Tag Archive | oxford

A thistle and a rose

St Mary's Entry

I’m doing what I spend a big chunk of the summer doing: staring at the west wall of St Mary’s, Oxford’s University Church.

That’s the view I get as I sit at the computer, waiting for inspiration to hit me: in the photo above, which predates the age of computers just a little, I’m in the curtained window jutting out above the street. Between me and the church is an alleyway, St Mary’s Passage, running from High St into Radcliffe Square, the heart of Oxford University: you can see one side of the circular Radcliffe Camera, a library, that dominates the square, and the Old Bodleian Library behind it.

Needless to say, I’m ridiculously lucky in where I go to work every morning. But I have been known to grumble about the tourists. Twice or three times a day, and in the summer months closer to fifteen times a day, a tour guide will halt his group under my window and explain how C.S. Lewis was inspired to write The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by what he saw in the alleyway beneath me: a Victorian lamppost, a couple of fauns carved at the top of the main door to the building, and an image of the Green Man on the same door which bears a passing resemblance to a lion with a mane. Hence, the theory goes, Aslan, Mr Tumnus and the mysterious lamppost Lucy sees when she first stumbles into Narnia.

How true that story is, I really don’t know. To be honest, after listening to several thousand retellings of it by now I’m beyond caring. But that isn’t to say I’m not fascinated by my surroundings as I sit in that window. The building, known as St Mary’s Entry, is old, dating back to around 1600, but we know very little about its history: for a long time up until the 1880’s it was a pub, the City Arms, and it only came into full use by the college in 1919. That’s more or less all we know.

But there are some clues, and the best of them happen to be in my office. According to An Inventory of the Historical Monuments in the City of Oxford (1939), it contains a number of features that seem to date to the early seventeenth century.

There is an elaborate Jacobean overmantel:


Two fauns that echo the two around the door downstairs, but are much older: the ones outside seem to be Victorian. Here’s one of the fauns inside:


Most intriguingly of all, there is a design around the door of the room featuring roses in the spandrels at the top:


and at the bottom (the authors of An Inventory missed this), thistles:


I suppose all the recent discussion of Scottish independence has made me pay more attention to the roses and thistles, and I had assumed some connection with the Acts of Union in 1706/7, but when I thought about it (with the Jacobean carvings inside the room in mind, especially), the more obvious link was to James I of England and VI of Scotland, a century before the Act of Union, whose coins carried images rather similar to those around my door. James had wanted a full union of Scotland with England, but the issue was as controversial then as now, and they remained sovereign states under one monarch until the reign of James’ great-granddaughter, Anne.

Well, it’s a good excuse to speculate. And whatever I come up with can’t be any less likely than the spiel of the tourist guides.

Once James was in the frame, and a date for the woodwork (independently reached) of the early seventeenth century, what caught my attention was an event I hadn’t previously been aware of, a visit by the king, accompanied by Queen Anne and his eldest son Henry (and the five-year-old Charles, future Charles I), to Oxford at the end of August 1605, two years after his accession to the English throne.

There was nothing low-key about this visit: all Oxford was galvanized to put on the best possible show of itself. We have three extended accounts of it, Rex Platonicus (Oxford, 1607) by the University Orator Isaac Wake, in Latin, which is too busy hymning the king’s praises to provide much in the way of useful detail, but evidently did Wake’s career no harm: he went on to be knighted, an ambassador in Venice and elsewhere, and M.P. for the University of Oxford. What he has to say about James’ arrival will give you a flavour of the whole work: certe ingresso iam Jacobo sensit Civitas quiddam se amplius capere quam quod murorum suorum angustiis comprehendi posset, “For sure, now James had made his entry, the City felt that it held something greater than the narrow compass of its walls could contain.” Flattery will get you everywhere.

Anthony Nixon’s Oxfords Tryumph (London, 1605), is as relentlessly panegyrical as Wake, but a little more concerned with the nitty-gitty of the visit, even though Nixon is seriously confused about Oxford geography. But the real gem of a source for the visit is a document surviving in a manuscript in Cambridge University Library, an anonymous account by a “spy” from Cambridge, The preparacion at Oxford in August 1605 against the comminge thither of King James, with the Queen and young Prince; together with the things then and there done and the maner thereof. This Cambridge witness may, according to John R. Elliott Jr. in The History of the University of Oxford Vol. IV (p.648, n.32), have been one Henry Mowtlowe; but apparently Cambridge sent as many as forty spies “to view in secret and note the whole event” staged by their arch-rivals. For whatever reason, The preparacion at Oxford… provides the kind of realistic detail Wake and Nixon meticulously avoided: the King falling asleep in a long theatrical performance, and waking up to say, testily, “I marvell what they think me to be!”; or the hundred or so “scholars” sent to prison the day before the king’s arrival for some kind of “uncivill” behaviour (apparently involving inappropriate headwear) in St Mary’s church.

