Oriel: the college that shaped the spiritual heart of 19th century Britain

A review of Oriel College: A History, edited by Jeremy Catto. This book of essays on the contribution of Oriel to British intellectual life contains not a single dud

5 April 2014

9:00 AM

5 April 2014

9:00 AM

Oriel College: A History Jeremy Catto (ed)

OUP, pp.847, £85, ISBN: 9780199595723

Oriel was only the fifth college to be founded in Oxford, in 1326. Although it has gone through periods of relative obscurity in the intervening seven centuries, it has also, at other times, been at the very centre of the intellectual life, not only of the university but of the nation. In the early 19th century, the Senior Common Room was dominated by the Noetics. These broad churchmen, who included Thomas Arnold, a fellow of the college before he became a famous head-master, believed in the acceptance of utilitarian economics, but also an application of Christian principles to society at large.

Against them, and in the same common room, were the high churchmen or Tractarians, the most hypnotic of whom, John Henry Newman, was the closest Oxford ever got to possessing a guru. Many of those Oriel men who would later eschew Newman’s outlook — Matthew Arnold (a fellow) or James Anthony Froude (a commoner and later a fellow) — recognised the stupendous impact made by Newman on the English imagination.

Simon Skinner’s chapter on ‘Oriel to Oliver Twist’ is an eloquent demonstration of the political difference between the Noetics and the Tractarians. Whereas the Noetics were Benthamites, who believed that Christianity was an instrument for social improvement, the Tractarians deplored the secularism and the cruelty of so-called social improvement: in particular they hated the Poor Laws and the use of the workhouse as a ‘deterrent’. He made me want to read F. E.Paget’s novel The Warden of Berkingolt; or Rich and Poor (1843), a seering attack on ‘political economy’ written from the Tractarian viewpoint. ‘Political economy,’ said Philip Pusey MP, brother of Oriel fellow Edward, ‘is very like individual stinginess.’ So, the central debate about the state of the nation was being played out in the SCR of Oriel.

Although the college was more famous in the 19th century than at other times, this stupendous volume, with its impeccable paper, typeface and illustrations, has something of interest to say about every phase, from the middle ages to the present. It is by way of being a history not merely of Oriel, but of Oxford itself. The editor, Jeremy Catto, himself a medieval historian and a much-loved fellow of the college, has contributed some of the most erudite chapters on the early history of the college. His chapter on Oriel in Renaissance Oxford recalls a ‘St Mary’s Hall’, once attended by no less a person than Thomas More, as well as the college of Walter Ralegh, the great poet and explorer.

There is a fine chapter on Oriel’s buildings by Matthew Bool. If you don’t know the Leigh Library, designed by James Wyatt in 1791, you have not completed your tour of Oxford. (And do read the account of Wyatt’s other buildings in Oxford in another Oriel man, John Martin Robinson’s majestic tome on Wyatt, published last year by Yale.)

After the excitements of the Tractarian controversies — when Newman went over to Rome and Pusey, a brilliant Arabist as well as high church stalwart, became a professor and student of Christ Church — Oriel quietened down. But a college which nurtured Cecil Rhodes (and which received a stupendous benefaction after his death) could not be said to have passed out of history. Lancelot Ridley Phelps (1853–1936) was elected to a fellowship in 1877 and was Provost from 1914 to 1929. Tall, bald, bearded, the Phelper is one of Oxford’s legends. He’s the one who reminded the nonconformist Master of Mansfield College that the port was with him. ‘I’d rather commit adultery,’ said the shocked teetotaller. ‘So should we all dear man,’ was Phelps’s reply as he reached for the decanter. It is good to find in this volume a repetition of that other old Oxford chestnut: Phelps’s daily cold bath, before which his scout would hear him saying, ‘Be a man, Phelps, be a man.’

When the Phelper died, his successor, Provost Ross, said, ‘Phelps was the completest epitome of all that the College stands for.’ My favourite anecdote about him was when he was a young fellow and Newman, who had not been to Oxford for years, returned, as a cardinal. The sight of the old Common Room which had played such a part in his life reduced the frail old churchman to sobs and the fellows who were standing round to greet him felt extremes of embarrassment. The Phelper saved the day by approaching the cardinal, shaking him heartily by the hand with the words, ‘Well done, Newman, well done!’

This book does not have a dud chapter. Its interest embraces sport — the wonderful old photos of Bump Suppers and Soccer Cuppers in 1908 cry out to be described in verse. The Science chapter by Robert Foix takes you from the Oriel Astrolabe of 1372 to some distinguished modern scientists.

The arrival of Hugh Trevor-Roper as the Regius Professor, who complained of the ‘tepid cosiness’ of the intellectual atmosphere, might have been the occasion for some indiscretions, but the editor remains judiciously silent, even upon the mystery of the college window-boxes, filled with petunias, and of the disappearance of these suburban items and their inexplicable reappearance dumped by rugger hearties at the back of the Trevor-Ropers’ garage in St Aldate’s.

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