Unexpected cultural encounters at Christ Church

During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries Christ Church was always, one way or another, part of a cultural exchange between the Levant and England. Particularly in this period, the Anglican Church showed considerable interest in the Greek Orthodox Church. This was due to a desire on the part of the Anglicans to explore the possibility of a rapprochement with the Greek Orthodox Church, and an interest in new theological arguments against their common enemy, the Roman Catholic Church.

It was in this context that, in 1699, a Greek College was established in Oxford for Greek Orthodox students. The initiative of the then Principal of Gloucester Hall, Benjamin Woodroffe (who also served as Dean of Christ Church before Henry Aldrich) gained the support of the Levant Company, the Greek Orthodox Church, as well as the ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, Lord William Paget. Three students from Walachia were brought by Lord Paget to study here.

The interest was reciprocated by the Orthodox Church. A letter from Dositheos, the Patriarch of Jerusalem, to Archbishop Wake (letter 17 in volume 23 of Wake's collected correspondence in Christ Church Library) reveals his intention to visit Oxford. The role of Dositheos is crucial in the printing of theological books in Greek in Walachia and Moldavia. He needed printed arguments against the Roman Catholic Church. Likewise, the Anglican interest in the books the Patriarch wrote and edited is suggested by the presence of such books in the Wake Collection at Christ Church. Furthermore, the Allestree Library, also part of the Christ Church Library, contains a volume of Doshiteos’ writings printed in Paris in 1676.

The financial support for these printing endeavours was provided by Constantin Brancoveanu, the ruler of Walachia. He paid for books printed not just in Walachia, but also in Venice. One of them, printed in Venice in 1712, is to be found nowadays in Christ Church Library, under the shelfmark Oa.1.5. Some of these books, along with two Byzantine manuscripts arrived in Wake’s collection as part of a cultural dialogue between the Archbishop and the Fanariot ruler in Walahia and Moldavia Nicholaos Mavrocordatos. The correspondence between the two was mediated by Jean Leclerc from Amsterdam. Most interestingly, the same Leclerc exchanged ideas with John Locke, (another famous name linked to Christ Church) while the latter was in the Netherlands.

As a consequence of the prince’s interest in the art and craft of government, Mavrocordatos received from Leclerc Locke’s "Two Treatises of Civil Government". He cherished Locke’s ideas so much that, he introduced them in his work “Les Loisirs de Philotee”, considered to be the first Neo-Greek novel. Furthermore, some of the political reforms conceived by Mavrocordatos might have been inspired by Locke.

A regular contact and exchange of theological views between the Anglican Church and the Orthodoxy was very much the rule during this period, not least for the sake of joining forces against a common dogmatic enemy: the Roman Catholic Church. At the same time, a lively intellectual exchange of ideas between England and the Levant took place through these ecclesiastical connections. This exchange would have no small an impact on the social and political development of the territories ruled by Nicholas Mavrocordatos.

And Christ Church played an active role in these cultural encounters.

Alina Nachescu
Photographic and Special Collections Assistant

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