14 April 2024

When TS Eliot and
CS Lewis met for
afternoon tea at
the Mitre in Oxford

The Mitre on the corner of the High and Turl Street in Oxford … now Gusto Italian, TS Eliot and CS Lewis met there in 1945 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Patrick Comerford

The Mitre is an historic building in Oxford owned by Lincoln College since 1475 and now known as Gusto Italian restaurant. It may have been one of the ancient centres of learning that eventually led to the foundation of the University of Oxford, but the history of the Mitre history is even older.

The Mitre was closed for a number of years recently as Lincoln College refurbished the accommodation above and behind the premises. As it became a derelict-looking eyesore, many people in Oxford feared it had closed for good.

Their fears rested not only in the antiquity of the Mitre, but also, I suppose, because it has a place in literary history as the place where two of the great literary giants of the last century, TS Eliot and CS Lewis, were brought together by mutual friends in a disastrous effort to reconcile them after very public feuding.

I had another look at Gusto or the Mitre last week while I was in Oxford. It stands on the site of several houses on the corner of the High and Turl Street. They were converted into an inn in 1310. They have changed so much over time it is impossible to say whether any elements from the original places survive, although the cellars may well date back to the 13th century.

Lincoln College became the owner of the inn in 1475 when was donated to the college by the Bishop of Lincoln, Thomas Rotherham. It was probably named after the mitre of the college founder, Richard Fleming, Bishop of Lincoln, depicted on the college coat of arms. Fleming had become Archbishop of York when he obtained a royal licence in 1427 empowering him to found a college at Oxford for the special purpose of training theologians to combat Wyclif’s heresy

The mitre and arms of Bishop Richard Fleming in the arms of Lincoln College (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

The impressive façade of the Mitre dates from 1631. It was an important coaching inn in the 17th century, and as early as 1671 there were coaches running between London and the Mitre on three days a week.

Anthony Wood writes of a coach service in 1671 that ran from the Mitre to the Greyhound in Holborn, London, at 6 am on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, returning on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

Wood records that when Prince Maurice of Nassau came to see the library and colleges and ‘he layd at the Miter’. He also reports in 1691 how John Forster, a Fellow of All Souls’ College, ‘died at the Miter Inn late at night, after immoderate drinking.’

By the late 18th century, there was a daily service from the Mitre Inn through Henley to the Bell Savage, Ludgate Hill, London. In 1823, there were two services from the Mitre to Bristol and Bath. The Mitre’s coach business seems to have increased after the coming of the railways, presumably because of the closure of the Angel Hotel. By 1852, there were services to Birmingham, Cheltenham, Chipping Norton, London, Prince of Wales, Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday morning at 11; through Tetsworth, Wycombe, and Worcester.

A large mitre on the façade of the former Mitre, now Gusto Ialian, in Oxford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

The house and premises were held on a lease from the Rector and Fellows of Lincoln College, while the arched vault or cellar under the High Street was held on a lease from the City of Oxford. Part of the premises in a court adjoining All Saints’ Church behind No 19 was separated in 1883 and converted into a tutor’s residence for Brasenose College, and became known as Brasenose House.

The Mitre ceased to function as a coaching inn in 1926, and became simply an hotel, while the stables in Turl Street behind were converted into the Turl Bar.

The Mitre ceased being an hotel in 1969 when Lincoln College took over all the rooms upstairs to provide accommodation for 50 students. Since then many Lincoln students and a small number of fellows have called the Mitre home.

The Mitre restaurant and bar continued on the ground floor and became a Beni Inn. Whitbread took over the Berni chain from Grand Metropolitan in 1990, and the ground floor of the former hotel then became a Beefeater Restaurant.

The Mitre as a Beefeater restaurant ten years ago (Patrick Comerford)

In recent years, Lincoln College decided the buildings needed repairs and renovations if it was to continue in use. The buildings are listed Grade II* or Grade II, and the total cost was about £16 million. The work began in 2018, and Lincoln College closed the Mitre in 2019.

Regulars thought the pub would reopen once the work was complete in 2021. But it remained closed, and Dave Richardson, speaking on behalf of the Oxford branch of real ale group CAMRA, said it looked ‘increasingly dilapidated’ and had ‘become an eyesore in the heart of the city.’

Since then, the ground floor reopened as a Gusto Italian restaurant in December 2022.

Many people in Oxford had been taken aback when Saint John’s College closed the Lamb and Flag on Saint Giles after takings fell during the pandemic. But it was then taken over by community interest group calling themselves – appropriately – the Inklings and reopened the pub. Across the street on Saint Giles, the Eagle and Child, the pub where the Inklings actually met, has remained closed for some years.

