OXFORD: Introduction

Fasti Ecclesiae Anglicanae 1541-1857: Volume 8, Bristol, Gloucester, Oxford and Peterborough Dioceses. Originally published by Institute of Historical Research, London, 1996.

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'OXFORD: Introduction', in Fasti Ecclesiae Anglicanae 1541-1857: Volume 8, Bristol, Gloucester, Oxford and Peterborough Dioceses, (London, 1996) pp. 69-72. British History Online https://www.british-history.ac.uk/fasti-ecclesiae/1541-1847/vol8/pp69-72 [accessed 12 April 2024]


The diocese of Oxford was carved out of the large medieval diocese of Lincoln in 1542, the last diocese to be founded as part of King Henry VIII's extensive reorganization of the dioceses in the early fifteen-forties. (fn. 1) The diocese consisted of the county of Oxford, and its cathedral, as with almost all others of the king's 'new foundation', was situated in one of the newly-suppressed monasteries, in this case at Oseney, a former Augustinian priory, just outside Oxford's west gate. The last abbot of Oseney, Robert King, already a suffragan bishop of Lincoln, was appointed the first bishop of Oxford. The chapter consisted of a dean and six canons, nominated by the king, their number perhaps being determined by the fact that Oseney's buildings included seven 'lodgings'. (fn. 2) Unusually, none of the canons was a former monk. Apart from this feature, Oxford had followed the customary pattern for new dioceses and cathedrals. However, other factors came into play.

In Oxford, Cardinal Wolsey had founded what he intended to be a great college on the site of St. Frideswide's monastery, which had been suppressed in 1524 for this purpose (together with a number of smaller monastic establishments) by authorization of Pope Clement IV and King Henry VIII. (fn. 3) Building work on a lavish scale began immediately. (fn. 4) The building and its full complement of members were still incomplete when Wolsey fell from favour in 1529 and died in 1530. After some years of uncertainty, Cardinal College was refounded in 1532 as King Henry VIII's College, on a slightly smaller but still generous scale. (fn. 5) Wolsey's statutes had provided for a dean and sixty canons 'of the first order', although their number was scarcely over thirty at Wolsey's fall. (fn. 6) By the fresh foundation, there was to be a dean and twelve named canons. The dean, John Higdon, died within six months, and John Oliver was appointed. (fn. 7) The rest of the establishment comprised eight priests, a clerk, choristers and twelve honest paupers, but Wolsey's educational objectives were no longer explicit.

Thirteen years later, John Oliver surrendered the college and all its possessions to the Crown on 20 May 1545, and on the same day Bishop King surrendered the see of Oxford to the Crown. (fn. 8) The king proceeded to combine the two in a unique establishment called 'Ecclesia Christi Cathedralis Oxon', set up by letters patent of 4 November 1546 on the site of St. Frideswide's. (fn. 9) These provided for a dean, with a dual role as head of both the college and the cathedral chapter, and eight canons, all to be appointed by the Crown. There was some continuity with the two previous bodies: Richard Cox, who had been dean of Oxford at Oseney, was reappointed, together with four of the six Oseney canons. The remaining two canons of Oxford at Oseney and John Oliver, the former dean of King Henry VIII's College, had already been granted pensions. (fn. 10) One new canon, William Tresham, had been a canon of King Henry VIII's College. The archdeacon of Oxford was released from the jurisdiction of the bishop of Lincoln and placed under that of Oxford. Wolsey's educational aims were resurrected, with provision for about 100 students. Further letters patent described the joint establishment's endowment, which came primarily from that originally given to Oseney, the endowment of Cardinal College, having by now been largely dispersed. (fn. 12) Stone and fitments from Oseney were transported to Christ Church. (fn. 13) For the cathedral, this meant a move to a much less impressive building, as Oseney Abbey was twice as large and fine as St. Frideswide's. (fn. 14) Henry VIII's death on 28 January 1547 may explain why no statutes were issued, but the chapter claimed in 1837 that although they had no statutes they were permitted by the charter of endowment to make regulations. (fn. 15)

Within eight years the dean and three canons had been removed from office at the beginning of Mary I's reign, followed, five years later, by the removal of the dean and four canons at the beginning of Elizabeth I's reign.

As might be expected, the cathedral chapter, although appointed by the Crown, was drawn overwhelmingly from Oxford graduates. In 1605 and 1630 the cathedral's links with the University of Oxford were strengthened, with the annexation of the Regius Professorships of Divinity and Hebrew to two of the canonries. (fn. 16) Oxford, being a poorly-endowed see, usually had, as bishops, men entering on an episcopal career. This resulted, with a few notable exception, in frequent short episcopates, as the bishops moved to more lucrative sees.

During the Civil War, Charles I made Oxford his headquarters, and he was in residence at Christ Church. (fn. 17) After the king's defeat at the hands of parliament, and despite the act abolishing cathedral chapters, (fn. 18) a dean and canons continued to discharge their roles as fellows of a college. In 1646, parliament sent seven preachers to Oxford University and the following year ten 'visitors' were appointed by parliament to carry out an inquiry into the state of the colleges. (fn. 19) At Christ Church, the dean and seven canons were ejected in April 1648, the eighth dying about the same time. They were replaced with men acceptable to the parliament: in fact, six of the parliamentary preachers and four of the parliamentary visitors acquired prebends at various times. Some held Presbyterian views and some were Independents, and one was not ordained. (fn. 20) At the Restoration in 1660, the dean and all but one of the canons were deprived in their turn.