The King arrived at Oxford on Tuesday August 27th 1605, riding south from his ramshackle palace at Woodstock. The officials of the University and City of Oxford rode out to welcome him on the Woodstock Road in what was then countryside a mile north of Oxford, and is now the northern suburbs where I live. In a “fair meadow” near Aristotle’s Well (which now lies under a house on the corner of Kingston Rd and Aristotle Lane, but I think what is these days the intersection between Woodstock Rd and Polstead Rd is meant, very near the childhood home of Lawrence of Arabia) there was a bit of timeless town v. gown needle as the city authorities, led by the Mayor, attempted to upstage the University, and were put firmly in their places. It’s great to see that certain things (town v. gown; Oxford v. Cambridge) haven’t changed much in 400 years, and I’ve been enjoying imagining all the houses away as I walk the dog, picturing the Chancellor, Vice-chancellor, “the Doctors, Proctors and certaine Senior Masters … upon their foote-cloath [caparisoned] Horses, verie richlye furnished to meete the King” (Nixon), the speeches to the King from University (in Latin) and City (in English), and the presentation of gifts (the City’s considerably more valuable than the University’s), before James and his entourage continued their progress towards the city.

Just outside the North Gate, James stopped to be entertained by the first of a series of dramatic performances during his four-day stay in Oxford. James was very keen on academic debate, less so (as we’ve already seen) on the theatre. What’s interesting about this short performance is that it bears some kind of relation to Shakespeare’s Macbeth. In front of St John’s College, which stood outside the city walls, three “sibyls” recalled the prophecy given to Banquo that his descendants, the Stuarts, would rule Scotland, and added their own prediction of James’ glorious future. The connection has been made with the three witches’ prediction to Banquo at Macbeth 1.3 (“Thou shalt get kings, though thou be none”), and some have even speculated that William Shakespeare might have been in the audience outside St John’s. From there James made his way across the city to Christ Church, where he and the Queen were accommodated: as they rode from north to south of Oxford, according to Nixon, the left side of the street, between Christ Church and St Giles’ church, was lined with academics in precise order of seniority from Doctors of Divinity at the gate of Christ Church to plain old undergraduates up at St Giles’.

Here’s John Speed’s map of Oxford, as it happens dating to around 1605, though much indebted to earlier maps: south is at the top, so James was approaching Oxford from the bottom right. From St Giles’ to Christ Church is about 1,000 metres.

Map of Oxford

In total, James spent four days in Oxford, from Tuesday August 27th to Friday the 30th. On the last day, after visiting the Bodleian Library, he stopped in at my college, Brasenose, but I don’t think my roses and thistles can have anything to do with that since in 1605 St Mary’s Entry, while owned by Brasenose, was not an integral part of the College proper, and was let out to tenants. A slightly earlier map of this part of Oxford here, by Ralph Agas, illustrates this, “Brasen nose Coll” stopping well short of “Saint Maries”.

But there’s another possibility. James’ and the Queen’s accommodation was at Christ Church, Prince Henry’s at Magdalen College; in the course of his time in Oxford James visited New College, All Souls’ and Magdalen as well as Brasenose, St John’s and the Bodleian Library. But by far the majority of the king’s time was spent in the University Church, St Mary’s, just across the alleyway from here.

On Wednesday and Thurday, August 28 and 29, James attended “disputations” in St Mary’s, Latin speeches delivered in favour or against propositions by academics in five subjects, Theology, Law, Physic (Medicine), Natural Philosophy (roughly, Physics) and Moral Philosophy. The form of the exercise, formal and rhetorically sophisticated speeches in Latin, had its roots in the medieval university, and reflected the importance that continued to be attached to the fluent and persuasive presentation of academic knowledge, but the topics addressed were entirely contemporary. Since we’re in 1605, that still leaves them, for us, interestingly poised between the familiar and the archaic. During the Physic disputation, for example, the question was addressed, An creber suffitus Nicotianae exoticae sit sanis salutaris, “Whether the often taking of Tobacco be wholesome for such as are sound and in health”; whilst when the discipline was Natural Philosophy a topic of debate was, An opera artis possit aurum conflari, “Whether Golde may be made by Arte.”

James was tremendously keen on these exercises, regularly making his own contributions to the learned disputes, and allowing the sessions to continue in St Mary’s without complaint for as long as five hours: hardly surprising that he fell asleep in the play that followed. But King James clearly left the Oxford men convinced that in the new king they had someone who shared their own intellectual appetites.

