A Brief Chronology of Catholic Oxford

Early Middle Ages: the beginnings of the University

912 First mention of Oxford, in the Saxon Chronicle, when it is recovered from the Danes by King Ethelred

1120 Theobald of Etampes teaching at a school with '60 or 100 clerks more or less'. Since no foundation of such a school is likely between 1066 and 1120, this school probably dates from before the Norman Conquest. This gives some plausibility to the tradition of a foundation by King Alfred the Great.

1161 English students banned from Paris by Henry II. Many of these congregated in Oxford: this is one explanation of the rise of Oxford as a centre of scholarship.

c.1195 St Edmund of Abingdon studies at Oxford, on the site which developed into St Edmund's Hall.

1221 Party of the newly founded Dominican 'Order of Preachers', the 'Blackfriars', set off to found a house of studies in Oxford. They establish themselves first in Jewish quarter, then move to area around Speedwell Street.

1225 Franciscan friars, the 'Greyfriars', found a house of studies in Oxford, in St Ebbes / Westgate.

1249 University College ('The Great Hall of the University') founded, to support ten masters.

1263 Balliol College founded (by John de Baliol, King of Scotland), as a hall of residence for poor scholars.

1264 Merton College founded, the first college to combine masters and students in one institution.

1281 Benedictine monks of Gloucester Cathedral found a house of studies, Gloucester Hall (where Worcester College now stands). This is soon used by many Benedictine houses of the South and West.

1281 Cistercians found Rewley Abbey as a house of studies. Later, they found St Bernard's College, where St John's now stands.

1286 Durham College (where Trinity College now stands) founded, a house of studies for the Benedictines of Durham Cathedral and the North.

1310 Duke Humphrey's Library founded.

1314 Exeter college founded, to train priests for the diocese of Exeter.

1326 Oriel College founded, for secular clergy of all dioceses.

1340 The Queen's College founded, for the secular clergy of the North.

Reconstruction after the Black Death (1347 - 1350)

1362 Canterbury Hall founded, a house of studies for the Benedictines of Canterbury Cathedral, and the secular clergy of the Province of Canterbury

1379 New College founded, for the secular clergy of the South.

1427 Lincoln College founded, for the secular clergy of the diocese of Lincoln.

1437 All Souls College founded as a community of scholar-priests, to say Masses for the dead of the war with France.

1448 Magdalen College founded

1509 Brasenose College founded, for the secular clergy.

1516 Corpus Christi College founded by Bishop Fox, especially for the study of Greek.

1526 Cardinal College founded by Cardinal Wolsey; refounded as Christ Church in 1546, by Henry VIII.

The Protestant Revolt

1530 Oxford delays its response to King Henry's question about the validity of his marriage to Katharine of Aragon; finally, the theology faculty, not the University, supplies the desired answer.

[1532 St Thomas More resigns as Lord Chancellor over the question of Henry VIII's divorce.]

[1533 Henry VIII marries Anne Boleyn and is excommunicated by Pope Clement VII; Cranmer appointed Archbishop of Canterbury.]

[1534 Act of Supremacy: Henry VIII declared Supreme Head of the Church of England.]

1535 College libraries ransaked. St Thomas More and St John, Cardinal Fisher beheaded.

1536 Dissolution of smaller monasteries in England, carried out by Thomas Cromwell. This leads to the Pilgrimage of Grace, centred in Yorkshire.

1538 Suppression of the Friars' houses in Oxford.

1539 Dissolution of the large religious houses. Abbots Blessed Richard Whiting (Glastonbury) and Blessed Hugh Farringdon (Reading), executed. Monastic colleges destroyed.

[1540 Carthusian martyrdoms in London.]

1541 Suppression of Shrines, including the shrine of St Frideswide in Oxford, located in Christ Church cathedral, which had been an important centre of pilgrimage. The valuables were confiscated and the shrine smashed to pieces.

1547 Edward VI, King of England and Supreme Head of the Church of England: Duke of Somerset acts as Protector. Chantries Act destroys the chantries and seizes their assets.

