10 April 2023

John Fell’s monument in
Christ Church, Oxford, recalls
a well-known rhyme

The monument to Dr John Fell in the Ante Chapel in Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

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.

Many of us grew up learning this well-known Mother Goose nursery rhyme. As adults, some of us now have reasons to find it less comforting and more frightening – after all, the author Thomas Harris uses the name of Dr Fell as a pseudonym for Hannibal Lecter in the novel Hannibal when this frightening character poses as a library curator in Florence.

I have written about Dr Fell in the past in Three Spires and the annual report of the Friends of Lichfield Cathedral, and I have discussed his career and legacy during a guided tour of the Cathedral Close in Lichfield many years ago organised by Lichfield Discovered. So, I was interested last week to see again the monument to Dr Fell in Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford.

John Fell (1625-1686) is regarded as one of the greatest of Deans of Christ Church. A notable reformer, he remains the only man to have been both Dean and Bishop of Oxford at the same time.

He is commemorated by a large monument on the south wall Ante-Chapel of Christ Church that was moved there from the Latin Chapel in the 19th century. His statue appears on the south side of Fell Tower in Tom Quad, and, uniquely, his portrait appears twice in the Great Hall.

John Fell was born at Longworth, Berkshire, on 23 June 1625, the son of Samuel Fell who became Dean of Christ Church in 1638, and Margaret (née Wylde). He was just 11 when he became a student at Christ Church in 1637.

That year, his father was appointed the Dean of Lichfield Cathedral. Dr Samuel Fell (1584-1649) had been Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity at the University of Oxford and at an early stage he had been a Calvinist in his religious views. He complained to William Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury, about the excessive number of alehouses in Oxford. But he later changed his theological position and became an active ally of Archbishop Laud.

Laud rewarded Fell’s loyalty by securing his appointment as Dean of Lichfield in 1637. Fell succeeded John Warner (1581-1666), a staunch monarchist who had been Dean of Lichfield and chaplain to Charles I since 1633. Warner had left Lichfield on his appointment as Bishop of Rochester, and so Fell could have expected his move to Lichfield came with the promise of rapid progression in his clerical career.

Fell had a varied earlier career that included parishes in the Isle of Wight and time as a chaplain to King James I before beginning on an academic career in Oxford.

Samuel Fell moved to Lichfield at the beginning of 1638, but stayed at the cathedral for only a short time. He returned quickly to Oxford after a few months when he became Dean of Christ Church later in the year.

Back in Oxford, Fell 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.

Tom Tower and the Quad at Christ Church Oxford … Dean John Fell moved the ‘Great Tom’ Bell to its present place (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Meanwhile, John Fell obtained his MA at Oxford in 1643, was ordained deacon in 1647 and priest in 1649. During the English Civil War he fought for the King. When the King was defeated, Fell was deprived of his Studentship (fellowship) in 1648 and for the next few years lived with his brother-in-law, Thomas Willis, in a house opposite Merton College, where in private he maintained the proscribed Anglican services in the outlawed Book of Common Prayer.

Fell was promoted immediately on at the restoration in 1660. He was made a Canon of Christ Church on 27 July 1660 and four months later, on 30 November, he became Dean. He quickly ejected all those displaying puritan sympathies from the college.

Fell was a highly capable administrator, restoring good order in the college following the Cromwellian era and Puritan administration. He attended services in the cathedral four times a day, reintroduced an organ and insisted on proper academic dress and high standards. He also laid out he large Broad Walk, between the river and the Meadow Gate of the college.

On one occasion, the satirist Tom Brown (1663-1704), author of The Dialogues of the Dead, was threatened by Fell with expulsion from Oxford unless he was able to translate immediately the 32nd epigram by the Roman poet Martial that opens with the line ‘I do not love thee Sabidi’. To Fell’s approval, Brown responded with the now well-known verse:

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.

Fell worked on the fabric of the college, and completed the north side of ‘Tom Quad’ in 1665. He engaged Christopher Wren to complete ‘Tom Tower’ in 1681-1682, and the great bell, ‘Great Tom’, was recast and moved from the cathedral to ‘Tom Tower’ in 1683.

Fell was also the Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University from 1666-1669, promoted the use of the Sheldonian Theatre for university events, and supported the work of the Oxford University Press, where a type of font still bears his name.

While he was Dean of Christ Church, Fell was appointed Bishop of Oxford in 1676. He was consecrated Bishop of Oxford in 1676, but remained Dean of Christ Church, and as bishop, he rebuilt the Bishop’s Palace at Cuddesdon. Some years later, he turned down the opportunity to move to Ireland as Archbishop of Armagh.

John Fell died in 1686, aged 61, and was buried beneath the Dean’s stall in the Latin Chapel in Christ Church.

As for Great Tom, it chimes 101 times at 9.05 pm and this has a double purpose. The first is to signal the curfew for students to return to college – this still continues even though students are no longer bound by a curfew. The second is to mark the 100 Students (or fellows) attached to the foundation by Henry VIII, plus the additional Student added by bequest in 1663.

It rings at 9:05 pm, which corresponds with 9 pm Oxford time – although Greenwich Mean Time was formally adopted nationwide in 1852, Christ Church steadfastly retained ‘Oxford’ time, five minutes behind GMT. This has had some curious effects: dinner, for example, which the statutes say should begin at 7:15 pm, actually starts at 7:20 pm.

Great Tom occupies it share of Christ Church mythology. A long-serving Head Porter recalled attempts to run around Tom Quad while midnight was being struck – a feat he never saw achieved. Another porter, charged with the task of tolling the 101, felt a drink might aid his task. It did not: he repeatedly lost count of the number of times he had tolled, forcing him to start again. Curfew must have been later than usual that evening.

John Fell was both Dean of Christ Church and Bishop of Oxford (from a portrait by Peter Lely)

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