Now, my room with its peculiar decorations is in the shadow of St Mary’s church. If the roses and thistles have anything to do with James’ visit (which is undoubtedly a very big “if”, but I’m stumped for another explanation), it may just be that they are part of the general beautification of the city that was undertaken in preparation for the royal visit. However, the Cambridge witness talks, as one would expect, of a polishing up of the externals: “Against the King’s coming to Oxford, it was provided, that all rayles, posts, barrs of windows, casements, and pumpes, should be newly paynted, and all armes were newly tricked. The like was done also in all the streets of the City, and at the severell Gates thereof, with dials and such like; the streets were very finely paved and well swept.”

The decorations in my room are quite invisible from the street, and I can’t help wondering whether this building beside St Mary’s church was prepared for the use of the royal entourage during those two days of “disputation”, for rest, refreshment, or, who knows, a lavatory break. I can’t explain the rose/thistle motif except as some kind of reference to James, while the quality of the carved fauns and the fireplace decoration seem to me to bespeak a room that expected some important visitors.

What I’m letting myself wonder, of course, is whether James VI of Scotland and I of England took his ease, one day 409 years ago, in what is now my teaching room.

But perhaps I should settle for Mr Tumnus.


A Mods Don at Ypres

Brandt DR in MEM 2 L1-2-2

I am a “Mods don”, or at least that’s one, rather old-fashioned way of describing me. What it means is that I’m a tutor at an Oxford college, Brasenose, who’s particularly concerned with preparing the Classics students for their first examinations, Honour Moderations (or Mods), in their second year.

That may all sound like the very definition of an ivory tower, and if so, on this occasion, good. Because this is the story of how deep into the charmed cloisters of academia the Great War penetrated, a story very relevant to the Mods don at Brasenose a hundred years later, but entirely unknown to me until ten days ago.

Mods dons at Brasenose, it’s heartening to learn, tend to have a good innings. My predecessor started here in 1957, his predecessor in 1922. Before him a man named Herbert Fox (remember that name) had held the job since 1889, having himself succeeded to Charles Heberden, who started in 1872. If I can only make it to 2022 I’m having a party, and you’re all invited, since it’ll then be a century since my predecessor-but-one took up his Fellowship, and 150 years since the arrival of my predecessor-but-three.

That much I knew, but it turns out I have another predecessor I was entirely unaware of. I owe this information to David Walsh, author (with Anthony Seldon) of Public Schools and the Great War, who has very generously written an article for the college magazine (which I edit) on the impact of the First World War on Brasenose College. An important theme, in the book and the article, is the disproportionate losses suffered by the privileged elite that attended public schools and Oxbridge in the early twentieth century, precisely because they were a privileged elite, and hence fed the junior officer ranks that found themselves most exposed to danger, and suffered predictably appalling casualties. The fatality rate for all British combatants was one in ten, Walsh and Seldon remind us, for products of public schools one in five.

Druce Robert (“Bob”) Brandt was one such product of a privileged education: Harrow (there’s an image of him at school here) and Balliol College, Oxford. He was a very talented Classicist and, something that seemed to count as much in Oxford in those days, a fine cricketer, too. After an operation for appendicitis almost killed him as he was about to sit Finals at Oxford in 1910, he took an aegrotat (a degree awarded when illness has prevented a candidate sitting the exams: Brandt features in a spoof of a Class List in Punch) and that was enough to secure a fellowship in Classics offered him by Brasenose. It’s slightly harder to get a fellowship here nowadays, but the whole game of academia was very different then. Brandt’s obituary in the college magazine acknowledges that “he would, perhaps, have never made a great contribution to written learning,” but argues that this isn’t the best way to evaluate an Oxford scholar, whose legacy lay, not in massive Germanic works of research, but in his influence on the students he taught: “That is the tradition of Oxford–her way with her biggest men: their work lives for posterity in their disciples: vitai lampada tradunt [‘They hand on the torch of life’, from Lucretius, cf. Sir Henry Newbolt].”


Why Brasenose felt it needed another Classicist in 1910 is quite hard to say. My guess is that it had something to do with the health of Herbert Fox, Fellow in Classics at Brasenose from 1889 to 1921. Fox was another cricketing Classicist, in fact his Wikipedia article gives half a sentence to his thirty years at Brasenose, and almost all the rest to cricket. But he seems to have suffered recurrent ill-health, and spent extended periods recuperating away from Oxford. Eventually in 1921 he took early retirement. I suspect Bob Brandt was brought in to support Fox, with a view, in the longer term, to taking over the role of Mods don fully.

