Central Oxford in 1578

Central Oxford in 1578

Another reason why Oxford offers a useful test case for understanding the impact of changing intellectual value in the seventeenth century is because the centrepiece of the University was completely transformed during this period. In order to understand that transformation, we need to begin with the cityscape as it was before 1600. For this purpose, this map of Oxford in 1578 provides the obvious point of departure.  

The map of Oxford from which these details are derived is a facsimile, produced in 1728, of an original, drawn by Ralph Agas in 1578 and surviving only in a single, badly damaged and discoloured copy. The full facsimile is available here. In contrast to modern cartography, south is depicted at the top of the image and north at the bottom. Rather than depicting the buildings in plan, this map uses axonometric projection.

The margin of the full facsimile map (but not the original) is ringed with images depicting the major academic buildings in Oxford at this time, which are absent from the 1578 original. They reproduce the oldest surviving series of drawings depicting Oxford, penned by John Bereblock, Fellow of Exeter College, for presentation to Queen Elizabeth I on her first official visit to Oxford in 1566, and given to the Library in 1630 by John Moore.

Image 1 reveals the disposition of central Oxford throughout the sixteenth century. Several landmarks of Oxford today are already visible. Most familiar is St Mary's Church, which still remained a centrepiece of University life as it had been for many centuries. Also recognizable is the Divinity School, topped by Duke Humphrey's Library.  Missing from this map, however, are many of the University's most iconic buildings. The area between St Mary's Church and the Divinity School remains populated by modest houses, which will be swept away over 150 years later to create Radcliffe Square.  The Divinity School and Duke Humphrey's have not yet been joined to the east by the Schools Quadrangle: instead, they are adjoined to the west by another structure (which included the staircase for reaching the library), and the 'Universitie Schooles' a much more modest set of rooms in a single low range to the east.

The Schola Theologica (Image 2) is depicted as a free-standing building in the lower right margin of the map.  Comparison with the original drawing by Bereblock (Image 3) reveals the derivation of this image. 

The Schola Publica (Image 4) corresponds to the 'Universitie Schooles' within the map.  Within the map, this range of buildings runs from a line parallel to the northern face of the Divinity School south to Brasenose Lane. In the marginal image, its length has been shortened to fit the space available.  This was a two-story structure, with lecture rooms placed one on top of another: this is essentially the configuration originally envisaged for the Schools Quadrangle, until Bodley added a the third-floor gallery. In the older Schola Publica, pairs of lecture rooms were accessed by a single doorway: in a manner familiar from Oxford collegiate buildings of the same period, this single doorway led both to the room on the ground floor and, via an interior staircase, to the one above. The name of the current 'Examination Schools' derives, via the 'Schools Quadrangle', from this homely building.

Commentary. Howard Hotson (September 2016)