as “annuitants”. Sarah Ann dies in 1895, Dulcibella in 1901. Meanwhile Robert Parker Radcliffe (no. 6), whom we find visiting his mother in Rugby in the 1861 census, was an officer in the Royal Artillery: he lived until 1907. Leaving no. 7 (Charles Wilbraham Radcliffe) aside for a moment, John Randle Radcliffe (no. 8) followed his father into the church, the only one of Edmund’s children to do so. He is staying with his mother and sisters (and nieces) in Rugby in the 1851 and 1871 censuses, “Studying for the Church” in 1851, holding various curacies in the vicinity of Rugby before becoming vicar of Snitterfield, close to Stratford-upon-Avon and thus not far either from Rugby, in 1877. He served the parish until his death in 1898, never marrying.
The youngest of the siblings, George Travis Radcliffe (d. 1904), is another India hand, rising to command the 7th (later called the 3rd) Madras Light Cavalry. As an officer in the Indian Army he was following in the footsteps of his older brother Charles Wilbraham Radcliffe, to whom I turn. Charles has left the fullest record out of all his siblings, for the worst reasons.
At the time of the so-called “Indian Mutiny”, the uprising against British rule in 1857, Capt. C. W. Radcliffe found himself in Lucknow, serving with a regiment of Bengal cavalry. When elements of it started to desert and the regiment was disbanded, Radcliffe took command of a unit of Volunteer Cavalry in actions against rebels near Lucknow, and then joined the rest of the British combatants and non-combatants (including his wife Emily and three children) as they took refuge in the Lucknow Residency, starting a siege that lasted from June until November 1857.
Many of the survivors of the siege, rapidly converted into a classic imperial story of triumph snatched from disaster, subsequently published diaries or memoirs, and we hear a lot both of Capt. Radcliffe and his wife and family. A prominent figure in the defence of the Residency, he was killed the night before the “first relief” (really a reinforcement) on September 25, 1857, when a British force fought its way through to the Residency, but were too depleted to attempt evacuating it. The siege would not be broken for another 61 days.
In the diaries of Lady Inglis (wife of the commanding officer for the first 87 days before the “first relief”, not published until 1892), we hear that Radcliffe was severely wounded, and needed his arm amputated. A Lady’s Diary of the Siege of Lucknow, Written for the Perusal of Friends at Home by Mrs. James P. Harris, published in 1858 by John Murray (who had cornered the market with the Afghan War diaries of Lady Sale and Vincent Eyre a few years before), confirms that the injury was fatal:
September 25, Friday
The enemy made two attacks during the night. Captain Ratcliffe of the 7th Cavalry was mortally wounded at the Cawnpore battery by a round shot. He will be a terrible loss to his wife and a very large family.
Continued firing in the city all day.
Kaye in his History of the Sepoy War III.542 talks of “one of the very best of our officers … ever foremost in attack and defence, whose cheerfulness, under all depressing circumstances, had set a gallant example.” The conditions within the Residency during the siege were appalling, food in short supply and disease running rife, over and above the constant threat of snipers, artillery and mines. One of Radcliffe’s children, Ada Maud, had died of cholera during the first part of the siege.
We could hardly be further away from Edmund Radcliffe patiently carving his name during chapel services in Brasenose. But a much more recent Brasenose student, J. G. Farrell, based his Booker-winning novel The Siege of Krishnapur on the Siege of the Lucknow Residency. In it he shows the trappings of “civilisation” progressively falling away from the British defenders as the appalling siege drags on, and I couldn’t help thinking of that as a couple of internet searches took me from an Oxford college chapel to the unspeakable brutality (on both sides) of the “Indian Mutiny”. A church in rural Lancashire, a public school, the desperate privations of a beleaguered British outpost, some tea, is not an outrageous summation of the Victorian scene. I remain deeply intrigued by the contradictions of “the peculiar lives led by the British officer class in nineteenth-century India, privileged, violent and above all precarious.”
A couple of grandchildren to remind us that life goes on. Eva Mary Radcliffe, daughter of Charles, was born after her father’s death in 1858: her daughter Eva Mabel Radclife Freeth lived until 1960. William Scott Warley Radcliffe, son of Robert Parker Radcliffe (no. 6), like his father an army officer, died in 1954. Another Dulcibella, Dulcibella Eden Radcliffe, daughter of George (no. 9), married Charles Owen Hore in 1889, and died in 1946, longterm resident of a grace-and-favour apartment (formerly occupied by Lady Sale) within Hampton Court: take a look at this fascinating document, pp. 21 and 44.
This is the last will and testament of William Hulme of Kearsley, a well-to-do but otherwise fairly nondescript Lancastrian gentleman who died on this day (29 October) in 1691: the will is dated a few days earlier. It caused quite a flutter when it was brought to my college, Brasenose, a couple of weeks ago.
Hulme had been a student at Brasenose, and the most important stipulation of his will was designed to support scholarship here. The income of his reasonably extensive land holdings (in Heaton-Norris, Denton, Ashton under Lyne, Reddish, Harwood and Manchester) was to be used to support “four of the poor sort of bachelors of arts takeing such degree in Brazen-Nose Colledge in Oxford, as from time to time shall resolve to continue and reside there by the space of four years after such degree taken,” the students by implication originating in the North West. In other words, the money was to help scholars who had earned a bachelor’s degree to work toward a master’s, and Hulme’s intent was seemingly to ensure high-quality representatives of the Church of England in a part of the world, Lancashire, where Nonconformism was making inroads.
