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Oxford Ogling

I can’t believe it’s been an entire week since I last wrote; at the same time I can’t believe it’s only been a week since I last wrote. (Yes, both can be true at the same time.)

We welcomed Gucci’s family home and said a tearful goodbye. We know they were grateful for our sitting because they left a five-star rave review (yaayyy!). Here’s one last look at the adorable Gucci crunching on a goodbye carrot.

We headed off to Oxford and checked into a hotel in a suburb known as Iffley. Robin has some sentimental attachment to the name Iffley because his family spent a couple of years living on a cattle ranch named “Iffley Station” in the north of Australia. (I’m always amused when his introverted feeling fires off and he waxes nostalgically about his childhood).

We had three days and four nights in Oxford, and let me simply say we made the most of them. We were already resigned to how little we would be able to squeeze in with the time we had. Luckily my clients gave me the week off so I could indulge (I have fabulous clients).

It turned out Monday was a bank holiday, so it probably wasn’t the best day to take a tour of the Oxford Castle & Prison attraction. Robin dropped me off when it became challenging to find a parking spot, and I had to bump our tour time back twice in order to make it onto a tour.

Oxford Castle & Prison was built by a Norman baron starting in 1071 after the Battle of Hastings, and it enjoyed some golden years before deteriorating. Then, following the English Civil War in 1652, Oxford Castle primarily served as the local prison. Shown above is an external view of the tower known as debtors’ prison. Some people were locked up here for a long time—30 years in some cases.

The prison was closed in 1996 and the buildings were redeveloped as a restaurant and heritage complex, offering guided tours of the historic buildings and providing open courtyards for markets and theatrical performances.

This corridor shown below leads down a row of cells that once contained some rather infamous prisoners—infamous in their day anyhow…

One of these was Mary Blandy, an 18th century English woman who presented an interesting and unusual case. In 1746, Mary met Captain William Henry Cranstoun and the two of them intended to marry in 1751. However, it was exposed that he was already married to a woman in Scotland and had a child by this marriage. Cranstoun denied the validity of said marriage and made several trips to Scotland ostensibly to have the marriage annulled.

After months of stalling, Mary's father became suspicious of Cranstoun. Coming to believe he had no intention of leaving his wife, he began disapproving of the whole affair. Here is where matters get complex.

Mary claimed Cranstoun sent her a “love potion” and asked her to put it in her father's food, claiming it would change his mind and cause him to approve of their relationship. Mary did so, and her father died. The “love potion” turned out to be arsenic. Mary was aghast… and arrested. She took up residence here in Oxford prison.

Now in the 19th century it was acceptable for rich prisoners to pay for special privileges. Mary was wealthy enough to have a maid looking after her. She was allowed to go out shopping as long as she wore her ankle manacles (seen alongside her picture; ostensibly to keep her from running away). She could even hold tea parties with invited guests in a corner of her cell.

Tragically, she was found guilty, and after only a couple months of imprisonment she was hanged in the courtyard just outside the prison. In her day she was widely condemned, but later in the 19th century her case was re-examined from a more sympathetic point of view, and people began to think of her as a “poor lovesick girl,” sensing there had been a miscarriage of justice.

The tour we took ranged widely—over a hundred steps up into St. George’s Tower, back down to the Capstan Wheel room, and then down into the crypt, as shown below…

We heard hair-raising stories about prisoners and conditions in the prison that were beyond horrifying. It’s simply staggering the myriad ways human beings have been cruel to human beings over the centuries.

Our next day we turned tail and headed off to visit some villages south of Oxford in order to avoid the awful traffic we encountered the day before. (It was worse than L.A. traffic—and we know L.A. traffic all too well.)

For this outing, we made a beeline for ancient Dorchester Abbey.

One of the earliest Christian sites in all of Britain, the Abbey was built on the site of a 7th century Saxon cathedral. The large church you see below is all that remains of an Augustinian abbey which was founded in 1140.

Upon entering, our eyes were immediately drawn to this vivid 14th century wall painting.

Given how faded many church murals are, it was delightful to encounter one so bright with obvious subject matter.

From here, we ambled into the abbey’s enchanting chancel. It was an expansive space filled with a blend of old and new.

Unfortunately, the best bits are on the chancel’s sides, so they can’t be appreciated from this angle. So let’s go up to the altar and swing the camera around.

