Leaving the Meadow Building, you move across the courtyard into a passageway. At the end of this passageway you may see a sign for the Old Library on your lefthand side. This modest notice gives little indication of the great treasury of knowledge that once lay behind this door. Today, only the shell of what was the Old library now remains, but at its opening in 1562 it was one of the largest and grandest libraries in Oxford and the intellectual hub of the college in its earliest days. By the turn of the seventeenth century, however, Christ Church had stiff competition from other colleges with their own ambitions to be Oxford’s best: libraries were the currency for this contest and Christ Church needed to keep up. Between 1610-11, therefore, Christ Church library was refitted to rival contemporary examples such as the Duke Humfrey’s library (part of the Bodleian). This process was crowned by the installation of a stunning painted ceiling, adorned with an extensive series of royal arms, crests and badges. Parts of this ceiling are still visible today, although only by those lucky enough to stay in one of the rooms in which the ceiling is still intact. (link to B&B)
This renovation, though magnificent, was not enough and more space was soon needed. Christ Church was growing, and bequests from men like Robert Burton, the great writer on melancholy and librarian of Christ Church, needed to be housed. Repeated alterations began to take their toll on this medieval frame and the building of a new library became urgent. Begun in 1717, the New Library was finally completed in 1772 - we shall encounter it later in the tour. The Old Library was converted into much needed accommodation in 1775, and members of the college continue to live there to this day.
As you pass the Old Library into the Cloisters, you are standing where the priory of St Frideswide stood until the 1520s. Although Christ Church combines the roles of a college with that of a cathedral, the site was originally founded as a monastery in the eighth century. Little is known about the early history but it appears that Frideswide was the nunnery’s first abbess who courageously chose the religious life over a marriage to the local king, Algar. The king, enraged by Frideswide's decision, pursued her with his henchmen, but was miraculously struck blind. A cult of devotion to her emerged soon after her death, attracting pilgrims from across the region to visit the nunner, and Frideswide became the patron saint of the city and the university. The nunnery was taken over by Augustinian Canons in the twelfth century; they ministered to the inhabitants of Oxford as well as continuing the daily rounds of communal and private prayers.
Cloisters were a common feature of these monastic establishments, for they provided a sheltered space for monks to move about the priory undisturbed by the outside world. The present cloisters were rebuilt in 1499, although there would have been a similar structure here back in the twelfth century. Make sure you look up, and catch one of the best views of the Cathedral spire. It is the oldest surviving stone spire in England and has been a feature of the skyline since 1230.
By the 1520s the government was clamping down on religious house and the monks were evicted to make way for Thomas Wolsey’s proposed Cardinal College. But the priory’s influence did not end there. Wolsey planned his college to be an adaptation of the monastic life with communal devotion combined with the latest, cutting-edge learning. When Henry VIII took over the college, renaming it Christ Church and making it the centre of a new diocese of Oxford, he maintained the spirit of Wolsey's original foundation.
The cloisters suggest the original Gothic architectural style of the priory, which Wolsey wanted to reflect in in his new buildings. In late medieval Europe, Gothic was extremely fashionable, emphasising a lighter and brighter feel within stone buildings that had long felt dark and heavy. Typically, the Gothic style involved intricate interlocking ribs running from the base of the pillars to the roof before fanning out across the ceiling. The cloister’s ceiling has these distinctively Gothic features and, as the visitor will see during their visit to the college, much effort was subsequently spent in combining the new needs of the college to that of the existing Gothic style.
Before turning into the courtyard, have a look at the three plaques celebrating an often overlooked part of the college: its staff. On the left, William Hall and his wife Elsie, are commemorated for a combined 74 years service to the college: William was a scout and Elsie worked in the college treasury. The central memorial is dedicated to William Pound, said to have earned ‘the approbation and esteem of the whole Society’ for his role as a porter. Finally, to the right, one of Christ Church’s longest serving employees, William Francis, is remembered. All three provide a timely reminder that the college could not function without its staff, many of whom have served the college for decades.
True aficionados of the Harry Potter films may note that the cloisters were used in a scene where Harry is shown the trophy his father won as a ‘seeker’ many years before.