(The relation between Brasenose and Lancashire is not coincidental: there were connections going back to its founders early in the 16th century, Sir Richard Sutton and William Smyth, Bishop of Lincoln: Smyth, a protégé of the Stanleys at Knowsley Hall, was born at Farnworth, as it happens only a couple of miles from my own birthplace at Whiston Hospital. Meanwhile Sutton was apparently a Cheshire man, from Macclesfield. Brasenose in the 17th century was the obvious choice of Oxford college for a young man from the North West, as it had been for Hulme himself. Farnworth’s only other other claim to fame, as far as I know, is as the alleged inspiration for Paul Simon’s Homeward Bound.)*
So it was a generous but comparatively modest bequest to my college, and given with a fairly narrow aim in view. So what? I hear you cry. Well, what makes Hulme’s will of more than strictly local interest is where some of the land he bequeathed happened to be located.
Manchester in Hulme’s day was a small town clustered around the Collegiate Church, now Manchester Cathedral. In the next two centuries, as the Industrial Revolution took hold, the agricultural land that Hulme had owned on its outskirts would become some of the most valuable real estate in the country, massively increasing the original bequest.
But first, Hulme’s will at the top. What we are looking at is the probate copy of the will held by its executor, his cousin William Baguley: you can just see the corner of the probate notice attached to it in the photo at the top. There is a great explainer of the process of obtaining probate in this period on the University of Nottingham website (and my thanks also to our archivist Helen Sumping and Dr Thomas Olding of the University of Winchester for making sense of this for me):
“When the will was sent to the probate court or registry to be proved, it was copied into a register. A certified copy of the entry was written out by a clerk for the executor to take away with him. Attached to it was a probate certificate, which was the official authentication and permission allowing the executor to deal with the testator’s estate.”
Our document is sealed by the Bishop’s surrogate Edmund Entwistle, and signed by Henry Prescott, deputy registrar. So this is the copy of Hulme’s will that Baguley took away with him from “the probate court or registry”, and with reference to which he realised the testator’s wishes in the shape of the Hulme Trust: a truly remarkable survival.
William Hulme’s will is now safely in the College archives, but just a few months ago it was up for sale on eBay. My eagle-eyed colleague Chris McKenna spotted it there (it had already at that stage been sold, for a princely £75) and I contacted first the vendor, and then via him the purchaser, offering to buy it from him. To our good fortune the purchaser, Mike Buckley, turned out to be a historian with a particular interest in William Hulme, and he himself had been stunned to see such an important document on sale. When I contacted Mike he spontaneously offered to present it to the College, his only concern being that it be safely preserved. All he’d let us offer him in return was dinner in College, and we’re greatly in his debt. Meanwhile the vendor was able to tell me that he’d bought the will along with a lot of other legal documents from a dealer at the Newark Antiques Fair, and that he assumed the original source was a solicitors’ office. He has promised to look out for the dealer at future fairs to find out where these documents did originate, but wherever it was must represent some kind of continuity with the executor William Baguley or his lawyers at the turn of the 17th and 18th centuries, and that’s an exciting idea.
At any rate, this piece of parchment kicked off something remarkable. The history of the Hulme Trust is excellently told by I.B. Fallows in William Hulme and his Trust, but it is essentially the story of a comparatively modest arrangement to support the proper education of clerics which within a hundred years was generating so much money that the trustees didn’t know what to do with it. Fallows tracks the ballooning revenues of the Trust as Manchester expanded in the 18th and 19th centuries, £95 in 1693, £280 in 1750, £1,176 in 1794, and £5,161 in 1825 (with accumulated savings and investments of £40,782). In Fallows’ words (p. 84), expressing the situation in 1770,
Suddenly large amounts of land were required for new factories and for the housing of the workers who manned them. Struggling farms in the damp, cotton-friendly estates of long-dead Hulmes could be leased or sold to the new manufacturers. Coal mining and associated heavy industry suddenly exploded. Trustees of the Hulme estates were controlling an asset whose revenues were likely to spiral beyond all their conceivable needs in the next generation. A trust which had been started with the modest aim of assisting four poor scholars and improving the quality of Anglican preachers now had far more money than it required.
The challenge for the Trust through the 19th century was to find an application for the vast sums they found themselves managing that was broadly compatible with Hulme’s wishes. The letter of his will was certainly observed: between 1691 and 1881 a total of 641 young men (not exclusively “of a poor sort”, but the trustees did on the whole observe the original purpose) were enabled to continue their studies at Brasenose, the numbers of exhibitions awarded increasing over time along with the value of those awards. Fallows tracks a representative selection of the scholars, the overwhelming majority of whom took holy orders. One example is William Webb Ellis, perhaps the most famous product of Brasenose after Michael Palin. Ellis was the son of an officer killed in the Peninsular War who attended Rugby School as a foundationer (a non-fee-paying local resident, as his mother had moved her family to the town with that in view) and there, allegedly, invented Rugby the sport. Whether he really did is doubtful: the story seems to develop after his death, in the context of the split between Rugby Union and Rugby League in the 1890s. But he certainly was a young man of straitened family circumstances who went on to have a successful career as an evangelical rector of various parishes in London and Essex.
