Thursday, 27 February 2014

‘I do not like thee, Doctor Fell’ … but I like your
deanery in the Cathedral Close in Lichfield

The Deanery in the Cathedral Close in Lichfield this morning … a 17th century dean was the father of Dr John Fell of nursery rhyme fame (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Patrick Comerford

I am back in Lichfield today [27 February 2014], to complete a portfolio of photographs in the Cathedral Close in preparation for a lecture and walking tour I plan to lead later in May.

One of the fine architectural works in the Close is the Deanery, a two-storey Queen Anne-style house built ca 1707, with substantial alterations in 1807-1808, and further alterations in 1876, 1893 and 1974. But the Deanery stands on a site more ancient than this house, to the west of the Bishop’s Palace.

An earlier deanery on this same site became home .in 1637 to Dr Samuel Fell (1584-1649), who had been Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity in Oxford. At first Fell was a Calvinist in his religious views, and he complained to the Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud, about the excessive number of alehouses in Oxford. But he later changed his theological position and became an active ally of Archbishop Laud.

The Archbishop of Canterbury rewarded Fell’s loyalty by securing his appointment as Dean of Lichfield in 1637. But Fell returned quickly to Oxford when he became Dean of Christ Church a year later in 1638. Back in Oxford, he also became Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford.

On the outbreak of the Civil War, he became a prominent royalist, and was deprived of all his offices by the parliamentarians. He died in Oxford on 1 February 1649, two days after the execution of King Charles I.

His son, John Fell (1625-1686), was a prominent Oxford academic, and he too would become Dean of Christ Church, Oxford, and later Bishop of Oxford.

Bishop John Fell ... was 12 when his father became Dean of Lichfield (from a portrait by Peter Lely)

John Fell was a 12-year old when his father became Dean of Lichfield. By then, despite is age, he was a student at Christ Church, Oxford, and he was ordained deacon in 1647 and priest in 1649.

During the Civil War, he fought on behalf of King Charles I with a commission in the royalist army.

After the Restoration, Fell became a canon of Christ Church, Oxford, and a chaplain to King Charles II. Later, he became Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford (1666-1669). He was consecrated Bishop of Oxford in 1676, and remained Dean of Christ Church. Some years later, he turned down the opportunity to become Archbishop of Armagh.

Fell rebuilt much of his college, finishing with the great Tom Tower gate, to which the “Great Tom” Bell was moved from the cathedral in 1683 after being recast. At his own expense, he also rebuilt Cuddesdon Palace.

Fell had a reputation among his students for being a disciplinarian. He pardoned one of his students, Tom Brown (1663-1704), author of The Dialogues of the Dead, who was about to be expelled from Oxford, on condition that he could translate ex tempore the 32nd epigram of Martial:

Non amo te, Sabidi,
nec possum dicere - quare;
Hoc tantum possum dicere,
non amo te.


To which Brown immediately replied with the well-known lines:

I do not like thee, Doctor Fell,
The reason why I cannot tell;
But this I know, and know full well,
I do not like thee, Dr Fell.


The story is referred to by James Joyce in Ulysses.

Fell, who had never married, died on 10 July 1686. Neither Brown nor Fell could have imagined that the son of a Dean of Lichfield would be remembered by generations to come because this witty composition became a well-known Mother Goose nursery rhyme.

The author Thomas Harris uses the name of Dr Fell as a pseudonym by Hannibal Lecter in the novel Hannibal when he poses as a library curator in Florence. The Irish playwright Bernard Farrell also gave one his plays the title I Do Not Like Thee, Doctor Fell in 1979.

However, the deanery we see in the Cathedral Court in Lichfield today is not the deanery that would have been known to either Dr Fell, father or son. Samuel Fell’s deanery was badly damaged during the Civil War in 1640s and 1650s, when the Cathedral Close came under siege three times in rapid succession.

The damaged deanery was assessed for tax on only two hearths in 1666. Dean Thomas Wood (1663-1671), who would later become Bishop of Lichfield, dismantled what remained of the hall with the intention of rebuilding it. The house had been restored sufficiently by 1687 for a later dean, Lancelot Addison (1632-1703), to host King James II during his visit to Lichfield.

But this next deanery did not remain standing for too long. William Binckes, who succeeded Addison as Dean of Lichfield in 1703, built a new deanery in the early 18th century. The southern part of the long range was taken down, because it was ruined and it obscured the view from the new episcopal palace. A front was built at a right-angle to the remaining portion of the range with a central doorway flanked by three windows on either side. The new deanery was completed in 1707.

The doorway was moved to its present position on the east side of the house in 1807-1808, and internal remodelling was carried out at the same time. Additions and more alterations were made in 1876 and 1893. The northern part of the mediaeval range, which had been converted into outbuildings, was demolished in 1967.

The entrance has fluted Tuscan pilasters. Some of the original windows have been blocked, and it seems one of the original doors may have been moved. The 18th century gate is attached to rebuilt brick piers.

Although the house has been much altered, it retains an impressive facade and some interior features of interest. Inside, many early 19th century details survive, including a fireplace, cornices, doorways, the round arches connecting the front rooms, and the elliptical arch to the right of the stair hall. But the open-well stair was altered in the early 19th century and again in 1974. Queen Elizabeth stayed here in 1988 when she was distributing the Maundy Money in the Cathedral on Maundy Thursday.

It is worth pointing out that the frontage of the Deanery is 120 ft; next door, the frontage of the Bishop’s Palace is twice that length, 240 ft, while the frontage of the canon’s house on the other side is half the length, 60 ft. … so the bishop was twice as important as the dean, and the dean was twice as important as a residentiary canon.

These are some of the stories, some of the buildings and some of the characters I may be referring to during my walking tour and lecture in the Cathedral Close in Lichfield in May.