If that was indeed the plan, it wasn’t to be. Brandt found the life of an Oxford academic too tame. “Under all,” he wrote to the Principal of Brasenose, “there lies the conviction that my proper place is not in the educational but in the industrial or political world–the feeling that I must be up and doing, not sitting and talking.” This was in his resignation letter, and in 1913 he left Oxford (though he remained a Fellow of Brasenose until the end of his life) and, according to his obituary, “plunged into social work in Bermondsey.” In other words, Brandt became involved in the Settlement Movement, an effort by university-based social reformers to break down the cultural barriers and massive economic discrepancies between social classes. Middle-class colonies like Toynbee Hall were established as centres for social work in the slums of Tower Hamlets and Bermondsey and elsewhere, desperately deprived areas in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Then again, I’ve just been sitting in a meeting discussing how to reconnect Oxford and the inner city, so plus ça change. Maybe Teach First is the reincarnation of the Settlement Movement.

Brandt was privileged but idealistic, then. It’s hard not to warm to this young man impatient to make a positive difference. He had also been in the Officers’ Training Corps at Oxford, which we should also consider a sign of idealism in its time, and in 1913 he joined the Special Reserve, something like the Territorial Army. When war broke out in August 1914, Special Reservists were mobilised immediately; Brandt was posted to the training depot at Sheerness, his deployment to France apparently delayed by a foot injury. For a while he was engaged in training up “Kitchener’s New Army”, men who had responded to the call for volunteers at the start of hostilities. Then, in May 1915, Brandt crossed to France with the 1st Battalion of the Rifle Brigade. (The details of his service I owe to Christopher Stray and the Balliol College Register; and there is a moving letter to his young godson as he prepared to set out for France here.) Near Ypres on July 6th 1915, at 27 years old, and leading a company all of whose officers “had been knocked out the day before,” Lieutenant Brandt was killed.

War memorial

The Great War memorial in Brasenose Chapel: 1914 and 1915 (photo: Andrew Sillett)

 His commanding officer wrote to his parents:

“Your son fell, wounded in two places, about 6.30 a.m. … during the successful assault on a line of German trenches. The attack had been gallantly led by your son with his company on this section of the front assaulted, and he had reached the German parapet and was engaged in cheering on his men to renewed efforts when he fell, and, it seems, died almost immediately.”

This particular assault may have achieved its aims, but the Ypres Salient was a focus of conflict from the beginning to the end of the war (Alan Palmer’s The Salient is a very readable history), and they were still fighting over Pilckem and Boesinghe, the location of Brandt’s death, in 1918. Officially, by July 1915, the Second Battle of Ypres was over, but “local actions took place from time to time without any appreciable result,” although still at immense cost in casualties, and this was one such essentially pointless action.

The official history of the Rifle Brigade makes depressing reading here. The attack was originally planned as part of a larger action, but was undertaken on July 6th even though the wider plan had been shelved. (A letter to this effect was sent by the Divisional Commander General Wilson to his superiors, but “there seems to have been no reply.”) The impression is strong of a date in the diary that a bureaucratic command structure was determined to honour, no matter the human consequences. “Within five minutes of zero all the officers were out of action,” including “Lieutenant Brandt of ‘B’ Company” “shot through the heart on the German parapet.” The action gained “some seventy-five yards of ground on a frontage of three hundred yards.” The fact that Brandt’s name is inscribed on the Menin Gate at Ypres indicates that he has no known grave.

Obituaries in general, and I suppose especially obituaries written in war time, accentuate the positive. Bob Brandt’s obituary in the college magazine stands out nonetheless. He seems to embody for the writer (Herbert Fox, I presume, although it isn’t attributed) an ideal of Edwardian Oxford, and the epitome of the disaster visited upon Oxford by the Great War:

“All the gifts of the gods were his. It is given to but few to combine intellectual brilliance with sanity of judgement; both were his in pre-eminent degree. It is given to fewer still, whilst maintaining an exacting standard of self-criticism, to enjoy life to the full. No one tried himself by higher ideals than Brandt, yet the grace and charm which sprang from the joyousness of his inner life made him the most delightful of companions and the most lovable of friends… He always looked straight into the heart of a question, and it was a real help to others to know what he saw. But in spite of this very unusual maturity of judgement, he retained to the end the most wonderful, the most seductive, boyishness. It never left him… When with the insight of a master of language he hit upon the exact rendering for some difficult phrase, or detected some spark of hidden fire in an unpromising scholarship candidate, the same thrill of boyish expectancy ran through him as when, with the enthusiasm of a novice, he went in search of an Irish trout, or for the first time opened a Basque grammar, or started in the freshness of the early morning to raid the Oxfordshire fritillaries.”