Funding MA’s like William Webb Ellis still left lots of money unused, however, and the Trustees tried various ways of spending it. For a long time from the end of the 18th century they attempted to persuade Brasenose College to let them use the money to build special accommodation in Oxford for the Hulme Exhibitioners, but rather to their credit the College was unwilling to introduce this distinction between the undergraduates, Exhibitioners and others. That option closed off, the Trustees set about purchasing advowsons, the right to nominate their choice as priest in a parish, thereby providing livings for the men who had benefited from the exhibitions at Brasenose. But while that could be considered a reasonable extension of the terms of Hulme’s will, as the wealth of the Trust grew so did the desperate need of the new north-western cities for an educational infrastructure, and pressure increased to direct the funds more to the benefit of Manchester in particular.
As the story was told to me years ago, the good citizens of Manchester diddled Brasenose out of its rightful inheritance, leaving only such reminders as Brazennose St in central Manchester. In fact Brasenose and its students had benefited greatly from the Trust, and might have benefited more had they agreed with the Trust’s plans at an earlier stage. A series of Acts of Parliament had extended the capacities of the Trust, and finally in 1881 the Charity Commission proposed, and an Act of Parliament confirmed, a radical new plan which saw funds directed to a range of schools in the vicinity of Manchester, including Manchester Grammar School, Manchester High School for Girls, William Hulme’s Grammar School (also in Manchester), Oldham Hulme Grammar School (Mike Buckley’s old school), Bury Grammar School (the alma mater of Fallows), and what would develop into Manchester University. Fallows estimates that 120,000-150,000 young people, female and male, between the ages of 11 and 21 have benefited “directly (through personal scholarships) or indirectly (through help given to their school or college)” since 1881. Brasenose continued to benefit, too: one corner of New Quad was built with Hulme money and we still draw income to support our educational activities, along with a collection of beneficiaries in the North West.
A striking thing about William Hulme from the perspective of my college is how invisible he is. There’s no portrait of one of our greatest benefactors in the Hall, and when I asked the archivist what material there was related to him to show to Mike Buckley when he visited, the answer was very little. We have a long grace for special occasions which names all our benefactors: Gulielmus Hulme was apparently only added to it in 1975. The Hulme Common Room for graduate students was established in 1963. Aside from that, the only physical memorial to him in College is a Latin plaque (below) put up at one end of the Hall by Church of English priests who had benefited from Hulme Exhibitions, in 1902, when that role of the Trust was reaching its end.
The peculiar absence of Hulme from the College narrative no doubt tells us something about privileged Oxford’s relations with the country’s industrial heartlands, but it also reflects the sheer oddity of this whole story, in investment terms the ultimate “sleeper”. Everything after all hinges on a massive fluke, that a quiet backwater in an undeveloped part of the country, and that is undoubtedly what the market towns of south-east Lancashire were in the 17th century, would become the dynamic engine of the Industrial Revolution. The impression one gets is that in Brasenose the impact of Hulme’s legacy for a long time just didn’t really register, yet Fallows calculates that a total of somewhere in the region of £20,000,000 has been disbursed by the Trust since its inception. I suppose the story of Hulme’s legacy in turn is a microcosm of Britain’s story in the 18th and 19th centuries, but who could possibly have predicted the colossal impact of a minor Lancastrian landowner’s will?
(This is a book review from nearly a decade ago. I wrote it for the LRB, but at the last moment they rejected it as insufficiently controversial, as far as I recall. It was already far too controversial for a College that had turned very toxic indeed under pressure of our quincentenary celebrations, so that was absolutely fine by me. But it’s a long time ago now, and all the current talk of statue destruction made me think of it. As well as a book review it’s also a meditation, by a younger version of myself, on the peculiar place I work in. A exceedingly minority interest, either way.)
J. Mordaunt Crook, Brasenose: The Biography of an Oxford College. Oxford, 2008.
On 9 March 1881, the ‘bump supper’ celebration of a Brasenose success on the river turned ugly. ‘In the flickering light of bonfires,’ recalled L.R. Farnell, the scholar of Greek religion, ‘could be seen the figures of some two hundred young men bounding and leaping high . . . and passing from lurid light into deep shadow alternately; and the leaping was accompanied by terrifying yells and the most fantastic music ever devised by savages standing on the verge of culture.’ Finally, the undergraduates turned their attentions to a statue that had stood in the middle of Old Quad lawn for 150 years, and defaced it with indelible paint. It and its obscene graffiti were quietly despatched to a scrapyard soon after.
The target of their drunken assault, whether or not those Victorian hoorays were aware of it, was an appropriate one. Although universally known as Cain and Abel, the statue was in fact a copy of a Renaissance image of Samson slaying a Philistine. Walter Pater, a fellow of the college, found some consolation in the sight of these Brasenose athletes (‘like panthers,’ he had described them) leaping naked over bonfires. But the presence of the arch-aesthete in Oxford’s heartiest college during its most philistine phase throws up manifold anomalies: the mind boggles, for example, at the notion of Pater tutoring the future Earl Haig. On the matter of the statue’s destruction, Pater was defensive. If we can believe Edmund Gosse, it was ‘almost the only thing that ever ruffled him’: on mention of the statue, ‘Pater would sit up in a moment, and say, with great acidity, “It was totally devoid of merit, no doubt.”’