1553 Parish churches stripped of their valuables, as well as of devotional images and objects.

1549 First version of Book of Common Prayer. Royal policy said to be supported by only 2 of the 13 surviving heads of colleges. Riots in Oxford are quashed, and recalcitrant priests are hanged from their church spires in Chipping Norton and Bloxham. Heads of Catholics fastened to Oxford City walls. The Western Rising, in Devon and Cornwall, eventually crushed, leads to the fall of Somerset.

1552 new version of Book of Common Prayer, with unequivocally Protestant teachings on the Sacraments and so on.

Restoration of Catholicism: Mary Tudor: 1553-1558

1555 Trinity College and St John's College founded. The Dominican Peter de Soto teaches in Oxford.

Restoration of Protestantism: Elizabeth Tudor: 1558-1603

[1559 Act of Uniformity, passed by a margin of three votes, reimposes a slightly modified 1552 prayer-book; a wave of vandalism, by Protestant fanatics and royal officials, follows. Elizabeth is made the 'Supreme Governor' of the Church of England by the Act of Supremacy, which made Catholic resistance to Protestantism a capital offence. All but one of the bishops refused to co-operate; those unable to flee ended their days in prison.]

1559 Royal Commissioners visit Oxford; Catholic students imprisoned 'in great numbers.'

1561 William Allen, later Cardinal, resigns as head of St Mary's Hall, Oxford, and leaves the country. He later returns (still a layman) and encourages Catholics in the Oxford area and elsewhere. Six students imprisoned for resisting the removal of a chapel crucifix.

1565 Allen leaves England again, and with many other Oxford scholars he founds a Catholic University and seminary at Douay, in the Spanish Netherlands (1567). The seminary produced more than 160 martyrs for the Catholic faith. Other seminaries, monasteries and convents are founded by English Catholics overseas in the succeeding years.

[1569 Northern Rising, against the imposition of Protestantism.]

[1570 Pope St Pius V excommunicates Queen Elizabeth, and declares her deposed.]

1571 White Hall, an old hall of residence, refounded as Jesus College.

1574 Arrival in England of the first priests ordained at Douay for the English mission, who include a former fellow of St John's.

1577 Rowland Jenkins, an Oxford stationer, condemned to lose his ears for distributing Popish books, at the 'Black Assize'. Arrival in England St Ralph Sherwin, an alumnus of Exeter College. (Sherwin was martyred in 1581.)

1580 Arrival in England of the first Jesuit priests for the English mission, including St Edmund Campion, formerly Fellow of St John's, and Robert Persons, formerly Bursar of Balliol.

1580 Fr William Hartley sent to Oxford (Fr Arthur Pitts to Cambridge) to encourage vocation (Hartley was martyred in 1588).

1581 St Edmund Campion's book Decem Rationes left on the pews of the University Church in Oxford; later the same year he was martyred in London. Executions of Catholic priests, ordained overseas, and those who help them, frequent for the rest of Elizabeth's reign, and into that of James I.

1581 Undergraduates required to subscribe to the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Anglican Church. This requirement was abolished in 1871.

1587 Execution of the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots by Queen Elizabeth provokes war with Spain. William Allen created Cardinal in preparation for an anticipated Catholic restoration following a Spanish victory. Elizabeth's victory marked by savage persecution of Catholics: in the four months between 22 July and 27 November, of 1588, twenty-one seminary priests, eleven laymen, and one woman were put to death for their Catholic faith.]

1589 Martyrdoms of Blessed Nichols, Yaxley, Belson and Prichard in Oxford.

1602 Bodleian Library founded.

Stuart Dynasty

(James I: 1603-1625; Charles I: 1625-1649; Civil War starts 1642; Cromwell’s ‘Commonwealth’ 1649-1660; Charles II restored 1660-1685; James II 1685, expelled 1688.

1605 ‘Gunpowder Plot’: most famous of many real and imaginary ‘Popish plots’. The plotters had met in the Catherine Wheel Inn, now occupied by Balliol College.

1609 Douay translation of the Bible, prepared mainly by Catholic Oxford scholars working overseas, appears, two years before King James’ ‘Authorized Version’.