Lincoln College recently repaired and renovated the buildings at the Mitre (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

But members of the Inklings also created a moment in literary in the Mitre almost 80 years ago, when Charles Williams, one of the leading Inklings, invited his mutual friends CS Lewis and TS Eliot, along with another Inkling, Father Gervase Mathew, to tea at the Mitre Hotel one afternoon in 1945.

‘Mr Lewis,’ Eliot exclaimed, ‘you are a much older man than you appear in photographs!’ The meeting could only go downhill after that. ‘I must tell you,’ Eliot continued, ‘I consider A Preface to Paradise Lost your best book.’

Lewis was in disbelief, it is said. He had dedicated that book to Charles Williams, but in it had been highly critical of Eliot. Lewis had once dismissed ‘The Waste Land’ as ‘infernal poetry’ and ‘The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock’ as ‘pleasantly unpleasant’, an ‘example of the decay of proper feelings’ and morally dangerous.

Williams died on 15 May 1945, only weeks after the disastrous encounter between Eliot and Lewis in the Mitre. Lewis edited a volume of essays in his honour, but Eliot missed the deadline for his contribution, and Lewis was disappointed. The other contributors included JRR Tolkien, another Inkling.

Lewis loathed Eliot’s poetry, and at times publicly, perhaps even purposefully, misspelled Eliot’s name as Elliot. In The Pilgrim’s Regress (1933), Lewis referred to Eliot indirectly as ‘Mr Neo-Angular.’ He was critical of ‘Anglo Catholicism, Materialism, Sitwellism, Psychoanalysis, and TS Elliot,’ and told his editor that Eliot was ‘the single man who sums up the thing I am fighting against.’

A mitre in stucco work on the façade of the Mitre (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

After their brief encounter in the Mitre, Lewis’s reputation as a popular religious writer grew through the 1940s and 1950s with books such as The Problem of Pain and Mere Christianity,. But Eliot and Lewis would meet again in the 1950s.

Lewis’s Reflection on the Psalms was praised by Gordon Selwyn, Dean of Winchester and the editor of Theology, in a letter to Archbishop Geoffrey Fisher of Canterbury and Archbishop Michael Ramsey of York. The archbishops had decided to revise the psalter used in the Church of England, and they now invited Lewis and Eliot to join the commission, which included scholars, theologians, priests and poets.

For the first time since their encounter in the Mitre in Oxford in 1945, Eliot and Lewis met again at a meeting of the commission in Lambeth Palace on 13 April 1959. In the intervening years, both men had married: Lewis had married Joy Davidman Gresham at the Oxford Registry Office at 42 St Giles (now a dental practice), beside the Quaker meeting house, on 23 April 1956; Eliot married Valerie Fletcher at Saint Barnabas Church, Kensington, on 10 January 1957. After their meeting in April 1959, Lewis wrote a warm letter to ‘My dear Eliot’. After another, three-day meeting of the commission in Magdalene College, Cambridge, in July 1959, Lewis and Eliot and their wives had lunch together.

CS Lewis and Joy Davidman Gresham were married at the Oxford Registry Office at 42 St Giles in 1956 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

The commission worked towards publishing The Revised Psalter in 1963. Despite their different perspectives on the essence of poetry and many critical aspects of Anglican faith, Eliot and Lewis became friends during the revision of the Psalter. Their letters from 1959 into the early 1960s are personal, sometimes jocular, and usually brief, where Lewis writes to ‘My Dear Eliot’ about lunches together, the work of the Psalter commission, and other events.

When Joy died, Lewis submitted a memoir of grief under the pseudonym NW Clerk to Faber in 1961. At Faber, Eliot immediately recognised that Lewis was the author despite his use of a pen name, and he published it as A Grief Observed. This short book stands out as Lewis’s most personal piece of writing. Lewis died on 22 November 1963, three years after Joy and in the same year as The Revised Psalter was published.

Lewis, according to his private secretary Walter Hooper, could have been talking about Eliot and himself when he wrote in The Four Loves: ‘Friendship arises out of mere Companionship when two or more of the companions discover that they have in common some insight or interest or even taste which the others do not share and which, till that moment, each believed to be his own unique treasure (or burden).’

In their shared Biblical work, the two greatest Anglican literary figures and apologists of the 20th century had been reconciled and had become fast friends. The Old Library in Magdalene College Cambridge holds both the Valerie Eliot bequest and the CS Lewis Collection.

A mitre in a window on Turl Street recalls the days when the Mitre was also a pub (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

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