02 November 2022

The library in All Souls College,
Oxford, addresses the legacy
of slavery and a slave owner

The Library at All Souls College, Oxford, once known as the Codrington Library, with the sundial designed by Sir Christopher Wren (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Patrick Comerford

In recent weeks, I have written about the way growing awareness of the legacy of slavery and racism has led to the removal of the memorial to Sir John Cass in Saint Botolph with Aldgate Church in London, and to debates about the statue of Cecil Rhodes on the High Street fa├žade of the Rhodes Building in Oriel College, Oxford.

Today is All Souls’ Day, and I was reminded during a recent visit to All Souls College in Oxford that a similar debate has focussed on the name of All Souls College Library.

I was writing about the chapel in All Souls College earlier today. The beautiful cloister links the college chapel with the college library, which was known for centuries as the Codrington Library. The library’s collections are particularly strong in law and history, especially the history of Britain and early modern Europe, and military history. Philosophy, sociology, and the history of science are also well represented.

Visitors to the college and the library are always shown the sundial designed in 1658 by Sir Christopher Wren, who was a fellow in 1653-1661. Wren’s sundial was originally placed on the south wall of the chapel, but it was moved in 1877 to the quadrangle, above the central entrance to the library.

For three centuries or more, the library was known as the Codrington Library. It was built in the early 18th century, mainly with money donated by Christopher Codrington (1668-1710), a former fellow who amassed his vast wealth from plantations in the West Indies that were worked by enslaved people of African descent. But two years ago, in 2020, All Souls College decided to stop referring to the library by that name to make plain its abhorrence of slavery.

Henry Chichele, Archbishop of Canterbury, co-founder of All Souls College with Henry VI in 1438, decided the college should have books and a library from the very outset. In its first years, the college set about accumulating a collection for people working in the higher faculties of theology, law, and medicine, although the statutes envisaged that fellows of All Souls would study only arts, philosophy, theology, and law.

Other subjects came to be represented through donation and acquisition, including the history of England and Italian humanism. From the beginning, fellows left books to the library. By the end of the 15th century, the library had about 250 manuscripts and 100 printed books. This increased gradually over the next century through purchases and gifts.

The chapel lost its organ, reredos, and service books during the turmoil of the Reformation. However, the library was left more or less unscathed, and under Elizabeth I found a new champion in the person of Robert Hovenden, who was the Warden in 1574-1614.

Hovenden drew up a new catalogue, erected the beautiful plaster barrel ceiling in what is now the Old Library, introduced more book presses, and commissioned a full set of maps of the college’s estates.

All Souls College received a substantial legacy of £10,000 from Christopher Codrington in 1710 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

All Souls College continued to buy books and to receive donations from fellows in the 17th century, and Dudley Digges bequeathed over 1,000 books and pamphlets. However, the additions made the shortage of space yet more acute. This was solved by a substantial legacy of £10,000 from Christopher Codrington.

Cordrington’s wealth came principally from sugar plantations — worked by slaves — in Antigua and Barbados. When he died in 1710, Codrington’s wealth was more than £80,000. He left his library of 12,000 volumes to the college, and stipulated that £4,000 of his bequest should be used to buy books. The remaining sum was to build a new library and to stock it with books.

He left the Codrington Plantations in Barbados and Barbuda to the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (SPG, now USPG) to establish a college in Barbados. Codrington College was completed in 1745, and was initially confined to white students. It remains an Anglican theological school and is now part of the University of the West Indies.

The new library in All Souls College became known as the Codrington Library, although that name was never formally adopted by the Statutes of the College. The new library was designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor and was built in 1716-1720. However, the interior was not fully furbished and ready to accommodate books until 1751.

A Library Committee was set up in 1751, with a new vision of retaining its specialisations in law and theology and developing its holdings in the classics, history, travel and topography, belles-lettres, and natural history. In many ways, it became more like a gentleman’s reference library than a college library.