1610 Wadham College founded on ruins of the college of the Trinitarian Friars.

1610 Martyrdom of Blessed George Napier (Napper) in Oxford.

1621 Oxford Physic Garden, later called the Botanic Garden, founded.

1624 Broadgate Hall refounded as Pembroke College.

1625 Charles I becomes king; marries the Catholic Henrietta Maria, sister of Louis XIII of France, who prevents him signing the death warrants of captured priests.]

1642 Protestant fervour stirred by the beginning of the Civil War: Catholic books and pictures burned in the streets. Townsmen favour Parliament; the University the King. Oxford becomes the King’s headquarters. The King is forced by the Long Parliament to authorise executions of Catholic priests; a spate of martyrdoms is carried out around the country.

1644 Oxford falls to General Fairfax’s Parliamentarian troops. University and town purged of Royalists; 25 Anglican clergy ejected for their religious views.

1649 Leveller (Protestant extremist) troops of the Parliamentarian garrison of Oxford mutiny; two executed in Gloucester Green. Leveller unrest around the country.

1660 James II returns in triumph to London; Royalists and High Churchmen return from exile, and often to their positions in the University.

[1673 Test Act aims to deprive English Roman Catholics and Nonconformists of public office.]

1678 Titus Oates fabricates a ‘Popish plot’ to assassinate Charles II: anti-Catholic riots in Oxford, in which effigies of the Pope were burned; elsewhere in England the last martyrdoms are suffered as a result, 1679.

685 Charles II received into the Catholic Church on his deathbed. Succeeded by the Catholic James II.]

1687 James II issues Declaration of Liberty of Conscience, extends toleration to all religions.]

1688 James II’s contest with Magdalen College over his proposal for a Catholic Dean; Catholics head University College and Christ Church, and Mass said more openly. More anti-Catholic riots in Oxford precede the expulsion of James II. Test Act reimposed, and Catholic academics are forced to leave.

18th Century

1714 Worcester College founded, on ruins of Gloucester Hall

[1791 Catholic Relief Act legalises Catholic churches, and removes other restrictions on Catholics.]

1795 Chapel of St Ignatius, with a presbytery, was built, the first Catholic church in Oxford since the accession of Queen Elizabeth.

19th -20th Centuries

1817 George Canning rejected as Burgess of Oxford University, for his favouring a Catholic Emancipation Act

[1828 Test Act repealed; 1829 Catholic Emancipation Act removed most remaining legal restrictions on Catholics.]

1833-45 ‘Oxford Movement’ of prominent Anglican theologians, who attempted to reintroduce Catholic elements into their church. Many influenced by this, and some of its leaders, become Catholics, including the Venerable John Henry Newman, formerly Fellow of Oriel College and Vicar of St Mary’s (the University Church). He was received into the Church in 1845 while at Littlemore, outside Oxford.

1871 Thirty-Nine Articles no longer required of Undergraduates.

1875 Building of St Aloysius.

1895 Catholic Bishops allow Catholics to attend the Protestant University.

1895 Benedictines of St Lawrence’s Abbey, Ampleforth, found a house of studies in Oxford; it becomes a Hall of the University, and is known as St Benet’s Hall from 1920. (Halls were called by the name of their Master, e.g. ‘Hunter Blair Hall’, until in 1918 they could be ‘Permanent Private Halls’.)

1895 Jesuits establish a Hall of the University; known as Campion Hall from 1918.

1911 Building of St Edmund and St Frideswide, Iffley Road, and St Gregory and St Augustine, Woodstock Road

1929 Dominicans open Blackfriars as a house of studies; it becomes a Permanent Private Hall in the 1990s.

1931 Capuchin Franciscans take over St Edmund and St Frideswide, Iffley Road, and establish a house of studies; it becomes a Permanent Private Hall of the University in 1957.

(For more on Act of Parliament against Catholics, and the repeal of these, see here.)

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    From Goulder Chapter I: Places Visited on the Way to Oxford, Part 1.

