06 September 2023

Visiting the chapel in
Magdalen College,
Oxford, with its reredos
and landmark tower

The chapel in Magdalen College, Oxford, founded in 1458 by William Waynflete, Bishop of Winchester (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

In recent weeks, in my visits to Oxford, I have visited many churches, colleges and chapels. After attending the mid-day Eucharist in Saint Mary Magdalen Church, it seemed important too to visit Magdalen College, which is also named in honour of Saint Mary Magdalen, and in particular to visit the college chapel.

Magdalen College is beside the River Cherwell and facing the Botanic Garden, with the porter’s lodge on High Street, close to Magdalen Bridge. This is the college where CS Lewis was a Fellow, and where he had a fractious relationship with John Betjeman as a tutor.

The large, square Magdalen Tower is an Oxford landmark, and in a tradition dating back to the reign of Henry VII, the college choir sings from the top of the tower at 6 a.m. on May Morning.

Founder’s Tower leads from Saint John’s Quad into Cloister Quad (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Magdalen College was founded in 1458 by William Waynflete, Bishop of Winchester and Lord Chancellor of England and named after Saint Mary Magdalene. The college succeeded a university hall, Magdalen Hall, founded by Waynflete in 1448, and from which the college drew most of its earliest scholars. The name of Magdalen Hall was revived for a second Magdalen Hall, established in the college grounds around 1490. It moved in the 19th century to Catte Street where it became Hertford College.

Magdalen College took over the site of Saint John the Baptist Hospital, initially using the hospital buildings until a new building was completed in 1470-1480. At its incorporation in 1458, the college consisted of a president and six scholars. With the Founder’s Statutes in 1487, the foundation had a President, 40 fellows, 30 demies or scholars, four chaplain priests, eight clerks and 16 choristers, and also appointed a Master and an usher to the Grammar School.

The founder’s statutes refer to pronouncing the name of the college in English. The name is pronounced like the adjective ‘maudlin’ because the late mediaeval English name Mary Magdalene was Maudelen, derived from the Old French Madelaine.

Saint Swithun’s Tower leads from Saint John’s Quad into Saint Swithun’s Quad (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Oxford and Magdalen College were supporters of the royalist cause during the English Civil War. In 1642, Magdalen College donated over 296 lb of plate to fund the war effort – the largest donation by weight from an Oxford college.

Magdalen College had tactical significance for the king’s forces. The royalist ordnance occupied Magdalen’s Grove in 1643-1645, and Prince Rupert is said to have stayed in the college. During the first Siege of Oxford, Charles I surveyed the battle from Magdalen Tower.

Following Oxford’s fall to Thomas Fairfax at the end of the First English Civil War, the Fellows were purged by the Puritans for political and religious reasons. The president of Magdalen, John Oliver, was replaced by John Wilkinson, and 28 of the fellows, 21 of the demies or scholars, and all but one of the servants were also expelled. With the royalists removed, the college hosted Fairfax and Oliver Cromwell in 1649. John Oliver was reappointed after the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, along with 17 fellows and eight demies.

During the reign of James II, in an attempt to impose Catholicism on the university, Bishop Bonaventure Giffard was imposed as president and the fellows were expelled. The restoration of the fellows after James II is marked each year at a special banquet, the Restoration Dinner.

The Great Quad or the Cloister seen from the Chapel (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Magdalen College is organised around five quads. The irregularly shaped Saint John’s Quad is the first on entering the college, and includes the Outdoor Pulpit and old Grammar Hall. It connects to the Great Quad or the Cloister through the Perpendicular Gothic Founders Tower. The Chaplain’s Quad runs along the side of the Chapel and Hall, to the foot of the Great Tower. Saint Swithun’s Quad and Longwall Quad, which contains the Library, date from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Among the political figures taught at Magdalen was Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, who studied theology. He graduated at 15 and remained in Oxford for further study, eventually becoming a Fellow of Magdalen. Wolsey rose from humble origins to become Lord Chancellor, Archbishop of York, and adviser to Henry VIII. Wolsey founded Cardinal College in Oxford, which Henry VIII renamed Christ Church after Wolsey’s fall from power.

The Magdalen College Boat Club (MCBC) was founded in 1859. It participates in the two annual Oxford bumps races, Eights Week and Torpids.

Oscar Wilde read Greats at Magdalen from 1874 to 1878. Wilde described ‘the two great turning-points in my life were when my father sent me to Oxford, and when society sent me to prison.’

Wilde began an affair in 1891 with Alfred Douglas, who was then a student at Magdalen. Wilde was convicted in 1895 and was sentenced to two years’ hard labour. After his release, Wilde moved to France and spent the last three years of his life in poverty.

Erwin Schrödinger was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1933 while he was a Fellow of Magdalen. He later moved to Ireland and lived on Kincora Road in Clontarf from 1938 to 1955 while he was writing What is Life? I have looked for his cat in Magdalen College, but I never found him.

The gateway with statues of Saint Mary Magdalen (centre), Bishop William Waynflete holding a model of the college, and Saint Swithun of Winchester (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Magdalen owes much of its prominence since the mid-20th century to famous fellows such as CS Lewis and AJP Taylor.

