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John Fell

Written by Jim Godfrey, posted on Sunday, March 1, 2020


Illustration of John Fell by Jim GodfreyFell is regarded amongst the greatest of Christ Church Deans. A notable reformer, he remains the only man to have been both Dean and Bishop of Oxford at the same time. Today he is perhaps best known as the subject of a children’s nursery rhyme


The young John Fell

John Fell was born at Longworth, Berkshire, on 23 June 1625, the son of Samuel (who, in 1638, would himself become Dean of Christ Church), and Margaret née Wylde.  He was a pupil at Lord William’s School, Thame and, in 1637, aged just eleven, became a student at Christ Church. He obtained his MA in 1643 and took Holy Orders as a deacon in 1647 and priest in 1649.

During the English Civil War he fought for the King, holding a commission as ensign (the junior officer who carries the regimental colours). In 1648, on the King’s defeat, he was deprived of his studentship and for the next few years lived with his brother-in-law, Thomas Willis, in a house opposite Merton College. There he maintained in private the proscribed Anglican services alongside two other ejected Christ Church men; John Dolben and Richard Allestree (a painting of the three of them in the Great Hall shows them reading together from the outlawed Book of Common Prayer). This courageous act naturally led to Fell’s immediate promotion at the Restoration of Charles II in 1660. On 27 July 1660 he was made a Canon of Christ Church and four months later, on 30 November, he became Dean. He quickly ejected all those displaying puritan sympathies from the college.


John Fell in leadership

Fell proved himself a highly capable administrator, restoring good order in the college which, during the Commonwealth, had lapsed into a general disregard for authority. He attended chapel services in the Cathedral four times a day, reintroducing an organ (which is still in use today) and insisting on proper academic dress. In attending to academic standards he was in the habit of visiting the rooms of his students to examine them personally in their studies.

A renowned disciplinarian, Fell’s insistence on high standards was not always appreciated. On one famous occasion Tom Brown, (the author of ‘The Dialogues of the Dead’) was threatened by Fell with expulsion from Oxford unless he was able immediately to translate an epigram by the Roman poet Martial which opened with the line ‘I do not love thee Sabidi’. To Fell’s approval Brown responded with the now well-known verse:

I do not love thee Doctor Fell
The reason why I cannot tell;
But this I know and know full well,
I do not love thee, Doctor Fell.


Fell's grand projects

Fell did a great deal of work on the fabric of the college, beginning with the completion of the north side of Tom Quad. Wolsey’s untimely fall from grace in 1529 meant that the vast college chapel he had planned along the whole of the north side of the quad was never built. In its place Fell instead built two canon’s houses (now divided into four). The work was finished in 1665.

Fell’s greatest architectural achievement was the completion of Tom Tower. Wolsey’s plan for an entrance tower over the main college gate was never fully realised: indeed, David Loggan’s 1675 print of Christ Church shows the unfinished tower open to the elements with a tree growing up inside it! For the project, begun in 1681, Fell engaged Christopher Wren, whose rebuilding of St Paul’s Cathedral had begun six years earlier. Wren doubled the height of the tower and completed the work in little over a year. In 1683 the bell, Great Tom, was recast and transferred from the Cathedral to the new ‘Tom’ Tower.

From 1666 to 1669 Fell was also the Vice-Chancellor of the University. He had disapproved of the use of the University Church for secular purposes, and promoted, as a more fitting alternative, the building of the Sheldonian Theatre by Archbishop Gilbert Sheldon. Fell was treasurer during its construction and presided at the opening on 9 July 1669. Part of the function of the theatre was to house the Oxford University Press, and Fell did much to support the Press, improving the style of printing (a type of font still bears his name today).

In 1676, whilst still Dean of Christ Church, Fell was made Bishop of Oxford. His principal work was the rebuilding of the Bishop’s Palace at Cuddesdon. His many projects, however, wore him out, and he died in 1686, aged 61. He never married, and was buried beneath the Dean’s stall in the Latin Chapel.


At Christ Church, Fell is commemorated by a large monument in the Ante Chapel of the Cathedral, which was moved there from the Latin Chapel in the nineteenth century. His statue appears on the south side of Fell Tower in Tom Quad, and, uniquely, his portrait appears twice in the Great Hall.