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)

Morning prayers in Easter
with USPG: (2) 10 April 2023

The Pentecost window by Daniel Bell of Bell and Almond in Holy Trinity Church, Old Wolverton (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

The Easter celebrations began yesterday on Easter Day (9 April 2023), ushering in all our hopes and joys.

Today is a public holiday, and traditionally many clergy begin to take a week off today. Even before this day begins, I am taking some time early this morning for prayer, reflection and reading. In these days of Easter Week, I am reflecting each morning in these ways:

1, Short reflections on the stained-glass windows in Holy Trinity Church, Old Wolverton;

2, the Gospel reading of the day in the lectionary;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

The Baptism of Christ in a window by Henry Holiday of James Powell and Son in Holy Trinity Church, Old Wolverton (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Four stained-glass windows:

Two windows in Holy Trinity Church, Old Wolverton, which I described yesterday, illustrate two Easter themes, the Resurrection and the Supper at Emmaus. Four other windows in the church depict: the Nativity, Christ in the home of the Virgin Mary and Saint Joseph; the baptism of Christ by Saint John the Baptist; and Pentecost.

The Nativity window at the west end of the north nave wall and is from the 1870s.

The window depicting the young Jesus in the Carpenter’s shop is at the east end of the north nave wall and is dated 1876.

The window depicting the Baptism of Christ is in the north transept and is dated 1876.

The Pentecost window at the west end of the south nave wall is also from the 1870s.

The windows depicting the Nativity, the Carpenter’s Shop and Pentecost are all ascribed to Daniel Bell of the Daniel Bell and Richard Almond Studio.

The stained glass firm and partnership of Daniel Bell and Richard Almond was based in London. Daniel Bell, who was born 1840, was a brother of the better-known Alfred Bell (1832-1895), and worked for his brother’s firm Clayton and Bell before establishing a partnership initially with James Redfern (1838-1876) and Richard Almond (born 1841), and then with Almond alone from 1868.

Daniel Bell worked independently after 1875.

The window depicting the Baptism of Christ is by the artist and stained glass designer Henry George Alexander Holiday (1839-1927) of James Powell and Son. Holiday entered the Royal Academy Schools at the age of 15 and was soon drawn to the ideas, and the artists, of the Pre-Raphaelite movement.

Holiday succeeded Edward Burne-Jones as the chief designer for the stained glass firm James Powell and Sons in 1863. The firm of James Powell and Sons, also known as Whitefriars Glass, were English glassmakers, leadlighters and stained glass window manufacturers. As Whitefriars Glass, the company existed from the 17th century, but became well known as a result of the 19th century Gothic Revival and the demand for stained-glass windows.

Holiday’s style had a long-lasting effect on Powell’s production into the 1920s. Some of his windows were made by Lavers and Barraud and Heaton, Butler and Bayne, and after eventually ending his association with Powells, he established his own workshop in 1890.

From about 1900, Holiday made his own glass at the workshop. His later work was made at the Glass House, Fulham. He also worked as a painter, illustrator and sculptor.

The Nativity window by Daniel Bell of Bell and Almond in Holy Trinity Church, Old Wolverton (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Matthew 28: 8-15 (NRSVA):

8 So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. 9 Suddenly Jesus met them and said, ‘Greetings!’ And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshipped him. 10 Then Jesus said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.’

11 While they were going, some of the guard went into the city and told the chief priests everything that had happened. 12 After the priests had assembled with the elders, they devised a plan to give a large sum of money to the soldiers, 13 telling them, ‘You must say, “His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.” 14 If this comes to the governor’s ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.’ 15 So they took the money and did as they were directed. And this story is still told among the Jews to this day.

The Carpenter’s Shop depicted in a window by Daniel Bell of Bell and Almond in Holy Trinity Church, Old Wolverton (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Today’s Prayer:

The theme in this week’s prayer diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel) is ‘USPG’s Lent Appeal: supporting young mothers affected By HIV.’ This theme was introduced yesterday by USPG’s Fundraising Manager, Rebecca Allin, who reflected on the 2023 Lent Appeal supporting young mothers affected by HIV, and their children.

The prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary today (10 April 2023, Monday of Easter Week) invites us to pray:

Let us pray for a deepening of our faith. May the light of Easter shine in our hearts, illuminate our minds, and inform our actions.


Lord of all life and power,
who through the mighty resurrection of your Son
overcame the old order of sin and death
to make all things new in him:
grant that we, being dead to sin
and alive to you in Jesus Christ,
may reign with him in glory;
to whom with you and the Holy Spirit
be praise and honour, glory and might,
now and in all eternity.

Post Communion:

God of Life,
who for our redemption gave your only-begotten Son
to the death of the cross,
and by his glorious resurrection
have delivered us from the power of our enemy:
grant us so to die daily to sin,
that we may evermore live with him in the joy of his risen life;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

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