The Archives Blog

Search all blog posts

"Deeply sensible of their own reall wants..."

Written by Judith Curthoys, posted on Monday, July 1, 2019

Document of the Month July 2019

Christ Church Archives, DP ii.c.1, f.32

On 12th July 1643, the Dean and Chapter decreed that the Students would receive only one meal each day. The Civil War was making it difficult to source sufficient fuel to keep the kitchen going. They were, however, willing to hear ‘reasonable’ proposals from the Students. A long document with suggestions was soon winging its way to the Chapter House. First, the Students stated that it was not evident to them that there were any shortages. Naturally, if they were given proof, they would desist from any further complaints.

But there was more at stake than just hunger. This was all to do with pay. Before the middle of the nineteenth century, a Student’s commons (meals) were supposed to be paid from the proceeds of corn rents. This was a third portion of all the rents received from Christ Church’s estates which was ‘index-linked’ to the local price of grain, a scheme introduced during the reign of Elizabeth I to help protect the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge (as well as Eton and Winchester Colleges) survive inflation. The war was causing chaos; not only was Christ Church hosting the King, his Court, and his senior army officers, with all the attendant expense and inconvenience, but many of the college’s tenants were finding it hard to get rents to Oxford and, as the war progressed, land was devastated by battles and billeting. In addition, Christ Church was responsible for 25% of the costs of fortifying the City.

There is no written evidence of the extra costs - for alterations to buildings, or even just the board and lodging expenses of so many new residents - but they were definitely being accrued. In the final pages of a ledger kept by the sub-dean which generally recorded leaves of absence and other daily administrative affairs there is a single account showing that the Treasurer was settling bills for things definitely not of an academic nature. Articles like a pound of powder, three yards of match, three girdles of bandoleers, eight staffs of whole pikes and ten of half pikes, five weeks training for our men, and the costs of Rankling the smith who was mending and making armoury.

Income was dropping rapidly, and the decree of the Chapter was designed to relieve pressure on the coffers. The Students, however, thought that the restrictions were too harsh – “an allowance in the Buttery farre below what they conceive their due …. [especially as] the greatest part of them [were] in Armes.”  It was also unfair, they said, that some men – presumably fee-paying undergraduates – seemed to be having two meals a day.

There is no record of how this complaint was worked through. However, most men left Christ Church during the War; some went home, others joined the army. In 1645, only five new undergraduates matriculated. Oxford was not a safe place to be, even if there had been plenty of food and fuel to cook it.

For more on Christ Church during the Civil War, see The Cardinal’s College: Christ Church, Chapter and Verse (2012)