“He loved life, but he gave it,” the obituary concludes. “For many of us the simple old Greek line has gained a new meaning and a new beauty: Ὃν οἱ θεοὶ φιλοῦσιν ἀποθνήσκει νέος [‘Whom the gods love dies young’].”

Bob Brandt was missed. In 1926, W. T. S. Stallybrass, the future Principal of Brasenose, had an obituary to write for the college magazine of Herbert Fox, his colleague in Classics. Stallybrass reminisces about his early years as a Law Fellow (he joined Brasenose in 1911) in company with his closest friends Fox and Brandt:  “Those were halcyon days, for Bob Brandt was still with us,” and he quotes from a letter Fox had sent him when his poor health forced him to retire: “The jolliest time I had at B.N.C. was when you and Bob and I were together.” Fox had taken the death of his colleague especially hard, even amid the tide of Brasenose casualties that faced him in the newspaper every morning: “I have just heard about Bob. It is the worst of all,” and later: “Bob’s death becomes more awful every day.” To men like Fox, it seemed the war would leave nothing left of Oxford. Harold Macmillan, wounded at the Somme, never completed his Oxford degree after the war: “I could not face going back to Oxford. Whenever I went there, it seemed to be “a city of ghosts.””

Others outside Oxford mourned Brandt, of course. I’ve spent a bit of time in the census and the Times Archive trying to fill out a picture of him, but he really died too young to leave much of a record. What I did find in The Times was a notice which appeared for many years in the In Memoriam section on the anniversary of his death, July 6. The details vary slightly from year to year, sometimes giving more detail of Brandt’s rank or affiliation (“LIEUT. DRUCE ROBERT BRANDT, The Rifle Brigade, 6th Batt. (attached 1st Batt.)”) or specifying the location of his death (“Pilckem, near Ypres”). A few early notices identify him as “our son” or “our dear son”. There’s a pattern if you look hard enough: notices for a few years immediately after his death in 1915, then a pause until 1925, but then until 1947 a notice every single year, on the 5th or the 7th if July 6th was a Sunday. After that, it becomes more unpredictable again.

I went to death records to shed some light, and reminded myself how evocative of real lives, and intensely moving, the dry facts of deaths and census records can be. It transpired that Brandt’s father died early in 1925, and his mother, Florence, in 1949: it was clearly a mother’s devotion that had ensured his name appeared in the newspaper every year without fail from 1925 to 1947, after which time, I fear, Florence (who died in February ’49) was too frail to make the arrangements. Thereafter the notices appear more fitfully, but it’s clear that Brandt’s surviving siblings, Edmund (d. 1965) and Florence Winifred (d. 1971) continued to honour their mother’s determination to commemorate Bob’s death, albeit less punctiliously with the passing of time.

Bob Brandt, as we’ve seen, was one of “The Missing”, men whose bodies were never found, or never identified, a fact which tempers rather the solicitous words of his commanding officer to his parents. The huge number of missing in this war was a trauma which exercised the post-war world greatly, and called forth some remarkable responses from creative minds: tombs of the Unknown Warrior, like the one in Westminster Abbey; Kipling’s exquisite formulation for their tombstones, “A soldier of the Great War, known unto God” (Kipling’s own son was among the missing); Lutyens’ Cenotaph in Whitehall, and his architectural masterpiece at Thiepval, the Memorial to the Missing of the Somme composed of interlocking arches in such a way as to create the wall space for 73,357 names. One grieving father mentioned by Seldon and Walsh bought some land on the Somme battlefield where his son, Lt. Val Braithwaite, had died, and erected a cross inscribed, “God buried him and no man knoweth his sepulchre.” The urge to commemorate is all the stronger when the dead have no known grave. It feels intrusive even to speculate, but that Florence Brandt’s son had no known place of burial makes her act of commemoration in print all the more explicable, and all the more poignant. (16.06.2014: in Ralph Furse’s introduction to D. R. Brandt: Some of his Letters, published in 1920, I have subsequently found the following: “The surge of heavy fighting swept back and forward over the spot where he fell, and an unknown grave adds to the grief of some who loved him best.”)


1961 saw Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, with its settings of Wilfred Owen’s poetry; Joan Littlewood’s Oh! What a Lovely War was first staged in 1963, while in 1964 the BBC broadcast its Great War TV series. The First World War was returning to the public consciousness in the early Sixties. The very last notice I could find in The Times, coincidentally or not, appeared on July 6, 1965, the fiftieth anniversary of Bob Brandt’s death.