William Blackstone (Fellow 1743-62), a lawyer and keen student of architecture, prompted the college to buy nearly 500 drawings from Sir Christopher Wren’ office in 1751, as well as other rare publications on architecture.

From the beginning of the 19th century, however, the library fund dwindled in size, and fewer books were bought, although some donations of note were received from fellows, including a collection of Persian manuscripts from Amelia, the widow of Reginald Heber, sometime Fellow, hymnwriter and Bishop of Calcutta.

While Sir William Reynell Anson (1843-1914) was Warden (1881-1914), a new reading room was built and the library’s specialisation in law and history was reasserted. Several important donations included the papers of Sir Charles Vaughan, a major source of information about the Peninsular War and the USA in the 1820s, JA Doyle’s collection of Americana, and collections of military history.

But these donations created new space problems of space. A new bookstore was built in 1909 and extended in 1952. By the late 1990s, it became clear that work was required on the fabric of the Library, and this project was completed in 2002.

In recent years, All Souls College has had extensive discussions about the best ways to address Codrington’s legacy and its origins in money deriving from the slave trade.

In 2018, the college put up a plaque ‘In Memory of Those Who Worked in Slavery on the Codrington Plantations in the West Indies’ which stands facing the Catte Street entrance to the library. At the same time, the college made a substantial donation to Codrington College in Barbados, and established three fully-funded graduate studentships at Oxford for students from the Caribbean.

All Souls College decided in 2020 to cease referring to the library as ‘The Codrington Library’. Discussions continue on how best to contextualise the statue of Codrington and on measures to address the legacy and history of slavery.

£100,000 was pledged to Codrington College in Barbados in 2020 and three fully-funded graduate studentships at Oxford were set up for students from the Caribbean. These are named after Sir Hugh Springer (1913-1994), a Visiting Fellow in 1962-1963 who became Governor-General of Barbados in 1984.

The college decided, however, that a statue of Codrington should remain in the library. Onto it are projected a sequence of the names of enslaved persons who worked on Codrington’s plantations and adjacent estates in the early 18th century.

The statue is contextualised by digital displays in the ante-room of the library. The current presentations look at the Codrington’s statue and its context; Codrington’s religion and the founding of Codrington College; and Codrington’s attitudes, beliefs and role in the slave trade. Two more screens on either side of the statue carry additional presentations and a fuller list of the names of the enslaved.

All Souls College also agreed further academic initiatives last year (June 2021), including a donation of £1 million over 10 years to Oxford University’s new Black Academic Futures programme; future programmes to support UK graduate students of Black or Mixed-Black ethnicity; further financial support to Codrington College; an annual lecture on the modern Atlantic World, slavery and colonialism; and a programme of visiting fellowships and travel grants for Caribbean researchers in Oxford.

Meanwhile, the collection on military history and law is being broadened to include global history and the legacies of the Atlantic slave trade.

When Codrington died on 7 April 1710, his body was brought to England and he was buried on 19 June in All Souls Chapel. A carved panel without a label in the chapel in All Souls College could depict souls waiting for prayer on All Souls’ Day. But I also imagined they could be a metaphor for the souls of slaves in the past waiting for restorative justice when it comes to the legacy of Christopher Codrington.

All Souls? All Slaves? All deserve prayers, all cry out for justice.

All Souls? All Slaves? All deserve prayers, all cry out for justice (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Praying in Ordinary Time with USPG:
Wednesday 2 November 2022

The reredos in the chapel of All Souls College, Oxford … a reminder of the ‘Faithful Departed’ on 2 November (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Patrick Comerford

All Souls’ Day is observed in many parts of the Western Church today [2 November]. It is particularly associated with the Roman Catholic Church, and while it does not feature in the calendar of the Church of Ireland, it is marked in the calendar of the Church of England which has restored its place in Common Worship as the ‘Commemoration of the Faithful Departed (All Souls’ Day)’ (Common Worship, p 15). Later today I hope to attend the All Souls’ Day Eucharist in the Church of Saint Mary and Saint Giles, Stony Stratford.