Pater’s dilemma, as the aesthete amongst athletes, is one for which a modern Fellow of Brasenose, contemplating the history of the college, is bound to feel some sympathy. Everything about that Victorian venting of testosterone, after all, is apt to set a contemporary academic’s teeth on edge. But our misfortune is that the events of that night are not so unrepresentative of Brasenose culture as we might like. This is ‘Good old BNC’, historically the jovial, well-lubricated and none-too-intellectual champion of causes long lost elsewhere, even in Oxford. In Brasenose’s tolerant atmosphere, for example, the ‘pass man’ (the wealthy sportsman with no interest in an honours degree, and no aptitude for it either) survived and flourished far longer than at other colleges, and the admission of students on the exclusive basis of sporting ability continued to be practised almost to within living memory. ‘As Balliol enlisted clever heads, so B.N.C. enlisted stout legs and arms,’ reminisces a late 19th-century undergraduate. In the later 1880s, sensationally, a top-flight Etonian rower was actually rejected: ‘he couldn’t spell; he could hardly even write his own name; we had to draw the line somewhere.’
Now this is all, as they say, history, and perhaps none of it would matter very much if 2009 weren’t the 500th anniversary of Brasenose College, and our history consequently hard to duck. Any anniversary, let alone the celebration of half a millennium of existence, is bound to expose the subject of celebration to a rather unforgiving light, and J. M. Crook’s elegant college history is only the most explicit contribution to this unavoidable exercise in navel-gazing. But as we, the current Fellows, make the claim to continuity with our predecessors which is presumably essential if the simple age of the institution is going to count for anything, the process is not painless. On the crucial question of what exactly it is that we are celebrating – what an Oxbridge college is actually for, these days – there is less consensus than one might like. The university (in the shape of the subject Faculties) may well have just as great a claim on our time and loyalty as the college, for example, and issues such as how we admit students, how the college is administered, which of the various types of employment contract we hold, and indeed how we teach, have the potential to weaken further the identity and cohesion of the diverse group of scholars that constitutes a college fellowship. The tutorial, the most familiar expression of the Oxford teaching system and rightly regarded as the bellwether of the health of the collegiate system and Oxford education in general, is under pressure everywhere. It is a matter of dispute whether an individual college should aspire to be ‘known for its strengths’ in medicine or law or PPE: self-evidently true for some, a hopelessly parochial throwback for others. So, 500 years of what? An elite educational institution? An extremely picturesque hall of res? A Grade I listed coffee room? The young hooligans of 1881 had a clear idea what they were celebrating, and, judging by the stocks of paint they got in, a good plan of how to celebrate it. Can we say the same of ourselves?
One can cite a host of contemporary niggles (such as I have) which can sour a college’s atmosphere, and no doubt the Fellows of 1881 could have done the same. But perhaps a clerical friend of mine is right to trace the problem farther back. On this analysis the staff of the modern University of Oxford are secular cuckoos in an essentially religious institution: Oxford colleges are monastic foundations which have abandoned the monastic rules which were crucial to maintain harmony within diverse and densely populated communities. I think there’s a lot in that, and we would all do well to read the Rule of St Benedict. It is certainly the case that to a modern Fellow it is only really with the last quarter of the 19th century that the landscape of Oxford University becomes familiar at all. The great watershed is the growth in the authority of the university (at the expense of the colleges) that followed from the Royal Commissions of 1850, 1871 and 1877; and just as important for the academic culture of the place, the secularisation of Oxford which allowed dons to marry and move out to the suburbs in North Oxford which are way beyond the means of their modern counterparts. Before that point Brasenose was a clutch of actual or apprentice clergymen, and its history the story of the (disproportionate, to the secular eye) impact made by theological controversies. It is hard to summon up much fellow-feeling for the men who heckled Archbishop Cranmer as he hobbled up Brasenose Lane on his way to be burned. But for most of the 19th century Brasenose is hardly less alien, a community thoroughly identified with the Church of England: even a superficially interesting figure like William Webb Ellis, a scholar at BNC shortly after his alleged invention of rugby, turns out to have been yet another common-or-garden aspirant to the Anglican priesthood, a profoundly unremarkable man quite oblivious of the myth that the late-Victorian cult of team sports would build up around him.
Such continuities as can be identified between today and pre-1850 Brasenose are either coincidental or functions of the simple physical restrictions of the site. It is a pleasant surprise, but gives us very little insight into Regency Oxford, to find that as long ago as 1821 the Phoenix, a dining club along the objectionable lines of the Bullingdon (these days excluded from the college), was encountering ‘violent opposition throughout the College’ for its social exclusivity. (That does tell us something about the Phoenix, mind you.) As for the physical environment, a history does provide good evidence of a local kind of architectural determinism. Enforced intimacy forges peculiarly collegiate virtues and vices, key to which are the subordination or not of the typically burgeoning academic ego to the higher interests of the community. On the one hand we find sworn ideological enemies during the Commonwealth, an intruded Puritan principal and a Royalist bursar, co-operating to rescue the college in its darkest hour. But rather more in evidence are the bitter feuds which, once sparked, the college environment is peculiarly adept at inflaming. I was once shown what my guide called the ‘million pound bookcase’, a nondescript item of furniture somehow implicated in the mutual loathing between two ancient historians, Hugh Last and Sir Ronald Syme, which cost Brasenose any part of Syme’s large estate on his death in 1989. The consumption of alcohol, pursued with prodigious application, it seems, by every generation of Brasenose students and Fellows, also no doubt has its roots in the intense sociality dictated by the college environment. This hardly differentiates Brasenose from any other institute of higher education, of course, but drinking achieved an iconic status in this college, reflected in the annual Ale Verses celebration on Shrove Tuesday, and a popular etymology of Brasenose’s peculiar name from an old word for ‘brewery’. This at least bodes well for the 2009 celebrations. Whatever other anxieties there may be, nobody familiar with the college’s history can harbour the slightest doubt about this Fellowship’s capacity to organise a piss-up in a Brasinhuse.