On one side, I was fascinated to encounter a sedilla with recesses featuring 14th century stained glass medallion windows inserted in it. This was something I haven’t encountered before.

Nestled within the carved canopy over the sedilla are tiny figures meant to represent the Seven Deadly Sins—they were amusing!

Turning my camera to the other side of the chancel, we find this amazing mixed-media window dating to 1340, with the most unusual Tree of Jesse (the purported family tree of Christ) that we’ve ever seen, in an unusual blend of stained glass and carved stone. I had to adjust my eye to flick between the glass and the stone—it resembled a gestalt figure/ground image in the way it plays tricks with the eyes. It’s hard to see both mediums at once.

Unfortunately, it suffered vandalism by Cromwell’s troops during the English Civil War, but they have done their best to repair those damages.

Next we explored the side chapels. I was taken with this 1894 Pre-Raphaelite mural dedicated to Mary inside the Lady Chapel.

Other marvelous elements were scattered throughout the church: unusual carvings, a carved lead font, facsimile shrine, stone effigies, and a faded wall painting of St. Christopher carrying Christ on his shoulder. It was a delicious, rewarding visit.

From the abbey, we hightailed it to our next destination, Wallingford, to visit St. Peter's Church. We wanted to see the east window depicting Jesus and St. Peter made by the William Morris company that was installed in 1919.

Oh those Pre-Raphaelites get me every time.

Wednesday was a big day! Robin booked us for a tour of Christ Church, a constituent college of the University of Oxford, and thirteenth of the present group of Oxford colleges to be established. Founded in 1546 by King Henry VIII, its formal name is "The Dean and Chapter of the Cathedral Church of Christ in Oxford of the Foundation of King Henry the Eighth" (say that five times fast!).

This is the only academic institution in the world which is also a cathedral—the seat (cathedra) of the Bishop of Oxford. It is also amongst the largest and wealthiest of colleges at the University of Oxford, so there’s that too. As of 2020, the college reported having 650 students enrolled.

The staircase below was used in the arrival scene for new Hogwarts students during the first two Harry Potter films. This bit of notoriety helped Christ Church become the most popular Oxford college for tourists with nearly half a million visitors annually. (Note: that’s not why we took a tour there. But it’s still fun to talk about.)

Other films have been made at Christ Church too, but Potter is surely best-known. But I’ll whisper to you: Brideshead Revisited, The Golden Compass, X-Men: First Class, Alice in Wonderland, and the TV detective series Inspector Morse, Lewis and Endeavour, and too many others to list.

While I’m beating the Harry Potter drum, this staircase leads into the Great Hall, of which they built a replica at Warner Brothers Studios (in the UK) to serve as the fictional grand dining hall of Hogwarts school.

Once the largest hall in Oxford, this Great Hall is striking. Grand paintings hang on all the walls, topped by a 16th century hammerbeam ceiling. Can you imagine dining here everyday, surrounded by this much history?

Graduates of the college include 13 British prime ministers, as well as former prime ministers of Pakistan and Ceylon. Other notable alumni include 17 archbishops, King Edward VII, King William II of the Netherlands, William Penn (founder of Pennsylvania), philosopher John Locke, art critic John Ruskin, scientist Robert Hooke, and writers W. H. Auden and 19th century mathematics tutor Charles Dodgson (who wrote Alice in Wonderland under his pen name, Lewis Carroll).

The story behind Alice in Wonderland is charming; Dodgson lived most of his life at Christ Church as a scholar and teacher. The daughter of the dean, Alice Liddell, has been widely identified as the inspiration for Alice (although Dodgson always denied this), and the dean himself, Henry Liddell, was said to have inspired the White Rabbit character due to always running late for meetings. A stained glass window in the Great Hall features elements of the Wonderland story embellished on corners of the glass—an eccentric counterpoint to the weight of history found elsewhere in the room.

After the Great Hall we strolled into Tom Quad (the largest quadrangle in Oxford, built between 1525–1529), overlooked by Tom Tower, which was designed by Christopher Wren. “Tom” comes from “Great Tom,” the name of the bell in the tower. Great Tom is the loudest bell in Oxford and, with a weight of 6 tons and 7 feet in diameter, it is also the heaviest. Apart from a period during WWII, Great Tom has rung the hour (now only during the daytime) since 1684. By tradition it is silent only for rare occasions of mourning.

