02 September 2023

Wadham College in
the heart of Oxford
and its Gothic-style
chapel and buildings

The Gothic-style chapel in Wadham College, Oxford, is part of the original college building (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

I have visited Oxford a few times over the past ten days or so, visiting colleges, chapels and churches, as well as bookshops, parks and museums.

Wadham College is in the centre of Oxford, at the corner of Park Roads and Broad Street. Although it is close to the Ashmolean Museum .and the ‘Bridge of Sighs’ at Hertford College, I wonder how many visitors step inside Wadham College, the former college of notable figures ranging from Sir Christopher Wren to Michael Foot and Archbishop Rowan Williams.

Wadham is one of the largest colleges in Oxford, with about 70 Fellows, 480 undergraduates and 240 graduate students. It was among the first colleges in Oxford to admit women students in 1974, the others being Brasenose, Jesus College, Hertford and Saint Catherine’s, and in 2011 it became the first Oxford college to fly the rainbow flag.

Wadham College Oxford was founded in 1610 by Dorothy Wadham and built by the architect William Arnold (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Wadham College was founded in 1610 by Dorothy Wadham, fulfilling the wishes of her husband Nicholas Wadham in his will. The central buildings, a notable example of Jacobean architecture, were designed by the architect William Arnold and erected in 1610-1613. They include a large and ornate hall, an interesting chapel and the Wadham Gardens. The hall, one of the third largest in Oxford, is notable for its great hammer-beam roof and for the Jacobean woodwork of the entrance screen.

The main building was erected by Arnold in a single building operation in 1610-1613. The style is traditional Oxford Gothic, modified by classical decorative detail, most notably the ‘frontispiece’ framing statues of James I and the Founders immediately facing visitors as they enter the college.

Sir Christopher Wren is probably Wadham’s most famous alumnus. While John Wilkins was Warden of Wadham (1648-1659), Wren was part of a group of experimental scientists at Oxford, the Oxford Philosophical Club, that included Robert Boyle and Robert Hooke. They met regularly meetings at Wadham College and formed the nucleus of what became the Royal Society.

Wren was an undergraduate at Wadham before he became a fellow of All Souls’ College. He later returned to rooms at Wadham while he was the Savilian Professor of Astronomy from 1661.

Statues of James I and Dorothy and Nicholas Wadham face visitors as they enter Wadham College (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The college grounds include the Holywell Music Room (1748), said to be the oldest purpose-built music room in Europe and England’s first concert hall, and the Ferdowsi Library, specialising in Persian literature, art, history, and culture and initially funded by the then ruling Iranian Pahlavi dynasty.

Wadham Gardens are relatively large, compared with those of other Oxford colleges, even without the land sold to build Rhodes House in the 1920s. They were first carved out from the property of the previous Augustinian priory.

Wadham has a wide range of graduates who have contributed significantly to public life (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Wadham has a wide range of graduates in the fields of economics, history, law, physiology, medicine, management, humanities, mathematics, science, technology, media, philosophy, poetry, politics and theology who have contributed significantly to public life.

Notable early members of the college include Robert Blake, Cromwell’s admiral and founder of British sea-power in the Mediterranean, John Cook the first solicitor general of the English Commonwealth and prosecutor of King Charles I, and the libertine poet and the courtier John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester.

More recent members include Archbishop Rowan Williams, who completed his DPhil at Wadham, the author and broadcaster Melvyn Bragg, the writer and jJonathan Freedland, and the Nobel laureate, mathematical physicist and philosopher Sir Roger Penrose, now an emeritus fellow.

Wadham Chapel is usually reached through the door in staircase 3 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Wadham’s Gothic-style chapel is part of the original college building. Although a ceremonial door opens directly into Front Quad, the chapel is usually reached through the door in staircase 3.

The original pulpit still stands. The chapel screen, like that in the Hall, was carved by John Bolton. Originally Jacobean woodwork ran right round the chapel but the stone reredos was inserted in the east end of the chapel in 1832.

The East Window, depicting the Passion of Christ and several other Biblical scenes, including Jonah and the whale, was created by Bernard van Linge in 1621-1622. The windows on the north and south sides of the chapel depict various prophets such as Jonah, and apostles such as Saint Andrew. They originate from different periods.

The East Window in Wadham Chapel was created by Bernard van Linge in 1621-1622 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

One window dated 1616 is attributed to the glazier Robert Rutland, a local craftsman. But Dorothy Wadham had his contract terminated on hearing bad reports of his Biblical prophets on the onrth side of the chapel. The name of the glazier for the more successful depiction of Christ and the Apostles on the south side of the chapel is unknown.

The windows of the antechapel, which also show saintly figures, are Victorian. They were designed by John Bridges, and created by David Evans in 1838. The elegant young man reclining on his monument in the antechapel is Sir John Portman, who died in 1624 as a 19-year-old undergraduate. Another monument, in the form of a pile of books, commemorates Thomas Harris, one of the college fellows appointed at its foundation who died in 1614 aged 20.

The chapel organ dates from 1862 and 1886. It is one of the few instruments by Henry Willis, the doyen of Victorian English organ builders, to survive without substantial modification of its tonal design.

The chapel screen, like that in the Hall, was carved by John Bolton (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The Revd Dr Jane Baun is Chaplain and Welfare Officer of Wadham College. She has taught English in Russia, mediaeval and Byzantine history at New York University, Eastern Christianity in Oxford, and Church History and Christian Ethics at Ripon College Cuddesdon.

She is the author of Tales from Another Byzantium: Celestial Journey and Local Community in the Medieval Greek Apocrypha (Cambridge, 2007), and scholarly papers on official and unofficial religious culture in Eastern Orthodoxy.

Before coming to Wadham, she was a curate in Abingdon and a lecturer in Ripon College Cuddesdon.

The ethos of the chaplaincy is warm and, as I found in recent days, the chapel is open all day, offering a place of prayer, stillness, a holy space where all can search for meaning, comfort and rest.

Wadham Chapel is open all day, offering a place of prayer, stillness, a holy space where all can search for meaning, comfort and rest (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

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