Yet it is the culture of the college since the reforms of the later 19th century, starkly but adequately exemplified by the vandalising of Cain and Abel, that confronts a Fellow today. No individual contributed more to the crystallisation of Brasenose’s modern reputation than the hard-drinking, sports-obsessed principal, W.T.S. Stallybrass, who dominated the college between the two world wars. To say that Stallybrass set no great stock by academic excellence would be an understatement: Blues proliferated, Firsts were practically unknown. But there is no doubt that, as it excelled on the rugby pitch and the Thames, Brasenose also developed a strong corporate ethos focused on its clubbable principal. When, at the start of hostilities in 1939, Brasenose men joined up with the RAF en masse, and then were killed en masse, Stallybrass had taken photographs of them when they had visited him on leave, and wrote all their obituaries (‘in the air, on the rugby field . . . he did not know what fear was’; ‘only the examiners could defeat him’). The photos, the obituaries, the appallingly large WWII memorial in the college chapel – all this is terribly moving. But the war and the social changes it wrought did for that particular ideal of collegiality. Stallybrass himself fell from a train out of Paddington in 1948, shortly after being defeated in college by other Fellows determined to improve academic standards. After the war the sporting types in whom Brasenose had specialised increasingly found Oxford’s doors closed to anything except academic talent. Crook quotes Jan Morris on the tragedy of ‘Carruthers’, the archetypal nice-but-dim pass man, who had ‘survived at Oxford until the Second World War, which he won.’ Brasenose College, Crook suggests, had been Carruthers’s veritable alma mater.
Stallybrass died on St Jude’s Day, patron saint of lost causes, and it all adds up to a compelling myth: the Golden Age of the college, lost along with all those young men shot down over the Channel. Was the Oxbridge college itself the last of Brasenose’s lost causes, only truly possible when a coherent ethos, forged in manly endeavour on the water or the rugger pitch, bound its members together? The problem of course is that, intensely poignant as Stallybrass’s photographic record is, Carruthers didn’t really win the war, or didn’t do so single-handedly. I am bound to think of a clever Welsh grammar-school boy who went up to Trinity Hall, Cambridge in 1938, but found there a society so rigidly stratified and unsympathetic to someone of his background that he welcomed the opportunity to join the army and leave Cambridge the following year. That man, my father, did his bit for the war effort too, landing on D-Day, fighting through to Germany, losing a lot of friends; but I don’t think he ever went back to Cambridge, and by all accounts Trinity Hall was a lot less exclusive than Brasenose at that time. Another combatant on D-Day was Brasenose’s Nobel laureate, William Golding, on whose literary career the hearty Brasenose of Stallybrass had a tellingly minimal influence. In the case of J.G. Farrell, an undergraduate in the 1950s, it was the onset of polio and treatment in an iron lung that transformed him from a stereotypical Brasenose hearty into a novelist.
A college history must of course be selective, but sometimes selection can collude too closely with its subjects. A peculiar decision taken by Crook is to list all the members of the Phoenix club from its foundation, while the Fellows of Brasenose (rather more central to the project, one would think) go unrecorded. And here is another atypical Stallybrass undergraduate, relegated to a footnote: Peter Twinn, mathematician and entomologist, who at Bletchley Park in 1940 is credited with having broken the German Enigma code for the first time. As Crook admits, ‘BNC between the wars was very much a masculine, almost aggressively homosocial, society.’ John Betjeman feigned a limp whenever he entered the college, calculating that the hearties would not pick on an aesthete who was crippled. The idyll constructed by Stallybrass was built on the exclusion of women, the lower classes and overt exercise of the intellect. Indeed, it was a gentleman’s club, with all the qualities of such a place, loyalty and cohesion, but like a club, defined as much by those whose faces didn’t fit as by the membership.
Notwithstanding populist stereotypes of ‘the old boy network and the old school tie’, the ideals of Stallybrass are as dead as the Oxford dodo. But like the country as a whole, a college can lose its empire (on the playing fields in this instance) and struggle to find a role. In the face of an assertion of collegiate identity as confident as Stallybrass’s one can allow oneself to doubt the role of a college that lacks the same muscularity of purpose. Ambivalent (at best) at what we have been, labouring under our own collegiate Curse of Cain, Pater’s accommodation with the philistines, we may even countenance the possibility that a college is just an anachronistic survival which, like the monarchy, can only compromise so many times with prevailing circumstances without losing its identity entirely. What, to pose that crucial question one more time, is there to celebrate?