CS Lewis was a Fellow and English tutor at Magdalen for 29 years, from 1925 to 1954. Lewis was one of the Inklings, an informal writing society that included JRR Tolkien and that met in Lewis’s rooms at Magdalen. Lewis was the tutor of the future Poet Laureate Sir John Betjeman. But they had a difficult relationship and Betjeman struggled academically. Betjeman left having failed to obtain a degree in 1928, but was made a doctor of letters by the university in 1974.

Seamus Heaney, who received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1995, was a Fellow of Magdalen from 1989 to 1994.

Like many Oxford colleges, Magdalen admitted its first women undergraduates in 1979.

The gateway is a Victorian structure with three statues facing High Street: Bishop William Waynflete (left), founder of Magdalen College, holding a model of the college; Saint Mary Magdalen (centre), holding a jar of ointment; and Saint Swithun or Swithin (right), Bishop of Winchester.

The chapel in Magdalen College has been influenced by the Oxford Movement and the Catholic Revival in the Church of England (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The chapel in Magdalen College is a place of worship for members of the college, the University of Oxford and many people beyond.

The chapel was built between 1474 and 1480, but owes its present appearance largely to neo-Gothic works in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The roof looks like a stone vaulted ceiling, but is a facsimile in plaster made in 1790 by the architect James Wyatt (1746-1813). Wyatt’s redevelopment of the chapel included a number of modifications to give it a more Gothic appearance. But, apart from the ceiling, Wyatt’s other contributions were removed when the chapel was redesigned in 1828.

A painting or mural of the Last Judgment by Isaac Fuller was placed at the east end of the chapel after 1662. When this was taken down during work in the early 1830s by the architect Lewis Cottingham (1787-1847), fragments of the original reredos were uncovered behind it. These showed that the original reredos had had three tiers of niches, each tier containing 13 niches.

Cottingham replaced Fuller’s painting with the present reredos, with a design based on those remains. The reredos remained without figures until 1864-1865, when it was completed by the neo-Gothic sculptor Thomas Earp of Lambeth, with figures designed by Clayton and Bell. The central image in the top tier depicts the Risen Christ appearing to Saint Mary Magdalen.

The reredos is the work of Lewis Cottingham and was designed by Clayton and Bell (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The chapel was cleaned and restored in 1980. During this work, the tomb of John Patten, father of the founder, Bishop William Waynflete, was salvaged from the derelict church of All Saints’ Church in Wainfleet, Lincolnshire, and finally placed in the niche intended for it in the antechapel.

The stained glass windows in the chapel facing Saint John’s Quad feature a grisaille depiction of the Last Judgment. These windows, dating from 1792, are a reconstruction by the glass painter Francis Eginton of an earlier 17th-century window that was destroyed in a storm.

The stained glass window by John Piper in the antechapel (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The stained glass window by John Piper (1903-1992) in the antechapel depicts the Nativity. The animals and birds are saying in Latin: ‘Christ is born this night in Bethlehem.’

Piper’s idea is from an Elizabethan wall painting in Shulbrede Priory, Sussex. The Latin words in the mouths of the creatures are: Cock, Christus natus est (‘Christ is born’); Goose, Quando? Quando? (‘When? When?’); Crow, In hac nocte (‘On this night’); Owl, Ubi? Ubi? (‘Where? Where?’), Lamb, ‘Bethlehem! Bethlehem!’ The sounds of the Latin words resemble the noises made by the animals and birds.

A mediaeval legend said that on the night of Christ’s Nativity birds and animals gained the power of speech. The window also depicts the Tree of Life in the Book of Genesis and in the Book of Revelation. Underneath is a line from Christopher Smart (1722-1771) in Benjamin Britten’s ‘Rejoice in the Lamb’: ‘Let man and beast appear before him and magnify his name together.’

The tomb of John Patten, father of the founder Bishop William Waynflete, in the antechapel (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

As a chapel in the High Anglican tradition, the chapel has been influenced by the Oxford Movement and the Catholic Revival in the Church of England.

Said and sung services are held daily during term. The choir sings Choral Evensong or Evening Prayer every day at 6 pm except on Mondays. The Sung Eucharist is celebrated at 11 am on Sundays. Compline is sung once a week, and is followed by a service of Benediction twice each term. Mass is also sung on major holy days.

The Dean of Divinity (chaplain), the Revd Dr Andrew Bowyer, came to Magdalen in 2019 from Trinity College, Cambridge, where he was college chaplain for four years and a tutor at Westcott House.

Said and sung services are held daily in the chapel during term (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Magdalen is one of the three choral foundations in Oxford, and the formation of the choir was part of the college statutes. The other choral foundations are New College and Christ Church. The choir sings during chapel services, college gaudies and at other special events.

The choir has 12 academical clerks, or choral scholars, and two organ scholars, all students at the college, and 16 choristers, all with scholarships at Magdalen College School. The director of music, known as the Informator Choristarum, is currently Mark Williams.

