With the King at Oxford - Alfred J. Church

Of Things at Oxford

'Twas a stirring time at Oxford when I first began my residence in the University. The King had there his headquarters, and there was scarce a day but messengers came bearing news, good or bad, of the war that was being carried forward in every part of England. Also a Parliament sat—I speak now of the first year of my residence, that is to say from October, 1643, to the same month of the year following—at which were present some hundred and fifty, reckoning both Commoners and Peers. But of these matters I shall say more hereafter; at the present I will speak rather of things concerning my own College.

Lincoln College is a fair building, of an honourable antiquity, there being six Colleges only that are older than it, and ten that are of newer date, but it has only a poor estate, its first founder having died before he could fulfil his purpose, and other benefactors, for such have not been wanting to us, not wholly making good his unwilling defect. Its chief ornament is the chapel, which is in the Gothic style (a style, in my judgment, much to be preferred to the Italian novelty which many in these days prefer), fairly lined with cedar, and illustrated with windows most handsomely painted. These windows were brought from Italy at the instance of the builder, Dr. Williams, sometime Bishop of Lincoln and Lord Keeper, whose liberality in this matter is the more to be commended because he is not even of this University, but visitor only of the College in right of his bishopric. My chamber was under the roof at the top of the chapel staircase, and had a fair prospect of the church of All Saints, which, in a sort, belongs to the College, and of that part of the town which lies toward the river.

On the first day of November, being All Saints' Day, we—that is to say, all the members of the College then residing, from the Rector to the Clerks—walked in solemn procession to this church, where prayers were said and a sermon preached by Master Richard Chalfont, the Sub-Rector, the Rector, to whom the duty of this discourse more properly belongs, pleading inability by reason of illness; but 'tis thought that 'twas an excuse rather than a reason, and that, being a prudent man, as was most abundantly proved by his keeping his preferment through all the changes of the times, he chose rather to be silent in so critical a juncture of affairs. We looked for a discourse on political matters from Master Chalfont, who was very hot for the King; but he preached on no such subject, but on the pleasures which shall be enjoyed in heaven. Some thought the theme ill-chosen, but others, to whose opinion I incline, greatly commended this choice, saying that of politics we hear enough, and more than enough, in the market-place, and that higher things are more befitting the sanctuary. 'Twas a most academical discourse. I remember he told us that we should there, among other good things, find repaired all damages that time or accident has made in the remains of antiquity, reading, for example, the comedies of Eupolis, a contemporary, but elder, of Aristophanes, which have been most lamentably lost, and such books of Livy and Tacitus as are wanting to the manuscripts, and solving also problems of geometry and algebra which are beyond our present skill. I thought that many of the auditors listened to these prognostications with blank faces, as thinking, doubtless, that they had here upon earth more than a sufficiency of such things.

The day was kept as a high day in the College, provision beyond the ordinary being made both for dinner and supper in the hall. There was no lack of jollity, though I heard some complain, in a doubtful manner, of the change which had been wrought since the last Gaudy (for such is the name, being short for gaudeamus, which they give to this festivity) was held. Then there had been a goodly show of plate, none drinking save out of silver; but this was now all gone, being melted down for the pay of his Majesty's soldiers, and our cups were of earthenware.

On Shrove Tuesday, which, in the year 1644 (to which I am now come), fell on the second day of March, there was held what, if I may borrow a word from a venerable custom of antiquity, may be styled the initiation of the Freshmen. The fire in the hall was made earlier than ordinary; the Fellows also went to supper before six, and made an end sooner than at other times, so leaving the hall to the liberty of the undergraduates, but not without an admonitory hint given by the Sub-Rector, as having charge of the discipline of the College that all things should be carried on in good order. While they were at supper in the hall, the cook was making hot caudle at the charge of the Freshmen, who, I should have said, are all that have come into the University since the Shrove Tuesday last before. (Caudle, I should say, for the sake of those that are not learned in such matters, is a drink made of oatmeal flour, mixed in water, with sherry wine.) This being ready, and all the undergraduates and servants being assembled in the hall, each Freshman, in his turn, according to his seniority, was constrained to make a speech, but not without preparation, for notice was given that it would be required of him on Candlemas Day. First, he plucked off his gown and bands, and made himself look as like a low fellow as he could; some, I must needs confess, acquitting themselves in this respect with much success. This done, he made his speech, being placed on a form, which was set on the high table, touching with such wit as he was master of on the persons and characters of his brother Freshmen and on the servants of the College, the latter more especially, being a game at which the very feeblest hawks could fly. If he did well, speaking in an audible voice, and with a good fluency of words and passable matter, there was given him a cup of caudle, and no salted drink; if he did indifferently, neither ill nor well, some caudle and some salted drink; but if he was dull, or halted in his speech, then he had nothing but salted drink; that is to say, beer, with salt therein, and tucks to boot. This done, the senior cook administered to him an oath, which began thus: "Item to jurabis, quod penniless bench  non visitabis," but the rest I forget. As for "penniless bench," 'tis a seat by St. Martin's Church (which is called also Carfax), where the hucksters and butter-women sit. This oath each Freshman took over an old shoe, which when he had kissed with due solemnity, he put on again his gown and bands, and was duly admitted into the worshipful company of seniors. This was doubtless but foolish work, though I doubt me much whether now, when we are so far wiser that all such festivities are forbidden, we be much better. I trust, at the least, that none will think the worse of me if I boast that I did my fooling so graciously that the cup that was given to me was of caudle only, and no admixture of salt.