All Souls’ Day follows the commemoration of All Saints’ Day on 1 November, and I find it interesting that one of the leading evangelical churches in London is All Souls’ Church, Langham Place, at least since the Revd John Stott was there, first as a curate (1945-1950) and then as the Rector (1950-1975). All Souls is the only surviving church built by the Regency architect John Nash – although the history of the church on the parish website gives no explanation of the choice of name.

I was reminded of the importance of commemorating All Souls’ Day in the calendar of the pre-Reformation Church of England when I visited All Souls College while I was in Oxford the week before last.

Before today gets busy, I am taking some time this morning for reading, prayer and reflection.

For the rest of this week, I am reflecting in these ways:

1, One of the readings for the morning;

2, A reflection based on seven more churches or chapels in Oxford I have visited recently;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary, ‘Pray with the World Church.’

All Souls College was founded in 1438 to commemorate the victims of the Hundred Years’ War and to pray for all souls of the faithful departed (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

John 5: 19-25 (NRSVA):

19 Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, the Son can do nothing on his own, but only what he sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, the Son does likewise. 20 The Father loves the Son and shows him all that he himself is doing; and he will show him greater works than these, so that you will be astonished. 21 Indeed, just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whomsoever he wishes. 22 The Father judges no one but has given all judgement to the Son, 23 so that all may honour the Son just as they honour the Father. Anyone who does not honour the Son does not honour the Father who sent him. 24 Very truly, I tell you, anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life, and does not come under judgement, but has passed from death to life.

25 ‘Very truly, I tell you, the hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.’

The college chapel was built in 1438-1442 and takes up the whole north side of the Front Quadrangle (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

The Chapel of All Souls College, Oxford:

The full, official name of All Souls College is: The Warden and the College of the Souls of All Faithful People deceased in the University of Oxford.

The college entrance is on the north side of High Street, and there is a long frontage onto Radcliffe Square. To its east is The Queen’s College, while Hertford College is to the north of All Souls.

All Souls is unique in two ways: all its members automatically become fellows or full members of the college’s governing body; and it has no undergraduate members.

The college is primarily a graduate research institution. Each year recent graduate and postgraduate students at Oxford are eligible to apply for a small number of examination fellowships through a competitive examination, once described as ‘the hardest exam in the world.’

The college was founded in 1438 by Henry VI and Henry Chichele, Archbishop of Canterbury, to commemorate the victims of the Hundred Years’ War, and to pray for all souls of the faithful departed. The statutes provided for a warden and 40 fellows, all to take Holy Orders: 24 to study arts, philosophy and theology, and 16 to study civil or canon law. The scholars were elected on the morrow of All Souls’ Day. Four Bible Clerks remained on the foundation until 1924.

The Chapel of All Souls was modelled after the chapel of New College, where Chichele was a fellow. It has a hammer-beam roof, mediaeval stained glass, and a large number of original stalls. The niches in the restored reredos retain traces of the original mediaeval paint.

The college chapel was built in 1438-1442 and takes up the whole north side of the Front Quadrangle. It remained largely unchanged until the Cromwellian era. The chapel was designed in the perpendicular Gothic style and was built in the shape of an inverted 'T': a chancel and transepts form the antechapel, but there is no nave. Before the Reformation, the spacious antechapel would have included six side altars.

The chapel is noted for its complete set of original 15th century misericords, seen under the wooden seats of the fellows’ stalls in the chancel. Among the 42 carvings are many lively, grotesque, and fantastic figures.

The reredos dates from ca 1447. Its niches contain statues of saints, bishops, and monarchs, arranged in rows on either side of a Crucifixion scene, just above the altar, and a Last Judgment, high up under the roof. The original statues, destroyed during the Reformation in the 16th century, were not replaced with the present Gothic imitations until the 19th century.

During the 1660s, a screen was installed in the Chapel, based on a design by Sir Christopher Wren, a former fellow of All Souls (1653-1657). However, this screen was rebuilt by 1713.