A college, as Crook well puts it, is ‘a permanent set of buildings and an impermanent set of people’: on the one hand the Oxford architecture that seemed to William Morris almost organic (buildings that ‘look almost as if they had grown out of the roadway’); on the other, the constantly shifting populations of students, staff and Fellows. What a college most obviously is (though superficially) is a cumulative building enterprise, the architectural sum, not always so felicitous, of centuries of construction. But the wrong conclusion can be drawn from this, the wrong answer to the big question of what we are. It is perhaps the clearest sign of our lack of self-belief that the most insistent answers to the demands of a quincentennial celebration have been that something should be built. Throwing up a new structure, needed or not, is of course the perennial Oxford substitute for creative thinking: the evidence is everywhere. But the great paradox of Oxford is that the impermanent element of this peculiar concoction, the people, is what really matters; the familiar Oxford of quads, crenellations and spires (say it quietly) is quite tangential to the serious project of teaching and researching. In Brasenose this might be called the Narnia Principle, in deference to a couple of gilded fawns, a Victorian lamppost and a scruffy double-doored exit from the chapel, which the imagination of C.S. Lewis, no doubt on a wintry night, transformed into the kingdom of the Snow Queen. Strictly speaking, Narnia begins in a shabby backyard which currently houses the recycling bins. It isn’t of course that building is insignificant or unnecessary in a collegiate university. This is a city in which academics, let alone students struggle to afford accommodation; and I treasure the view of the Radcliffe Camera and University Church I have from my teaching room. But good building must embody a recognition of the relative importance of stone and the creative temperaments that animate it. Dreaming spires, and all that. With a bit of luck the Credit Crunch will do for any such plans, just as surely as it is sending Oxford graduates flooding into teaching and research.
So what should we do to mark the 500th Anniversary of Brasenose? It is easier to say what we shouldn’t, but I do know that Stallybrass’s belief that a shared intellectual endeavour is insufficient to bind a community together is utter nonsense. More than nonsense, actually: a terrifying lack of confidence in our mission as researchers and educators, as if an aptitude and enthusiasm for academic subjects has less power to galvanise young people than an aptitude for propelling a boat. The least that our quincentenary requires is a bout of quiet introspection proper to a collection of scholars, even secular ones: we should remember what we are and what we are not and re- discover our pride in it; we should forcibly restate the value of the education we offer and the research we do, and resist those pressures of administration and self-justification which constantly distract us from the things we are qualified to do. We should indeed read and digest the Rule of St Benedict, but we should also celebrate what our college does best: it harbours a community not defined by ethos (which can easily become class) but by aptitude. The fondest memories of its alumni/ae are not of high jinks but of intellectual excitement. Its architecturally-enforced intimacy may prolong feuds between colleagues, but it also fosters tolerance and openness: it is precisely the manageable scale of the constituent colleges which makes intimidating Oxford accessible. Indeed, the greatest boon of the physical restrictions of a college is that it makes it, as an institution, maximally intolerant of hierarchy. If that still sounds too monastic a prescription for the 21st century, we might also stretch to a cheap reproduction, emphatically positioned in the middle of Old Quad, of Samson slaying a Philistine with the jawbone of an ass.
On May 5, 1945, The Times reported an unexpected encounter in Hamburg. The British had accepted the city’s surrender and were discussing arrangements with their German counterparts when another German officer came in, “a brisk young man wearing the scarf of Brasenose College.” He explained to the British officers that he had been educated at Oxford and had written a book on parliamentary government, which he hoped would get him the new job he suspected he would soon be needing. Back in Brasenose College, Oxford, the headline in the paper (“How Hamburg Fell; Cottage Meeting; The German From Brasenose”) raised hopes that Justus Carl von Ruperti, Rhodes Scholar at Brasenose from 1933 to 1935, had survived the war. In fact he had been killed in Russia in 1943.
I wrote a couple of years ago about Ruperti’s memorial in the chapel of Brasenose College, an arresting one not only because it commemorated this enemy fatality of the Second World War, but also because it was created in the decade immediately after the end of the war. Later, after some research in the archives of Rhodes House, I described a note I had found there referring to a visit by Ruperti’s mother to Oxford in the 1950’s.
Someone who featured prominently in that story was Fritz Caspari. Fritz and Justus Carl (or Juscar, or sometimes Carl Justus) had been the German Rhodes Scholars at Oxford for 1933 (there were only two scholars from Germany per year), and while Juscar stayed in Germany during the war, and died fighting on the Eastern Front, Fritz, a vocal opponent of National Socialism, left Germany for the United States in 1939, subsequently combining a career as an academic historian with that of a senior West German diplomat. His remarkable life is described in a Telegraph obituary here, and there is a video interview with him conducted shortly before his death here.
Fritz Caspari died in 2010, and through an old student of mine, Harriet Baker, I have been put in touch with his son, Conrad Caspari, who is currently working his way through his father’s voluminous papers: a precious archive for the pre-war, wartime and post-war history of Germany and its foreign relations.
In my earlier research on Ruperti, a preoccupation was to pin down his politics. I’m not sure I achieved that, but I did come to understand how an Oxford college in 1950, containing within its fellowship British ex-combatants, could have persuaded itself to commemorate a German casualty. To me, and more importantly to wiser heads before before me, it was clear that Juscar was no Nazi.
Here the topic is the relationship between Juscar and Fritz. What Conrad has shared with me is information from his father’s papers which offers vivid insight a troubled time, and in particular glimpses of the relationship that developed between two young men whose futures, ultimately hinging on their decisions to leave or stay in Nazi Germany as it launched the war, were to to diverge so dramatically.
The first encounter between Fritz and Juscar did not promise a close friendship, it’s fair to say. It occurred at the interviews for the German Rhodes Scholarships in the forbidding Stadtschloss in the middle of Berlin. Fritz had been recommended for a scholarship by Count Albrecht von Bernstorff, a former Rhodes Scholar himself who would be executed in 1945 for opposition to Hitler. As Fritz emerged from his interview, one of the other candidates, “the rather formal young Prussian aristocrat who had gone in before him,” asked him how he had managed. (What follows is from Fritz Caspari’s written account, but he also tells the story in this filmed interview; all translations are Conrad Caspari’s.)