The Great Tower, built in 1492-1509, is 144 ft tall and an imposing landmark on the eastern approaches to Oxford’s city centre. It has a peal of 10 bells hung for English change ringing. They were cast at a number of different foundries.

As part of Oxford’s annual May Morning in a tradition dating back 500 years, the choir sing pieces including the Hymnus Eucharisticus from the top of Magdalen Tower at 6 a.m. on 1 May, and the Dean of Divinity blesses the university, the city and the crowds below on Magdalen Bridge and the High Street.

Magdalen Tower seen from Magdalen Bridge, a landmark in Oxford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Daily prayers in Ordinary Time
with USPG: (101) 6 September 2023

Saint Guthlac’s Church … between the Old Rectory and Passenham Manor (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

We are in Ordinary Time in the Church Calendar, and this week began with the Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity (Trinity XIII, 3 September 2023). Today (6 September 2023), the calendar of the Church of England in Common Worship remembers the life and witness of Allen Gardiner (1851), Missionary, Founder of the South American Mission Society.

Before today begins, I am taking some time this morning for prayer and reflection.

This week, I have been reflecting each morning in these ways:

1, Looking at a church on the route of the annual Ride + Stride, organised by Buckinghamshire Historic Churches Trust and taking place next Saturday, 9 September 2023;

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

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

The east end of Saint Guthlac’s Church in the tiny Northamptonshire hamlet of Passenham, near Stony Stratford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Saint Guthlac’s Church, Passenham, Northamptonshire:

The annual Ride + Stride organised by Buckinghamshire Historic Churches Trust takes place on Saturday 9 September 2023. Participants may be cyclists, walkers, horse-riders or drivers of mobility scooters. They can be of any age, but under-13s must be accompanied by an adult. All denominations are welcome.

Participants may visit as many churches as they like, planning their own route, and are asked to seek sponsorship from friends, relations and colleagues: so much per church visited or a lump sum. https://ridestride.org/

Ride + Stride offers opportunities find out what lies behind the churchyard gates of Buckinghamshire’s many churches and chapels.

Ride + Stride is open to walkers as well as horse-riders and cyclists. It always takes place on the second Saturday of September, between 10 am and 6 pm, and aims to raise money for the repair and restoration of churches and chapels of any Christian denomination in Buckinghamshire.

Half the money raised goes to the church or chapel of the participant’s choice, and the other half is added to a general fund administered by the Buckinghamshire Historic Churches Trust.

Churches are encouraged to make applications to the trust for grants to help with church repairs and restoration. Last year’s Ride + Stride event raised more than £26,610. Last year, the trust awarded grants totalling £28,000 to 11 churches that applied for funding to assist with both major and minor works.

My photographs this week are from some of the churches taking part in this year’s Ride + Stride next weekend. Although Saint Guthlac’s Church, Passenham, is in Northamptonshire and in the Diocese of Peterborough, it is close to Stony Stratford and Milton Keynes and is one of the churches taking part in the Ride + Stride organised by Buckinghamshire Historic Churches Trust on Saturday. So, my photographs this morning are of Saint Guthlac’s Church, Passenham.

The waggon roof in the chancel of Saint Guthlac’s Church was restored in the 1960s and painted in blue with golden stars (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Luke 4: 38-44 (NRSVA):

38 After leaving the synagogue he entered Simon’s house. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was suffering from a high fever, and they asked him about her. 39 Then he stood over her and rebuked the fever, and it left her. Immediately she got up and began to serve them.

40 As the sun was setting, all those who had any who were sick with various kinds of diseases brought them to him; and he laid his hands on each of them and cured them. 41 Demons also came out of many, shouting, ‘You are the Son of God!’ But he rebuked them and would not allow them to speak, because they knew that he was the Messiah.

42 At daybreak he departed and went into a deserted place. And the crowds were looking for him; and when they reached him, they wanted to prevent him from leaving them. 43 But he said to them, ‘I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other cities also; for I was sent for this purpose.’ 44 So he continued proclaiming the message in the synagogues of Judea.

Inside Saint Guthlac’s Church in Passenham … Sir Robert Banastre rebuilt the church in 1626 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Today’s Prayer:

The theme this week in ‘Pray With the World Church,’ the Prayer Diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel), is ‘Harvest.’ This theme was introduced on Sunday. To find out more, visit www.uspg.org.uk

The USPG Prayer Diary today (6 September 2023) invites us to pray in these words:

Thank you, Lord, for volunteers. For the giving of their precious time to serve their communities.

The Collect:

Almighty God,
who called your Church to bear witness
that you were in Christ reconciling the world to yourself:
help us to proclaim the good news of your love,
that all who hear it may be drawn to you;
through him who was lifted up on the cross,
and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

The Post Communion Prayer:

God our creator,
you feed your children with the true manna,
the living bread from heaven:
let this holy food sustain us through our earthly pilgrimage
until we come to that place
where hunger and thirst are no more;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Inside Saint Guthlac’s Church, Passenham, facing the gallery and the west end (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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

The choir stalls in Saint Guthlac’s Church date from 1628 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)