A new quad was designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor in the early 18th century, and is one of the most successful examples of Oxford University architecture. Hawksmoor designed the exterior of the quad in Gothic in style, to blend with the old chapel, but classical on the interior. The sundial on the side of the Library was probably designed by Sir Christopher Wren too.

The west side of the north quadrangle, facing out onto Radcliffe Square, is marked by the cloister, a single arcade open to the interior of the quadrangle and linking the Chapel and the Library. It is enhanced by a central gateway and cupola.

The carved reredos seen through the classical screen in the chapel (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

The chapel was in need of renovation and restoration by the mid-19th century. At first, Henry Clutton (1819-1893) was involved in restoring the chapel. The roof was being re-slated, the exterior restored and the plaster was being scraped off the hammer-beam roof when a scaffolding pole accidently pierced the lath and plaster screen that covered the east wall of the chapel. The hole in the screen revealed the beautiful but concealed carved mediaeval reredos.

The screen was removed and the senior fellow of the college, the Earl of Bathurst, offered to pay for the restoration of the reredos to its original form, and in 1872 Sir George Gilbert Scott (1811-1878) was commissioned to take over the restoration of the chapel.

Scott produced designs to restore the sanctuary and repave the floor. In June 1873 Farmer and Brindley contracted to restore the stalls and execute the paving, and in October Edward Geflowski agreed to supply the new figures for the reredos. Geflowski carved 35 large figures, including one of Bathurst, and 84 smaller figures. Henry Terry of Lambeth, carried out the architectural sculpture and Symm executed the rest of the stonework.

Lord Bathurst contributed £3,000 to £4,000 for the figures on the reredos. The total cost of the restoration of the chapel was £10,639.

All Souls was a minor triumph for Scott, who was reinvigorated by the challenge. According to The Builder, ‘entered into the work with that zeal and love for old examples that so eminently distinguished him.’ Thanks to Lord Bathurst’s enormous generosity, Scott was able to see the reredos largely completed before he died on 27 March 1878.

The current warden or head of All Souls College is Sir John Vickers, a graduate of Oriel College, Oxford.

The Very Revd Dr John Henry Drury has been the Chaplain of All Souls College since 2003. He is a former chaplain of Downing College, Cambridge (1969-1969), chaplain of Exeter College, Oxford (1969-1973), Residentiary Canon at Norwich Cathedral (1973-1979), lecturer in Religious Studies at Sussex University (1979-1981), Dean of King’s College, Cambridge (1981-1991), and Dean of Christ Church, Oxford (1991-2003). His research interests include theology and the poetry of George Herbert.

Members of the public are welcome at Chapel Services, according to the Book of Common Prayer and using the King James Bible. During University Full Term these are: Sundays, 10 am, Morning Prayer; Wednesdays, 6:45, Evening Prayer. Other services are advertised separately. The chapel does not have a choir.

The cloister is a single arcade open on the North Quadrangle linking the Chapel and the Library (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Today’s Prayer (Wednesday 2 November 2022, All Souls’ Day):

The Collect:

Eternal God, our maker and redeemer,
grant us, with all the faithful departed,
the sure benefits of your Son’s saving passion
and glorious resurrection
that, in the last day,
when you gather up all things in Christ,
we may with them enjoy the fullness of your promises;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Post Communion Prayer:

God of love,
may the death and resurrection of Christ,
which we have celebrated in this Eucharist,
bring us, with all the faithful departed,
into the peace of your eternal home.
We ask this in the name of Jesus Christ,
our rock and our salvation,
to whom be glory for time and for eternity.

The theme in the USPG Prayer Diary this week is ‘Behold, I make all things new.’ This theme was introduced on Sunday by the Revd David Rajiah, Diocesan Prayer Co-ordinator for the Diocese of West Malaysia.

The USPG Prayer Diary invites us to pray today in these words:

We pray for the Province of South-East Asia, its member churches and its 98,000 members across the region.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

All Souls College and the chapel symbolise all we think of when we speak of the ‘Dreaming Spires’ of Oxford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

The Front Quad of All Souls College, behind High Street, Oxford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)