    This is not, of course, Dorchester in Dorset, but the town of the same name which is situated on the River Thame, half a mile north of its confluence with the Thames.


    There was a settlement at Dorchester during most of the last two thousand years before Christ. Indeed, it appears to have been one of the most important inhabited sites in the neighbourhood. The Romans fortified it, and traces of their ramparts still remain on the west and south sides of the town. A track, now overgrown with grass, can be distinguished branching off the main road at the north end of the place. It was the Roman road to Alchester near Bicester.
    In the first quarter of the seventh century, Pope Honorius I
    [1] charged a monk of St Andrew’s monastery on the Coelian Hill in Rome with the task of converting the people inhabiting the middle districts of England. His name was Birinus and he was consecrated a bishop by Asterius[2] of Milan. In 634, he landed at the head[3] of Southampton Water and, finding that the West Saxons living near the coast had not yet been converted, he turned his attention to them. In the same year, he baptized Cynegils,[4] king of Wessex. The ceremony took place at Dorchester, and St Oswald[5] of Northumbria, who was in the town to negotiate a marriage, acted as sponsor to Cynegils.
    St Birinus set up his cathedral at Dorchester and died there about 650. Soon after he was dead, his vast missionary diocese was divided. Hampshire and Dorset were cut off and put under two new bishops, one at Winchester, the other at Sherborne. This move was partly dictated by politics. Things had been going badly for Wessex. The empire conquered by Cynegils’ predecessor, Ceawlin,
    [6] was breaking up under constant attacks by Mercian armies. Bythe middle of the seventh century, the whole of the territory which the West Saxons had ruled north of the Thames had passed into Mercian control. Dorchester had become a Mercian town and it was obviously impossible to maintain a West Saxon bishop­ric there. Henceforth its fortunes were bound up with those of the Mercian kingdom and it was the seat of one of the Mercian bishoprics until, in the course of the great reshuffle of sees which took place after the Norman conquest, Bishop Remigius[7] removed his throne to Lincoln. This was in 1072. The descent of Lincoln from Dorchester explains the surprising fact that Oxford remained in the diocese of Lincoln throughout the middle ages.
    In 1140, another chapter in the history of Dorchester began, when Bishop Alexander
    [8] of Lincoln sent the Canons Regular of St Augustine[9] to take charge of the church which had served as the cathedral of the bishops of Dorchester. The canons, anxious to secure prestige for their monastery, announced in 1224 that they had discovered the body of St Birinus. They tried to refute the common belief that St Hæddi[10] had moved the saint’s relics to Winchester in the last quarter of the seventh century. They put it about that it was the relics of a saint called Bertinus[11] and not those of Birinus which had been translated. It is impossible to say now whether they were right, but the story sounds ben trovato. A furious controversy about the matter raged for many years between the canons and the monks of Winchester. The dispute was eventually referred to the pope, and Cardinal Stephen Langton[12] was appointed to make investigations. He, in turn, dele­gated the problem to one of his archdeacons. It was decided to examine the question on the basis of miracles – whichever place received the most favour to be declared to possess the saint’s body. In the end, the pope issued a non-committal bull slightly in favour of Dorchester. On the strength of this, the canons built a new shrine and transferred the bones – whosesoever they were – to it.
    When Henry VIII
    [13] suppressed the monasteries, Dorchester Abbey was valued at £190. The church was bought by Richard Bewforeste[14] for £140 and left by him to serve as a parish church.


    The abbey church was dedicated to St Peter, St Paul and St Birinus, and was the successor to the little cathedral built in 634. This church, patched up and enlarged from time to time, did duty throughout the Saxon period and was taken over by the Austin Canons when they arrived in 1140.
    By 1175, the canons were ready to build a new church. The Saxon building was demolished and a small church of Norman pattern with an eastern apse and low central tower was put in its place. Some of the masonry from this building still remains in the north wall of the nave and in the transept. The eastern apse ended a short way to the east of the present chancel arch.
    In the thirteenth century, an aisle and some chapels were added on the north of the chancel. The north transept was about twenty-five feet longer than it is now, and there was a chapel measuring twenty feet from east to west springing from its eastern side. The transept was shortened and sealed off in post-Reformation times.