“What do you mean, ‘How did I manage?’?” Fritz replied.
“I mean, how did you manage to leave the room?”
“Well, once I realised the whole thing was over, I stood up, made a short bow, walked to the door, said goodbye, and went out.”
“There’s no way you’ll get the scholarship!” the young man said.
“Why not?” Fritz asked, baffled. “How did you leave the room, then?”
“I walked out backwards. You should never have turned your back on them, of course.”
“Backwards! But how on earth did you find the door handle?”
“Not a problem if you think about it in advance. I’d planned it and counted the steps carefully on the way in, so on the way back to the door I didn’t need to turn at all.”
That young Prussian aristocrat, so much more at home than the middle-class (though well-connected) Fritz in the Prussian Schloss, was Justus Carl von Ruperti, needless to say. In the event, it was he and Fritz who found themselves the German Rhodes Scholars in Oxford a year later, and a friendship developed: among his father’s papers Conrad has found a number of letters from Juscar to Fritz, dating between 1936, when Juscar has left Oxford, and 1939, when Fritz left Germany.
In December 1936 Juscar writes to Fritz and another 1933 Rhodes Scholar, (Clarence) Bill Lee from Arkansas, who were apparently staying at Fritz’s family home in Heidelberg. The letter switches between German and English for Bill’s benefit. Juscar was serving at the time in the military at Lüneburg (from where he also wrote to the Principal of Brasenose, William Stallybrass), and discusses what he had gathered from Time and The Times about the abdication of Edward VIII. With some irony he comments that “judging from sterner Prussian principles one can only speak of [the former king’s] lamentable weakness.” Just some irony: Justus Carl von Ruperti has emerged from everything I have read by and about him as a very sober and serious young man.
The next letter dates from two years later, August 1938, when Juscar writes to Fritz in Füssen in Bavaria, where Fritz was unwillingly fulfilling his military service requirement in a mountain regiment. He used to recall that he and his comrades plotted to kill Hitler on one of his regular visits to Bavaria, but they were never supplied with live ammunition. In his letter Juscar describes a trip he had made back to his home territory of East Prussia, travelling by boat from Travemünde to “my beautiful Danzig”, since 1920 a “Free City” under the jurisdiction of the League of Nations. He visits Gdingen (Gdynia), the port constructed by Poland along the coast from Danzig (Gdansk) in the Polish Corridor, established after the First World War to allow Poland access to the Baltic, in the process separating East Prussia from the rest of Germany. Juscar is impressed by the new port at Gdynia, and while he notes the efforts to consolidate “Polishness” in the Corridor, including land reforms in the Corridor which would soon affect his uncle’s estate, he seems relaxed about them. In my first post on Ruperti I wrote about German efforts to consolidate Germanness in East Prussia, but the German invasion of Poland would put paid to any land reform, and in the longer term to East Prussia. Juscar looks forward to seeing Fritz in Göttingen in October.
Another name mentioned in this letter is Ferdinand von Stumm, who had also attended Oxford in the 1930s. Conrad tells me that Ferdinand wrote to his father in the US in 1946, sharing news of Juscar’s death among others’, and telling him that he and Juscar had become best friends during the war. In his letter, von Stumm apologetically requested from Fritz that he send him some crêpe shoe soles: he had lost his left foot during the war, and needed them to make walking easier.
Come October 1938, Juscar is again writing to Fritz from Königsberg (now, as things have turned out, the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad), where Juscar was working on his doctorate and reading Goethe. He seems to mention a mutual friend Alex Böker, who had left Germany for the US in 1938, and held a Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford from 1939. But Juscar also asks Fritz to help a friend of his, Wolfgang Fontaine, to secure a Rhodes Scholarship from 1939 (Fritz was on the selection committee in 1938, the last German selection panel for the Rhodes until it was reinstated in 1969; Fritz served in that year as well, when one of the successful candidates was Lippold von Klencke, Juscar’s nephew.) Whether Fontaine ever took up his scholarship, I do not know. Juscar suggests that a reference for his application might be forthcoming from Fontaine’s uncle, General Keitel, a notorious figure later to be condemned and hanged at Nuremberg for war crimes.
From a diary that Fritz Caspari kept from 1938 to 1940 we learn that on October 22 1938, he and Juscar did meet up in Göttingen, drinking Bordeaux, walking to the Bismarckturm, and meeting Juscar’s brother, a cavalry officer recently returned from the Sudetenland. (He would also die during the war.)
Fritz Caspari reestablished contact with the von Ruperti family after the war, and remained in touch with them throughout his life. The last letters to him from Juscar that Conrad has uncovered are from December 1938 and January 1939, both from Königsberg, and hint at pressure on their friendship associated with Fritz’s decision to leave Germany: “the thought of your departure is no longer so estranging because you will be the best bridge to our friends,” writes Juscar in the first of them. Between this and the later letter the two seem to have met up in Berlin, but in January Juscar talks in oblique terms of the difficulty of maintaining old friendships in the current circumstances, and I take the reference to be primarily to their friendship. Juscar’s sign-off, “Leben Sie wohl,” suggests a certain finality too. I don’t really know how to read this last letter, to be honest, though it seems full of a sense of momentous and incompatible decisions.