Famously, it tolls 101 times beginning at 9:05 p.m. nightly. The first number commemorates the original 100 scholars of the college, plus an additional one added by bequest. The 5 minute delay after 9 p.m. is due to Oxford time, which is 5 minutes later than Greenwich mean time. Back in the day, the ringing of Tom Bell signaled curfew and students were expected to return to college quickly.

A statue of Mercury crowns the fountain in the center, but visitors aren’t allowed to walk over and see it. That may seem restrictive, but we actually timed our adventure perfectly—since school was not in session we were permitted to enter buildings that visitors during the school year would probably not be allowed to see, including the Great Hall.

The pièce de résistance (for me anyway) was the 12th century Christ Church cathedral. Despite being one of the smallest cathedrals in all of England, Christ Church Cathedral’s architecture is grand—if not in scale then in its design.

The cathedral is originally Norman with later Perpendicular features and extensive Victorian rebuilding, but its roots reach back deep into the Saxon era, when a church grew up here around the shrine of St Frideswide. I’ll say more about her in a moment.

Here we are outside in the cloisters, about to go in. You can see the cathedral’s crossing tower and spire from this angle.

As we entered the cathedral into the choir, we stumbled into a visual feast, even by Oxford’s high standards. It was nearly overwhelming.

This astonishing space was built between 1158–90, and features a rich, vaulted ceiling over the chancel that was added around 1400, considered to be one of the finest examples of its type in any English cathedral. This canopy is a superb work of craftsmanship, with detailed pendants descending from vaulting bosses. The pendants are linked by ribs that intersect, creating eight-pointed shapes resembling stars in the heavens.

Roof bosses are fitted up there as well, along with corbel heads and gargoyles. It is astounding how stone can be made to feel this light and airy.

The stained glass windows, altar, and reredos in the chancel are 19th century reconstructions by the gothic revivalist architect, Sir George Gilbert Scott, who made considerable alterations. One of these was to set the carved wooden choir stalls to face inwards in the “collegiate” style.

The most sacred space in the cathedral is found in a side chapel that contains the shrine of St. Frideswide (pronounced friedz-wide).

The story goes that Frideswide was born to King Didan and his wife Safrida. She founded a monastery with her father's assistance while still young, and her parents died soon after. Algar, the king of Leicester (Æthelbald of Mercia) sought to marry her despite her vow of celibacy. When she refused him, Algar attempted to abduct her, and Frideswide fled into the wilderness. There she found a ship sent by God which took her to Oxfordshire. Algar searched for her in the city of Oxford, but the people refused to tell him where she was. Frideswide called down blindness on Algar, who eventually repented his ways and left Frideswide to her devotions and acts of charity.

Frideswide died in about 737 A.D., and was canonized in 1480. The original church holding her remains was rebuilt several times over the centuries, and in 1180 her remains were moved into a new shrine within the monastery church. Throughout the medieval period, her shrine was a popular destination for pilgrimages, and Frideswide was declared patron saint of Oxford University and the city as a whole.

Christ Church Cathedral is said to have been built atop this previous Saxon priory church, and Frideswide’s shrine was installed inside its sanctuary in 1289.

The entire site was badly damaged during the Dissolution of the Monasteries under Henry VIII, and her shrine was deliberately destroyed in 1538, although St. Frideswide’s bones were rescued and buried elsewhere inside the cathedral.

After the devastation and repression ceased, gradually—and from different places—fragments of the shrine were found and reassembled: first, several pieces of delicately carved marble were discovered in the sides of a square well in the yard southwest of the cathedral; then a part of the plinth on the south side was found being used as a step (luckily with the carved portion turned inwards); next, a spandrel was detected by a verger in the wall of the cemetery; and last of all, a piece of the plinth was found in a wall in Tom Quad. Though some portions are still missing, it is not impossible that still more may be found. The shrine one sees today is the result of painstaking reconstruction.

Behind St. Frideswide’s shrine is a marvelous stained glass window dating from 1858 designed by Pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones depicting the saint’s life. One panel shows a miraculous lightning bolt blinding King Algar, and in the bottom right corner a modern-day flushing toilet can be found, presumed to acknowledge the company which helped finance the artwork.