    Soon after 1300, the central tower went the way of many Norman towers and fell down. The canons used the occasion to build another chapel to the south of the chancel. The south door, now protected by a porch, was constructed at the same time. In 1320, the spacious south aisle was built on to the nave to give more room to the parish­ioners, who worshipped in the part of the church west of the screen. There are signs of this screen on the great piers west of the transept. During this alteration, the west wall of the south transept was not removed, and forms the curious barrier at the east end of the nave aisle. No north aisle could be built because the cloister ran along the side of the nave. The doors which led to it are now blocked up. In the fourteenth century, the old east end was pulled down and replaced by the present magnificent structure. In the fifteenth century, the wooden porch which covers the south door was erected.


    Nothing remains of the monastic buildings except the school-house to the west of the tower. Outside the church on the south side are some fine fourteenth-century buttresses and an old preaching cross which has now been restored. These crosses were ruthlessly thrown down at the Reformation and many churchyards contain a pathetic stump.
    Inside the church, the first thing which strikes us is the wall which blocks the east end of the south aisle and the unusual height of the altar which stands before it. The wall, as has already been explained, was the west wall of the south transept and, before the aisle was built, was an outside wall. The altar before the screen was built over a crypt, which accounts for its elevation. On the wall, there are some four­teenth-century paintings. Our Lord is shown after death, with fallen head and closed eyes. The pictures have been touched up. Such representations covered the walls of our churches before the Reforma­tion, but they were usually obscured with whitewash when the Faith was suppressed.
    There is a Norman font with its original lead basin in the south aisle. The figures on it are those of Our Lord and His apostles. Near the font is a stone bracket for a statue with elaborate carving showing sleeping monks and the devil blowing a horn. Right across from the door by which we came in is the north wall of the nave. It is much as the canons built it in the twelfth century, but there are two windows which were constructed in the fifteenth century. They were made high up so as to clear the cloister roof which lay on the other side.
    From the west end of the nave the full splendour of the church can be appreciated. There is a view of the fine east window through the chancel arch. As you go up the nave you will notice the blocked-up cloister doors on your left, and you pass beneath the door in the chancel arch which led into the rood-loft. Under the crossing was the canons’ choir. You can now make out the detail of the east window. The upper three rows of glass date from the fourteenth century and depict the crowning with thorns, the scourging, the carrying of the cross, the Resurrection, Our Lord’s appearance to St Mary Magdalene, and the descent into hell. The lower glass is modern. Glass from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries survives in the window on the south side of the sanctuary. There is a representation of a funeral which some say is that of Our Lady but others hold to be the translation of the relics of St Birinus. The north window is truly marvellous and has a tree of Jesse carved in stone on the mullions, showing the human descent of Christ. It climbs up over the whole interior face of the window.
    The sanctuary contains a beautiful sedilia
    [15] and piscina.[16] There are unusual little windows behind the seats of the former. A splendid double piscina is to be seen to the west of the present sanctuary which doubtless was in use before the church was extended eastwards. On the north side of the space between the stalls and the rails is a brass of an unknown abbot.[17] There is also the matrix of a brass commemorat­ing John de Sutton.[18] It is on the south side almost corresponding to the brass of Bewforeste. Several other matrices for brasses are to be found in the floor.
    Between the chancel and the south choir aisle is some beautiful arcad­ing dating from the fourteenth century. This aisle was planned as a resting-place for the relics of St Birinus and there are some fragments of the shrine preserved in wire-netting at the east end of the aisle. Close under the arcading dividing the aisle from the choir is a memorial to the Seagrave family. The name of the cross-legged knight, whose tomb occupies the dividing line between the two south-aisle chapels is not known. The double brass to the south of it commemorates Sir John Drayton
    [19] and his wife Alice. A little to the east of this, alongside the wall, is a memorial to John de Stonor[20] a famous judge of Edward III’s[21] time. The family arms are repeated four times, at the ends and side of the sepulchre. West of this is the tomb of the Richard Bew­foreste who bought the church, and his wife. Finally, behind the southern range of choir stalls is the ‘effigy of an unknown fourteenth­-century prelate in full pontificals. The colour still shows in the folds of his vestments.
    Before leaving the church, it is worth while comparing the recent wall painting in the Lady Chapel with the medieval figures on the far side of the wall cutting off the south nave aisle. How badly the pallid sentimentality of the modern work stands up against the virility of the medieval ! On the way out, near the line of pillars which separates the nave from the south aisle is another interesting comparison. Could anything be further from the spirit of the Catholic middle ages than the inscription on the tomb of Mrs Sarah Fletcher whose nerves were too delicately spun to bear the rude Shakes and Jostlings which we meet in this transitory World, Nature gave way. She sank and died, a Martyr to Excessive Sensibility. And this lady had committed suicide because her husband ran off with another woman! The coroner’s jury found that she was temporarily out of her mind and so could be buried in church. The date was 1799.