Such sportiveness is to be looked for in the young; and, indeed, did their gay temper and light heart lead them no further than into such diversions, there were small cause for blame; it may be alleged also, there was something academical, though turned to purposes of mirth, in these our enforced disputings. So much may not be said of all the sports to which the younger sort were addicted. Some were given to the fighting of cocks, a barbarous thing in my judgment, though long custom has appropriated it to the last day before Lent, so that some would think the world itself shaken in its foundations were this absent; but, be it good or bad, 'twill be acknowledged that 'tis not a seemly thing for the quadrangle of a College, where I have seen it practised, and that not once or twice only. The baiting of badgers also with terrier dogs was much followed. As for hunting the fox, it was interrupted by the war; for who could follow the chase when he was like to find the King's men in one village and the Parliament's soldiers in the next? So the war brought peace, I may say, to the foxes; but the hares and partridges had little rest, for the disturbed times gave excuse to many for carrying fire-arms, which they could use, as occasion served, for their own purposes. But who could know whether a musket were loaded with a bullet that might kill a man, or with small shot that might bring down a beast or a bird? And if 'twas a bullet that it bore, what was to hinder it being used against a fat hart or a roebuck? The keepers of game had, I take it, an ill time in these days; indeed, their occupation was in many places wholly given up. And if such abuses have commonly been found among the scholars of the University, now they prevailed tenfold more. But of this more in its proper place.

But what shall be said of the seniors, the Masters of Arts. Before I came to Oxford I had thought, in my simplicity, that these were all grave and reverend persons, given to books and study, that, as our new poet, Master John Milton, has it, did "outwatch the Bear;" but I soon learnt to think otherwise; and here I will take leave to tell a true tale, from which may be seen how some of these reverend seniors did demean themselves. But that there were grave and pious men even in the worst times I shall not deny.

There was in the College a certain Master of Arts, by name Thomas Smith, a violent person, who had been admonished and punished for diverse offences and disorders, of which it was counted not the least heinous that he kept dogs in his chamber, and would neither remove them nor himself when warned by the Rector so to do. Master Smith had a quarrel, in which private enmity was doubtless aggravated by public differences, with another Master of Arts, also dwelling in the College, by name Nicholas North, and a minister. They had had diverse fallings out in time past, but the gravest of all, by reason of which Master Smith came near to being expelled from the College (and doubtless had been so but for the favour of some Fellows that were of his way of thinking in matters of Church and State), was this. It will be best told in their own words, as I afterwards found it written down; and first for Master North's account:

"On Monday night, immediately after I had supped in the buttery, going in the new quadrangle, I heard a door shut, and thinking it had been mine, said to him that came forth, 'Who is there?' Master Smith answered, 'Who are you that examine me?' I replied, 'I do not examine you.' He said, 'You are a base rogue for examining me.' When I heard him say so, fearing he would fall upon me, I hasted with all the speed I could to my chamber; but, as I opened the door, Master Smith caught hold of my gown and said, 'Sirrah! Come out; you are a base rogue for examining me!' Said I, 'You cannot prove me such. I pray you let me go; I have nought to say to you.' 'Ay,' said he, 'but I have something to say to you;' and taking me by the ear and hair of the head with one hand, he plucked out a cudgel that was under his gown, and making into the chamber upon me, struck me with the cudgel upon the head. About the third blow it broke in two. After that he struck me half-a-dozen blows with that piece he had in his hand, and when I wrested this out of his hand he laid me about the face with his fist. There being two in my chamber, I asked them whether they were not ashamed to see me beaten in my own chamber, and would not call company to take him off. After a while came Master Chalfont running in and took him off from me, and three several times did Master Smith call me 'base rogue' and run in upon me, and was taken off three times by Master Chalfont; and when I entreated him to go out of my chamber he called me a base, inferior rogue, and would not go out till he had every piece of his stick."

Now for Master Smith's story:

"Coming out of my chamber on Monday night, about seven of the clock, I met Master North coming forth from his chamber. He said, 'What are you, sir?' I answered, 'What is that to you?' He drew me to his chamber door. I asked him why he used me so. He said that I had taken something out of his chamber. I told him that he was an unworthy man, and I would make him know himself; and Master North being within his chamber, dared me to fall on him, saying 'Strike me if thou durst !' Then I perceived a bed-staff in his gown sleeve, he holding the little end in his hand and the great end downwards. Thereupon, having a stick in my hand, I struck at him, and hitting him on the top of the head, broke the stick in pieces."

Here Master Smith was questioned how he came to have a stick, which it is against rule and custom to carry. He said, "I was newly come out of town from the company of some friends, and by the way was jostled from the walk by two scholars, and having shortly to return, not knowing whether I might be abused again, took the stick under my gown."

Further, in answer to Master North, he said, "I do not absolutely know whether I did after strike him in his chamber, but might have so done, partly by heat of passion and ill-language that was given me, and partly defending myself."

There was no small discussion about this matter, but in the end Master Smith was commanded to pay ten pounds to Master North for the wrong done to him (of which sum Master North was persuaded to abate a third part), and to make a public submission and acknowledgment in the chapel in the face of all the society assembled. And these two things he did.

Such were the manners of the time, and afterwards, as will be seen, they grew worse rather than better.