Other amazing artifacts are contained in the cathedral, including a stained glass panel dating to 1320 that features Thomas Becket, several additional Pre-Raphaelite and medieval stained glass windows, and just beyond, a beautifully carved Saxon doorway can be seen in the cloisters. It was hard to tear myself away and move along to our final destination for the day.

On the way to that concluding stop, we crossed the Oxford campus, so of course we snagged a shot of the iconic “Bridge of Sighs” before we passed beneath it. Ironically, movie trucks were parked all around, so they were obviously in the midst of shooting a film on location.

Our destination was New College, another one of the constituent colleges of the University of Oxford. It was founded in 1379, making it one of the oldest colleges in Oxford despite its name.

The college motto is "Manners Makyth Man." Written in English rather than Latin makes it unusual in Oxford, and I appreciated its social commentary: this motto claims it is not by birth, money, or property that an individual is defined, but by how he or she behaves towards other people. This echoes an insight found in Aristotle's Ethics: a person is what they do; and what we do is what we are.

At the time of its founding, the college was a grand example of the "perpendicular style," and was larger than all of the existing Oxford colleges combined (6 at that time). Many of its buildings are listed as having special architectural or historical importance, and today the college is one of Oxford's most widely visited.

Like Christ Church, the campus features a Great Hall of its own for student dining that’s nearly as magnificent, and some filming for Harry Potter was also staged here.

Our objective was this amazing chapel (below), where the choir stalls contain 62(!) 14th century misericords of outstanding beauty—several of New College's misericords were even copied during the Victorian era for use at Canterbury Cathedral. I finally got my misericord “fix”—and Robin photographed every one of them for me.

But the stunner in this chapel is its towering reredos.

I confess: I jumped over the red velvet rope in order to get a closer view of this dazzling display.

My mouth gaped upon learning about the ups and downs (mainly downs) of the reredos since the 16th century, and its fate at the hands of Reformation zealots. They smashed the original carvings and plastered over the niches.

A rediscovery of fragments of statues occurred in 1696 when they were moved into the cloisters and apparently built into the cloister walls, before the east end was plastered over again, followed by the re-rediscovery of the now empty niches, still bearing traces of gold and deep blue pigments, when the chapel was redesigned in the 1780s. The niches were covered in plaster, and, in 1793, five newly carved alabaster panels were installed at the base of the reredos.

By the 1880s there was a growing sense that something more had to be done about this travesty. The entire chapel had undergone restoration by Sir George Gilbert Scott, but the niches of the reredos still stood empty.

It was a painful reminder of all the niches I’ve encountered in the past few years that were likewise devoid of the sacred figurines that once filled them—further testimony to the devastation of iconoclasm, which inspired me to write a paper about the topic from a depth psychological point of view.

A proposal to fill these empty niches was floated, and immediately hysteria ensued—of people awfulizing about how dreadful the result might be and writing letters sharing their concerns. (Many of them contain echoes of inferior extraverted intuition, with people automatically assuming the worst, and then trying to engineer avoidance of that).

Long story short, the niches were fitted with modern statues in 1888–1892, the work of the sculptor Nathaniel Hitch crafted from designs by John Loughborough Pearson. The statues are arranged in tiers that are “suggested by the Te Deum”—that is, depicting the Trinity, Seraphim and Cherubim, Angels, Apostles, Prophets, Martyrs, Christ, the Virgin Mary, and the Saints (as diagrammed below).

The overall effect is astonishing, and I was awestruck. If you compare the “before” and “after” images, I daresay you will agree the improvement is enormous.

On the following day we spent 6 hours driving to Littlebeck. We made a couple of detours to churches along the way, but I’ll tell you about those next week.

We arrived in Littlebeck just after dark, and awakened the following morning to find the fields cloaked in mist.

I bet you’re wondering how my presentation for the Polish conference went!

It was wonderful! I spoke for 30 minutes on “Iconoclasm of the Psyche,” a matter that has troubled me for some time (as noted above)… and it was quite well received. Some provocative questions were raised afterwards, which I will need to account for in my next iteration… and I won't lie—mostly I’m glad it’s over! Now I can start planning sightseeing adventures in Littlebeck and get back to editing articles for Psychological Perspectives once again.

I’ll update you on my shenanigans next time. In the meantime, happy Labor Day to my American friends!

warmly, -Dr. Vicky Jo



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