    Also very much worth visiting is the small but very fine Catholic parish church of St Birinus. It is in the 'Arts and Crafts' style, and its Altar and elaborate Rood Screen have not been reordered.
    For more on the Abbey, see their site.

    [1] Pope 625-638.
    [2] Archbishop of Milan 630-640. Some authorities hold that the actual consecra­tion took place at Genoa.
    [3] Probably his landing-place was Cerdicesora, the modern Totton, where the founder of the West Saxon royal house, Cerdic (reigned 495-534), had landed before him.
    [4] King of the West Saxons 611-641. ‘ King of Northumbria 634-642.
    [5] King of Northumbria 634-642.
    [6] King of the West Saxons 560-593.
    [7] Bishop of Dorchester 1067-1072, of Lincoln 1072-1092.
    [8] Bishop of Lincoln 1123-1148.
    [9] The Canons Regular of St Augustine (bishop of Hippo 396-430) or Austin Canons or Black Canons emerged from obscure beginnings in the early twelfth century. They made their profession to a particular house like monks, not to a province like friars. Their life was similar to that of the monastic orders, but they were not so strictly bound to their cloister. They exercised a limited external ministry. In England they possessed one hundred and seventy houses at the time of the dissolution. The habit consisted of a black tunic, over which a white rochet and a black cloak with a hood were worn in choir.
    [10] Bishop of Winchester c. 679-705. He was the fourth successor to St Birinus.
    [11] The identification of this saint is guesswork. There was a St Bertin or Bertinus who died about 709. He was abbot of St Omer and spent most of his life as a mission­ary in the Pas-de-Calais. It is just possible that Dorchester might have acquired a relic, but surely not his whole body. More likely, the canons at Dorchester invented the name.
    [12] Archbishop of Canterbury 1207-1228. Cardinal 1206.
    [13] Reigned 1509-1547.
    [4] Died 1554.
    [15] Seats for the celebrant, deacon and subdeacon at Mass. In medieval English usage, they sat in the order given above with the celebrant in the eastern seat. According to Roman custom the celebrant sits in the middle with the deacon on his right, the subdeacon on his left.
    [16] In the early middle ages, piscine were used for two purposes : (1) for the washing of the priest’s hands at the offertory, and (2) for the disposal of the ablutions after the Communion of the celebrant. In the late thirteenth and early fourteenth cen­turies, the custom arose of drinking the ablutions as is done now. During the early period many double piscine were built, with one drain for the washing of the hands and another for the ablutions. In the later period, one drain alone was necessary, i.e. for the washing of the hands, and single piscine became the rule. The water was carried off through a lead pipe which led directly into the earth.
    [17] A brass plate near this tomb bears the words Here lieth Sir Richard Bewforeste. It gave, rise to the belief that there were two Bewforestes-the man who bought the church after the suppression and this abbot. The theory is, of course, possible. But it is more probable that the plate has been moved from the lay Bewforeste’s tomb on the other side of the church.
    [18] Abbot of Dorchester 1333-1349.
    [19] Died 1417.
    [20] Died 1354.
    [21] Reigned 1327-1377.

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