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The imposing edifice of Christ Church Cathedral – an architecturally stunning building of the late Norman period, which serves as the College Chapel as well as the cathedral church for the Diocese of Oxford.

Christ Church Cathedral

Peter Holthusen on a living monument to a bygone age when classical architecture, exquisite art and elaborate craftsmanship defined the most admired public spaces
The wonderfully detailed St. Frideswide Window in the Latin Chapel. © The Reverend Ralph Williamson via Peter Holthusen

"Visitor numbers have soared"

For all you ‘muggles’ who are unfamiliar with the Harry Potter books and subsequent films of the same title, 1st September marks the first day of the school year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, but the burning question about the location on every Harry Potter fans’ list is “Where is Hogwarts?”

 

Well, in the films, there are actually several locations that make up the famous wizardry school, including Alnwick Castle in Northumberland, Lacock Abbey in Wiltshire, the cloister quad at New College, Oxford and the Bodleian Library.

The fan-vaulted staircase which leads up to The Great Hall was used for the arrival scene for new Hogwarts students in the first two Harry Potter films. © The Reverend Ralph Williamson via Peter Holthusen

 

However, it will come as no surprise to the majority of our discerning readers that many of the most iconic scenes were all filmed at Christ Church, in particular the first years’ arrival and greeting by Professor McGonagall in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, when Harry and Ron Weasley first encounter the groaning Filch on the staircase as they arrive at Hogwarts in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, and when Harry first encounters Tom Riddle and the younger Dumbledore on the same staircase.

With fans of Harry Potter flocking to see film locations throughout the country, visitor numbers at the Cathedral and College have soared considerably in recent years, attaining in excess of 350,000 a year in 2015 alone. Earlier this year during the Oxford Literary Festival I had the good fortune to meet the new Dean of Christ Church Cathedral, the Very Reverend Professor Martyn Percy, who has been there since 4 October 2014. I had been introduced to him by the Reverend Ralph Williamson, who until recently was the Chaplain of Christ Church, and quite an accomplished photographer.

I have known Ralph for many years and he has often assisted me with my research into the history of Oxford and its famed colleges, not to mention providing a considerable number of striking images to accompany my contributions, including many of those featured here.

As we chatted away eruditely over dinner in the Great Hall, the Dean explained to us that: "People know some of the films are based and shot at Christ Church and that's a big factor for visitor numbers, particularly for a certain age group".

The Great Hall, built by Cardinal Wolsey, is by far the largest Tudor College Hall in either Oxford or Cambridge, and this will look familiar to any fans of the Harry Potter films, as the inspiration for the setting of 'Hogwarts' Hall'. Actual scenes from the movie were filmed there, including the Sorting Ceremony, when the Sorting Hat decides which of the four houses the first-year students will join, and the spectacular scene when the ceiling was bewitched with stars to reflect the sky outside, and on the grand fan-vaulted staircase leading to the Hall. The Dean continued: “It’s a very beautiful staircase – like many others – but of course it now has the Harry Potter factor”.

This imposing staircase in the heart of Bodley Tower leads up to the Ante-Hall, with the Buttery located to the left. The Buttery is home to one of the College’s bars where students and their guests can enjoy fine wines, whisky and cask beers, including a rather splendid House Claret specially produced for Christ Church.

From there, the visitor will be directed into the finest surviving section of the college’s original foundation: The Great Hall itself. It reveals the Renaissance splendour of Cardinal’s College, and suggests the scale it might have reached had it not been for Wolsey’s fall. Until the 1870s this was the largest Hall in Oxford, but then the newly-founded Keble College ensured that their Hall was slightly larger (legend has it by only a single metre).

Completed alongside the kitchens in the 1520s, the Great Hall has been in almost constant use since the 16th century. Over the years this magnificent Hall has held some spectacular banquets, perhaps none more so than the Duke of Portland’s banquet of 1793, in which guests were treated to turbot in lobster sauce, followed by roast rib of beef, lamb, duck, goose and chicken, a veal pie, and a dessert of ‘fruit fool’ to finish the proceedings.