In 1686, the office of dean gained national significance, when, on the death Dr. Fell, James II appointed a Roman Catholic, John Massey, who was not in orders. A royal licence was granted to him, allowing him to refuse the oath of supremacy, and the subdean and canons reported this to the court of king's bench as being a breach of statute. At the time of the Revolution, Massey left Oxford at the end of November 1689 for the seminary at Douai in Flanders. The subsequent presentation by William III and Mary II referred to the office as being vacant by the death of John Fell, by implication regarding Massey's tenure as illegal. (fn. 21)

In the eighteenth century the chapter of Oxford was unusual in frequently having bishops among its members. These were bishops of impoverished sees who were given (or retained) canonries at Oxford to be held in commendam to augment their stipends. For most of the period 1714-55, the deanery was held by successive bishops of Bristol. In 1719, the chapter included the bishops of Bristol, Chester and Oxford; and in 1733, the bishops of Peterborough and St. Asaph.

The extent of the diocese and the composition of the chapter remained unaltered until the nineteenth-century reforms. The Statute 6 & 7 William VI c. 77 increased the size of Oxford diocese by transferring the archdeaconry of Berkshire from Salisbury diocese and that of Buckinghamshire from Lincoln diocese in 1836 and 1837 respectively, although the bishop, Richard Bagot, maintained that the latter addition made the diocese too large for one man to administer and it did not become effective until his translation to Bath and Wells in 1845. (fn. 22) The Fourth Report of the Ecclesiastical Commissioners proposed to reduce the number of canons at Oxford, as happened at most other cathedrals. The canons, however, petitioned the house of commons in 1838 and 1839 against the implementation of this, protesting that the suppression of canonries would 'operate to the discouragement of theological and general learning, of which these dignities have not infrequently been the merited reward' as their numbers were 'already not more than sufficient to fulfil the duties originally contemplated for them to perform'. (fn. 23) In the event, the Statute 3 & 4 Victoria c. 113 left the number intact. But the Lady Margaret Professorship of Divinity was annexed to one canonry, instead, as formerly, to a canonry of Worcester. The new Regius Professorships of Pastoral Theology and Ecclesiastical History were annexed to two other canonries, and the archdeaconry of Oxford to yet another. This made a total of six canonries annexed to other offices. Moreover, an Ordinance of the Ecclesiastical Commissioners, arising out of the Statute 17 & 18 Victoria c. 81 and laid before the Queen in Council in 1857, ordered that the two prebends not annexed should not be filled up on their next vacancy. (fn. 24) The reduction to six canonries was reached by 1871.

The episcopal sources for compiling the Fasti are disappointing. In the sixteenth century, the see was vacant for forty-four years in a period of fortyseven years. But even when bishops were regularly appointed there seems no consistent policy of recording the institution of all canons, although those of archdeacons are faithfully recorded. By contrast, the rich archives of Christ Church provide details of installations, and the disbursement books and battel books listing weekly payments to college members often make it possible to pinpoint down to a few days the date of death. Further background details are to be found in the invaluable writings and compilations of the antiquarians Anthony Wood, in the seventeenth century, and Thomas Hearne, in the eighteenth.


  • 1. Foundation charter, 1 Sept. 1542 (L. & P. XVII no. 881 (3)). Of the king's refoundations or new foundations, Norwich was the first, in 1538, followed by Westminster, Winchester, Canterbury, Carlisle, Durham, Rochester, Chester, Gloucester, Peterborough, Ely, Worcester, Bristol and Oxford.
  • 2. Hearne's Collections X 29-31.
  • 3. L. & P. IV i nos. 376. 650, 989-90, 1001, 1137, 1499; Foedera VI ii 17-19; P.R.O., E 24/23/2.
  • 4. P.R.O., E 36/104; L. & P. IV iii no. 6076; ibid. V no. 173.
  • 5. Foundation charter, 18 July 1532 (L. & P. V no. 1207 (38)).
  • 6. Elizabethan Oxford, ed. C. Plummer (Oxford Hist. Soc., viii, 1887) pp. 58-9.
  • 7. Royal grant, 22 Apr. 1533 (L. & P. VI no. 578 (4)).
  • 8. L. & P. XX i nos. 775-6.
  • 9. Foundation charter, 4 Nov. 1546 (ibid. XXI ii no. 476 (9)).
  • 10. Ibid. XXI i nos. 643, p. 309 and 1538, p. 778; ibid. XXI ii no. 775, p. 443.
  • 11. Cf. ibid. IV iii no. 6579; ibid. V no. 1207 (38)).
  • 12. Endowment, 11 Dec. 1546 (ibid. XXI ii no. 648 (25)). Some of the original endowment of Oxford cathedral at Oseney had also been alienated (e.g. ibid. XXI i no. 504 (1, 12); ibid. XXI ii nos. 332 (54), 476 (85), 648 (46)).
  • 13. Survey of the City of Oxford by Anthony Wood, ed. A. Clark (Oxford Hist. Soc., xv, xvii, xxxvii, 1889-99) II 227-8.
  • 14. Ibid. pp. 218-24.
  • 15. D. & C. i.b.9f. 163r-v.
  • 16. P.R.O., C 66/1665; Cal. S.P. Dom. 1629-31 p. 219.
  • 17. Wood's Hist. and Ant. II i 456-74.
  • 18. Acts and Ordinances, 1642-60, ed. C.H. Firth and R.S. Rait (London, 1911) II 81-104, 30 Apr. 1649.
  • 19. Wood's Hist. and Ant. II i 491; Wood's Life and Times I 142-3.
  • 20. Reg. Visitors, passim.
  • 21. See below, Deans of Christ Church, Oxford, entry for John Massey.
  • 22. Orders in Council, 5 Oct. 1836 and 19 July 1837 (Lond. Gaz. nos. 19426, 19533).
  • 23. D. & C. i.b. 10 ff. 6r-v, 15.
  • 24. Ordinance laid before Council, 6 Apr. 1858 (Lond. Gaz. no. 22126).