Here is all of it:
Königsberg, 12 January 1939
Thank you for your card–it helped me during the many awkward moments which I have to live through here, I am afraid these are fights about the continuation of old friendships. While I was in Berlin I was torn as to whether I should use the proximity of our rooms to impart my worries to you. I left it with only a suggestion of these and I am happy about that. The fact of your coming and the very simple way we could be together was more important to me in spite of everything. Please take this as a sign that my willingness to be open vis-à-vis old friends has not suffered. And please be persuaded that I wish to become more conscious of all my errors. But the recovery of all the beauty we have lost is consumed by life and surviving in the here and now. The creator, who rules over all life, cannot drive us all crazy and the oldest love must be put aside for the most recent one.
In the coming days I will become engaged to Irma R. and I am happy to be certain of your helpful thoughts in this regard as well.
Leben Sie wohl, your C.J.
In a new departure, a topical blog. In another new departure, a short one.
Here is a BBC article discussing the efforts of the Turkish coup plotters to seize control of the media. In a very contemporary twist, as they tried to secure TV networks and newspapers, etc., President Erdogan used his iPhone to make a critical intervention, phoning (and via FaceTime, physically appearing) on CNN. It’s still a confusing picture: Twitter and Facebook may have been blocked by the government, presumably to prevent the coup leaders from getting their message across, but other social networks, WhatsApp, Periscope, weren’t. All in all, it tells us how very difficult it is in 2016 to secure comprehensive control of information outlets, but also how crucial it remains to try to achieve that control if you have plans to usurp political authority.
In AD 271 there was a military coup somewhere on the Rhine frontier of the Roman Empire, and the evidence we have about it also suggests an attempt to control the media. The effect of the coup was to bring to power an emperor named Domitianus, or rather what our evidence tells us is that Domitianus claimed to be emperor, and as we know from Turkey, claims to be in control do not automatically amount to real control. Our evidence about Domitianus is simply this: there are coins bearing an image of him with the imperial motto around his head “IMP(ERATOR) C DOMITIANUS P(IUS) F(ELIX) AUG(USTUS).
The coins indicating that Domitianus was emperor also intimate that he wasn’t emperor for awfully long. In total only two examples of Domitianus coins have ever been found, one found during agricultural work in a vineyard near Nantes in 1900, and another found by a metal detectorist in 2003 at Chalgrove near Oxford. They are so rare that between the discovery of the first and the second coins, effective efforts were made to prove that the French example was a hoax. By this stage of the third century AD coins were being minted in massive quantities: if ever you find a Roman coin, it is very likely to be from this time. There are also lots of coin hoards from what was a very unstable period. Yet Domitianus features in just two of them. At Mildenhall in Wiltshire in 1978 a hoard of 55,000 “radiates” (as Domitianus’ style of coin is called) was found; at Normanby in Lincolnshire in 1985, 48,000 more of them: not a single Domitianus in sight. Even in the comparatively modest Chalgrove hoard, the Domitianus is one of nearly 5,000 coins in total.
Some historical context. Rome in the second half of the third century AD was in crisis. The emperor Valerian had been captured by the Persians in 260, a huge shock to the Empire. In the same year the Western Empire, Spain, Gaul, Germany and Britain, seceded under a rebel general named Postumus, and remained independent of Rome until 274, although Postumus’ successors ruled over a progressively smaller chunk of territory. Domitianus fits in after Postumus’ third successor Victorinus (269-71): plausibly Domitianus was involved in the putsch that removed Victorinus, seized control for a few days, and was then himself dispatched by Tetricus, who ruled the “Gallic Empire” until defeat by Aurelian in 274. Aurelian was the great reunifier of the Empire, bringing Zenobia’s Palmyra back into the fold as well. I hope that wasn’t too difficult to follow, but imagine living it.
About Domitianus himself we know practically nothing. Aside from the coins, there are scattered references in our sources to a general and a rebel by this name. To repeat, though, only the coins proclaim him emperor. Only the statement read out under pressure by the anchor on State TV TRT claimed the success of the Turkish coup, too. The point of similarity is what it takes in 2016, and what it takes in 271, to control the narrative. In the third century there was no TV, no mass media at all, but there was one medium which in its way did the same job of insinuating a message across the army and wider population. Coinage carrying the emperor’s image, and potentially other information too, could be used to communicate a claim to power. The other side of Domitianus’ coin carries an image of peace and plenty (a female figure carrying a libation bowl and cornucopia) and the legend CONCORDIA MILITUM, “Agreement among the Soldiers”, a more explicit claim of authority over the (crucial) armed forces.
So the equivalent of occupying the CNN offices in the third century was to secure the Royal Mint, and it looks like this was Domitianus’ first, and perhaps his only, act in pursuit of power. The evidence of the coins (the French and English examples are identical) seems to be that, while Domitianus managed to secure control of one of the Gallic Empire’s mints, in Cologne, he never controlled the principal mint in Trier. Trier, Augusta Treverorum, was Domitianus’s nemesis, or maybe his iPhone.
The coin of Domitianus found near Oxford is a rather unimpressive thing in the flesh, small and muddy-green, but it’s beautifully presented in the money gallery of the Ashmolean Museum, which is worth a visit for all kinds of other reasons.
Sylviane Estiot & Gildas Salaün, “L’usurpateur Domitianus”, Revue numismatique 160 (2004), 201-218.
Richard Abdy, “The Domitian II coin from Chalgrove: a Gallic emperor returns to history”, Antiquity 83 (2009), 751-757.