Pre-civil war college plate

Pre-civil war college plate


Material: Silver-gilt with enamel. Origin: Probably London. Date: c. 1501. Height: 181 cm. Provenance: Presented to Corpus Christi College by Bishop Fox (1448-1528). Location: Ashmolean Museum, on loan from Corpus Christi College, Oxford, by generous permission of the President and Fellows; LI.305.1

Image 1: Photo by Lawrence OP, 17 April 17, 2007. Licence: CC BY-NC 2.0.  From flickr. Image 2

Commentary. Much of the coinage minted in Oxford between 1643 and 1646 derived from college plate requisitioned by the crown to finance the war effort. 'Plate' in this sense refers to gold or silver vessels and utensils, typically donated to the college by benefactors not merely for use on special occasions but as endowments for the college treasury. For reasons which remain unclear, Corpus Christi College managed to retain most of its plate throughout the Civil War, when most colleges surrendered theirs to the king.  Its thirteen pieces of pre-civil war plate therefore give some indication of the kind of objects destroyed to finance the royalist war effort.

The most elaborate piece of Corpus plate is Bishop Fox's crozier, a prime example of the late medieval goldsmith's art. A crozier signifies the bishop's role as shepherd of his flock.  In the crook, St Peter (the patron saint of Winchester, where Fox was bishop from 1501) sits enthroned, holding the Book of Life and the key to heaven. Below, a pelican feeds its young with its own blood, a symbol of the Eucharist and the emblem both of Fox himself and of his Oxford foundation, Corpus Christi College.  Further plate from Corpus now on loan to the Ashmolean includes an enameled gold chalice and paten (1507-8) and a silver-gilt ablution basin (1514-15), both given by Bishop Fox, and six silver-gilt spoons with owl finials (1506-7), given by Fox's friend, Hugh Oldham.  Two later pieces are pictured on the college website.

Image 3. A letter of January 1642 from Charles I to Pembroke College survives demanding the surrender of all the college’s plate:

We do hereby desire that you will send unto us all such plate of what kind soever which belongs to your College, promising you to see the same justly repaid unto you after the rate of 5s the ounce for white and 5s 6d for gilt plate as soon as God shall enable us.

As the wars dragged on and such supplies were exhausted, other remedies were necessary.  In 1643, the king needed £2,390 (around £300,000 in today’s money) to improve the fortifications of the city and to buy weapons for its defence. Food stores also needed to be accumulated in preparation for a siege, and the cost of maintaining the Oxford garrison had grown to £450 per month (the equivalent of £50,000 today). Citizens were allowed to contribute labour instead of money, for instance in digging the elaborate ditches and ramparts which surrounded the city; but policing the effort and enforcing compliance proved difficult.