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Written by Judith Curthoys, posted on Thursday, November 1, 2018

Document of the Month - November 2018

Christ Church Archives, DP vi.c.1

4th November is Foundation Day for Christ Church. Of course, there had been two colleges on the site before: Cardinal College, founded in 1525 and then King Henry VIII College in 1532. But one failed because of the fall and death of its creator and the other because the king came up with a bigger and, possibly, better idea!  And he needed money…

The foundation of Christ Church, with Trinity, its sister college in Cambridge, was intrinsically bound up with Henry VIII’s desperate need for cash after the French and Scottish wars. The site of his new cathedral in Oxford, founded in 1542, isolated on the edge of the city in the old abbey of Oseney, was not entirely to Henry’s liking.  And the lands of the abbey were worth over £600 a year. When he thought about it, his own college in Oxford was worth about the same, and if he combined the two, he could release a bit of cash. Early in 1545, a plan to do just that might just have been forming in the back of the king’s mind. In May, both cathedral and college were seized by the Crown. In July, Peckwater Inn was taken back from New College; in September, Tom, along with the other bells, and many fixtures and fittings from Oseney, was moved to the Frideswide site; and in November, Canterbury College was surrendered. Something big was in preparation.

But in December, the Chantries Act was passed, devised in part to release money tied up for purposes that Henry had decided were inappropriate. Collegiate revenue was targeted, too, and commissioners, all drawn from Oxford and Cambridge, were sent out to investigate. Fortunately for the universities, Matthew Parker in Cambridge and Richard Cox, dean of the suppressed Oxford cathedral and tutor to the prince of Wales, were masterly and speedy in their reporting. Much to his surprise, the king discovered that the colleges operated far more closely to the wire than he had assumed, and so changed his ideas completely. He decided, not only to save the colleges as they were, but to create new ones of his own in both Oxford and Cambridge. A draft charter for the new cathedral, which had evidently been in consideration all through 1545, had been prepared in November of that year. It was stamped on 26 January 1546, but nothing more happened; the ageing and ill monarch was weighing up a new concept: a unique joint venture which was probably the brainwave of Richard Cox. By October that year, the plans for both colleges were ready on paper; in fact, building at Trinity College had already begun.  Christ Church was formally founded on 4 November 1546 as, uniquely, both college and cathedral under one head.

The old priory church was re-designated The Cathedral Church of Christ in Oxford of the Foundation of King Henry VIII, and the building saved, in its strange shortened form, as both the college chapel and the cathedral of the new diocese. The foundation charter, oddly, describes only the ecclesiastical establishment with a mere hint of the academic side of life which was assumed and, to a certain extent, already established. No statutes for either side of Christ Church were ratified, but a new and unique society had been formed.