Passing out of the hall you emerge into the Great Quadrangle, the heart of Christ Church, often referred to informally as ‘Tom Quad’ after the bell in Wren’s tower. But the quad’s scale and grandeur are a fitting tribute to the ambitions of another ‘Tom’, Thomas Wolsey. A leading figure in Henrician England, as Archbishop of York, Lord Chancellor and the founder of Cardinal’s College, Wolsey sought to display his power through extravagant building projects. Tom Quad, along with Hampton Court Palace, is the greatest monument to this aspiration. Although the quad remained unfinished during Wolsey’s time, his vision was carried through into Christ Church’s great building phase of the seventeenth century; subsequent additions, such as the north side of the quad and the clock tower designed by Christopher Wren, were conceived to complement and complete Wolsey’s vision of Gothic splendour.
Tom Quad exemplifies the transformation in attitudes and approaches to education in England at the start of the sixteenth century. Pioneers such as Desiderius Erasmus, the Renaissance humanist, and Thomas More, author of Utopia, and Lord Chancellor of England, led the way, spearheading efforts to attain a purer, more classical Latin style and a broader knowledge of ancient literature and Christian doctrine. This new learning had already been adopted at Magdalen and Corpus Christi, shortly before the foundation of Wolsey’s college.
It was in this climate of intellectual ferment that Cardinal Wolsey’s vision for a new Oxford college was formed. Education was one of Wolsey’s great passions and he believed that more dynamic educational institutions should replace England’s declining monasteries. Although theology and scripture would remain the core of serious learning, he believed that any proper education must be augmented by humanistic teaching in Latin, Greek and philosophy. Indeed, for Wolsey these two traditions of learning were inseparable: his new college was to be the grandest monument to Renaissance learning in England and a bastion of the Catholic faith. This is reflected in the dual nature of Christ Church’s foundation, as both a college and a cathedral.
In 1524 Wolsey received permission from the Pope to dissolve the monastery of St Frideswide’s and to turn the site (and many of the buildings surrounding it) into a college. This included taking over the buildings of the former Canterbury College, which lends its name to the present day Canterbury Quad.
Wolsey set about demolishing much of what had previously been there to make room for his sumptuous Great Quadrangle. The quad is the largest in Oxford, measuring 264 feet by 261, and it would have been cloistered were it not for Wolsey’s demise in 1530 - the pillars and arches on which the cloister would have rested are still visible on the outside of the buildings. The north side (opposite the Hall) was in the sixteenth century left at its original level and it seems likely that Wolsey had planned a chapel to span this entire wing!
Already impressive, Wolsey’s work remained incomplete for another century: the north side was still open and the gatehouse had been left unfinished. It was only when, after the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, John Fell was appointed dean, that plans for the completion of Tom Quad were begin in earnest. Fell was the first fo the great builder deans and by 1665 the north side of Tom Quad had been completed. No detail was spared: supports for the cloisters were installed on the walls of the seventeenth century north side, even though it was clear that the quad could never be cloistered. But Fell was determined to complete Tom Quad with the unity and grandeur its original builder had desired.
It was in this vein that Fell came to commission Christopher Wren to design a clock tower to crown the St. Aldate’s gatehouse. Wren made a case for working in a late Gothic style, he felt that the bell tower ‘ought to be Gothick to agree with the Founders worke’. Plans were approved in late spring of 1681, Christopher Kempster was appointed as builder and work was completed by Michaelmas of 1682. Great Tom rang from the new tower for the first time on the 29th May 1684.
Wren included two niches for statues on the tower; one to look into the college, the other outwards. He proposed that the two niches be filled by ‘his present Majesty’, Charles II, and the founder of the college, Henry VIII. This proposal, however, came to nothing. Instead, the niches remained vacant for a quarter of a century until Robert Harley, earl of Oxford, presented Christ Church with a statue of Queen Anne to fill the inner niche. In 1870, Dean Liddell placed a statue of Cardinal Wolsey in the outer niche, finally completing the St. Aldate’s façade. A fitting tribute to Tom Quad’s original visionary.
Tom Tower and its great bell are to Christ Church and to Oxford, what Elizabeth Tower and Big Ben are to London. For over three hundred years, Great Tom, the bell residing in the belfry of Tom Tower, has provided the background noise to life in Oxford, from the everyday marking of the hours, to the celebration of anniversaries and other great events.
Great Tom began life at Osney Abbey, a house of Augustinian Canons to the west of Oxford. With the dissolution of the monasteries, Tom, along with other bells, was moved to St. Frideswide. Over the next hundred years Great Tom underwent several attempts at recasting, yet it was not until 1684 that it found permanent residence in the newly built Tom Tower, to which Great Tom gave its name.
Great Tom chimes 101 times at 9.05pm and this has a double purpose. The first is to signal the curfew for students to return to college - this still continues even though students are no longer bound by a curfew. The second is to mark the 100 Students attached to the foundation by Henry VIII, plus the additional student added by bequest in 1663. It rings at 9.05pm, which corresponds with 9.00pm Oxford time - though in 1852, Greenwich Mean Time was formally adopted nationwide, Christ Church steadfastly retained ‘Oxford’ time, five minutes behind GMT. This has had some curious effects: dinner, for example, which the statutes say should begin at 7.15pm, actually starts at 7.20pm.
Great Tom occupies it share of Christ Church mythology. Mr Borrett, long-serving Head Porter, recalled in his memoirs attempts to run around Tom Quad while midnight was being struck - a feat he never saw achieved. Another porter, charged with the rather arduous task of tolling the 101, clearly felt a drink might aid his task: it didn’t. He repeatedly lost count of the number of times he had tolled, forcing him to start again. Curfew must have been rather later than usual that evening!
Although apparently ornamental, the pond and fountain at the centre of Tom Quad, now adorned by a statue of Mercury, was not designed as a decorative feature. Its first role was a ready source of water in the event of a fire. And with good reason: in the mid-seventeenth century, a disastrous fire near the cloisters had destroyed the house of a Canon, Richard Gardiner. John Fell, dean at the time, had the pond dug to guard against future blazes.
The statue at the centre of the reservoir has been through several incarnations. Originally it was a lead-gilt globe and a fountain in the form of a serpent, all the gift of the senior Canon, Dr Gardiner, who gave it on condition that it might be kept ‘ever hereafter repaired’. In spite of this, the globe and serpent were removed in 1695, and a statue of Mercury, with a body of lead and head of bronze, replaced it.
However, this statue of Mercury was not to last: it was torn down in 1817 in an undergraduate frolic led by the fourteenth earl of Derby. (In 1852, the same man would become Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.) The head of this statue of Mercury is now held in the library. Finally, in 1928, a lead copy of Giovanni da Bologna’s statue of Mercury was given to the college by a benefactor and placed on a pedestal by the famous architect Sir Edward Lutyens. It remains there to this day.
Although built to prevent fire, Mercury and its pond has also fulfilled more trivial functions. The famous golf ‘hole-in-one’ from outside staircase 4 of Peckwater building into Mercury, over the top of the Library and Fell Tower, was made in 1951 by P.F. Gardiner Hill, then captain of the University golf team - an achievement encouraged by the Senior Censor, Eric Gray, and ‘Hooky’ Hill, the Steward. No one has managed since, however, perhaps because the Censors are no longer so keen to encourage attempts.