While the extravagances of Portland’s time are fortunately a thing of the past, the Hall remains very much in use. Members of the College can eat three daily meals here including a formal dinner in the evenings where gowns must be worn. The table at the far end of the Hall is known as High Table and it is here that senior members of the College dine below a magnificent portrait of the founder of Christ Church, Henry VIII, which hangs above a bust of the current monarch, Queen Elizabeth II.

Christ Church is the most magnificent and architecturally imposing of all the Oxford Colleges. It was originally founded by Thomas Wolsey – Lord Chancellor of England – as Cardinal's College in 1524. The college buildings took over the site of St. Frideswide's Monastery, which was suppressed by Wolsey to fund his college. Following Wolsey's fall from power in 1529, it was re-founded by King Henry VIII in 1546, as a unique dual foundation of both College and Cathedral, which it remains today.

There has been a choir at the Cathedral since 1526, when the celebrated Renaissance composer John Taverner was the organist and also Master of the Choristers. The statutes of Cardinal Wolsey's original College mentioned sixteen choristers and thirty singing priests.

On this site stood the convent church where Oxford's patron saint, St. Frideswide, a noble Saxon lady, who founded a nunnery here was reputed to be have been buried in the 8th century. Around her shrine in the 9th and 10th centuries a group of priests lived a communal life, doing pastoral work, and in the 1980s archaeologists found evidence of a graveyard there dating back to the late 7th century.

In 1180 the Prior of the (by then Augustinian) monastery had her bones disinterred, and laid with great ceremony in a reliquary which was displayed in a shrine to which pilgrims flocked, hoping for miracles. They were not disappointed.

A later shrine (1289) was broken up during the Reformation in the 1530s, but many pieces from it have been found over the past hundred years or so, and it has been reconstructed in Christ Church Cathedral. It stands in the Latin Chapel, in front of a wonderfully detailed stained glass window telling the story of her life, designed by Edward Burne-Jones, the Pre-Raphaelite artist, in the 1850s.

Nothing remains of St. Frideswide's nunnery, and little of the Saxon church – perhaps a few stones – but the Cathedral and the buildings around the cloister are the oldest on the site. One of the gifts made to the priory was the Meadow between Christ Church and the river; Lady Elizabeth Montacute gave the land to maintain her chantry which lay in the Lady Chapel close to St. Frideswide's shrine.

Lady Montacute, born Elizabeth de Montfort in Beaudesert Castle, Warwickshire, was a major benefactor of St. Frideswide's Church, now Christ Church Cathedral. Her tomb now lies between the Latin Chapel, whose construction she funded, and the Dean's Chapel, where she was originally buried under its magnificent painted ceiling (now faded by time).

The Monastery dated back to the earliest days of Oxford as a settlement in the 9th century. When Henry re-founded the College and appointed the old monastery church as the cathedral of the new Diocese of Oxford, which was created in 1541 out of part of the Diocese of Lincoln, the new institution of College and Cathedral was named 'Aedes Christi', which is rendered in English as Christ Church. It is due to its ecclesiastical function that Christ Church's principal, the Dean, is always a clergyman.

During the English Civil War, Oxford was the Royalist capital, with the King and his Court based at Christ Church from 1642 to 1646. King Charles I lived at the College and addressed both houses of the Royalist Parliament in The Great Hall and attended services in the Cathedral. After the war and the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, the College was rewarded for its loyalty to the House of Stuart by being able to raise enough money to complete the main quadrangle (Tom Quad).

When Cardinal Wolsey began the construction of his College here, the western end of the building was removed to make space for Tom Quad, and the remainder was used as the temporary chapel for the new College. Wolsey's plan to replace it with a larger chapel on the north side of Tom Quad would have caused its demolition, but when he fell from power in 1529 the building of the new chapel stopped.

A former student, Sir Christopher Wren, was commissioned to design a new bell tower in 1682, which houses the bell, Great Tom, from which the tower and quad get their names. Wren's huge tower was depicted in the film of Philip Pullman's book 'The Golden Compass'. The 7-tonne bell in the tower chimes 101 times each night at 9:05pm, the time when the original 101 students were called back for curfew. Since Oxford is 5 minutes west of Greenwich, this is actually 9:00pm Oxford time.

In the course of renovation works at the Cathedral, the bells in Bodley Tower (named after the architect G.F. Bodley, rather than Thomas Bodley of Bodleian Library fame), which houses the staircase to the Great Hall, were moved to a wooden belfry above the stairs to the Hall. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, the maths tutor better known by his pen name Lewis Carroll, felt that this arrangement was wholly unsatisfactory and wrote a series of satires berating the arrangement, at one point calling the wooden structure a “tintinnabulatory tea chest”.

In the wake of these attacks upon the belfry, G.F. Bodley was commissioned to build a rather more suitable tower in a Gothic style in keeping with the Hall. He had initially wanted to place an even more elaborate structure on top of the present day tower, but the Governing Body felt that it was too ostentatious an addition and the plans were abandoned.

The Dean who supervised this work, John Fell, was an unpopular man who inspired the famous verse, "I do not love thee Dr Fell; The reason why I cannot tell; But this I know and know full well, I do not love thee, Dr Fell".

Almost as ancient as the Cathedral, and on its southern side, is the Chapter House, part Norman but mainly 13th century, its interior stone walls now clad in a protective covering suggestive of tiles. It contains the Diocesan Treasury and the Cathedral Shop. The cloister was rebuilt in about 1499, and the former monastic refectory, which forms the southern boundary of the cloister, housed the College Library from 1561. After the New Library opened in the 18th century, the refectory building was converted into residential rooms.

Sitting right in the heart of Oxford but gracefully bounded by its Meadow and the rivers Cherwell and Isis, Christ Church is architecturally stunning. The Cathedral is a Romanesque gem and is entered from Tom Quad (the largest in Oxford and Wolsey's work). Christopher Wren's Tom Tower is the College's most famous feature and an Oxford landmark. Striking additions in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries complete what is not simply a panorama but a place for worship, living and working.

The nave, choir, central tower and transepts (as far as the roofs) are of the late Norman period, and were probably erected during the lifetime of Robert Canutus, Chancellor of Oxford University and the second Prior of St. Frideswide's, in the 12th century. As a whole this spectacular Cathedral contains numerous examples of the various styles from late Norman to the Perpendicular, with a large stained glass Rose Window of the ten-part (i.e., botanical) type. Nine centuries later, these historical surroundings were seen by millions watching the Harry Potter films.

The Great Hall itself was replicated at the Warner Bros. Studios, in Hertfordshire, as the grand dining hall at Hogwarts School. The studios and backlot sit on the site of the former Rolls-Royce factory at Leavesden Aerodrome near Watford, which was an important centre of aircraft production during World War II.

Visitors now pay to go on a tourist trail which takes in both Christ Church College and the Cathedral while at Leavesden, the Warner Bros. Studios, who have been making the Harry Potter films for nearly a decade have opened the doors at the studio for the very first time for everyone to see where it all began.

The Dean of Christ Church said tourist numbers had been "steadily rising" with numbers up to 350,000, compared to 300,000 annually three years ago. "Our visitors tend to be younger than for other cathedrals, more men and perhaps they are less familiar with what a cathedral is all about." I take the view it is an opportunity for them to light a candle, say a prayer and be in a quiet holy place".

Today, this beautiful building is home to a vibrant worshipping community with a rich worshipping tradition and of course, the world famous Cathedral Choir and The Cathedral School. It hosts a wide range of diocesan events, including music, art and drama. The Cathedral is visited by thousands of people each year who pray, worship, or simply enjoy the stillness and the profound sense of history it inspires.

And so, my visit to Christ Church has come to an end. As I walked back along Magpie Lane to the comfort of my room at The Old Bank Hotel, I couldn’t help but imagine the ghostly sound of footsteps of those eminent writers, poets and academics before me, who would have paced these cobbled lanes for centuries in pursuit of their literary dreams.

- Peter Holthusen

 

Top Image - The imposing edifice of Christ Church Cathedral – an architecturally stunning building of the late Norman period, which serves as the College Chapel as well as the cathedral church for the Diocese of Oxford.

Below - The wonderfully detailed St. Frideswide Window in the Latin Chapel. © The Reverend Ralph Williamson via Peter Holthusen

Bottom - The fan-vaulted staircase which leads up to The Great Hall was used for the arrival scene for new Hogwarts students in the first two Harry Potter films. © The Reverend Ralph Williamson via Peter Holthusen

 

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