Gunpowder, Treason and Plot… and Oliver Cromwell the vandal

By skepticlawyer


As promised, three sets of Oxford images for readers’ entertainment. First up is a set I took after dodging a day hitting the books. While the light was good, I clambered up St Mary’s bell tower. She’s Oxford’s official ‘University church’, and classes were once held there.

Archbishop Cranmer (he of ‘Book of Common Prayer’ fame) had seen two colleagues burnt at the stake during Bloody Mary’s reign and recanted his Protestant faith. Put on the spot in St Mary’s, however, he withdrew his ‘recantation’ and suffered the same fate. His pyre was built in front of Balliol College, and he thrust the hand with which he’d signed his recantation into the flames before stepping in voluntarily himself. This remarkable account was written by an anonymous (and clearly Catholic) bystander.

The bell tower is well worth a look, even though they charge all comers (including students) to scrabble up an increasingly narrow stairwell (very good for the wind, if nothing else). I’ve taken a few scenic shots, but have also included a few more of my favourite gargoyles – including one vomiting out a drainpipe (interesting take on plumbing there).

Later in the evening, my view that Archbishop Cranmer must have had a brass pair was confirmed after a trip to Wolfson College for their Bonfire Night. Wolfson actually owns an island in the middle of the Cherwell (pronounced ‘Charwell’), and they set up their crackers and bonfire on and around it.

Bonfire Night is just about the most politically incorrect festival of which one can conceive (‘hey, let’s burn a Catholic’), although in a perverse way it also pays tribute to history’s first suicide bomber.

On November 5, 1605, Guy Fawkes was discovered in the cellars under the Houses of Parliament sitting on 36 barrels of gunpowder with a taper in his hand. Later studies confirmed that – had the plot come off – he’d have flattened the Palace of Westminster – parliament, Cathedral and all. Windows would have blown out for a mile around.

At any rate, the bonfire was bloody hot. Lots of CO2 pouring into the atmosphere, on top of the smell of spent fireworks and whiskey (people were swigging it from bottles stashed in their pockets).

It’s still legal to buy fireworks in newsagencies over here, and for the week either side of November 5, Oxford echoed to the sound of fireworks, rockets and crackers going off randomly all over the place. We heard on the grapevine that rockets in Broad Street would get you an ASBO, and I was half tempted to put the rumour to the test (strictly for research purposes, of course – I’m studying criminology as part of my BCL, after all).

The second set came about when I realised that the weather wasn’t likely to stay pleasant (and how true that’s turned out to be) for much longer. I wound up spending most of my time in Christ Church Cathedral, which is a beautiful building, by the way. However, it would be even more beautiful if Oliver Cromwell and his merry men hadn’t ‘redecorated’ it during the English Civil War.

As most people know, I have somewhat Prince Charles-ish attitudes to architecture post 1945 (ie, it’s nothing that several tonnes of TNT couldn’t fix). But the thought of wrecking something lovely just because you disagree with the people who made use of it (the Royalists did make themselves rather at home in Christ Church Cathedral – Charles I actually lived in it at one point) struck me as rather pissy.

The final set was actually taken first in time, and records (for the most part) Oxford’s traditional ‘Matriculation‘ ceremony, which involves a rather large dose of dress-ups. All good fun, although the tourists probably get the idea we do this every day…


  1. CFQ
    Posted November 22, 2007 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

    “But the thought of wrecking something lovely just because you disagree with the people who made use of it (the Royalists did make themselves rather at home in Christ Church Cathedral – Charles I actually lived in it at one point) struck me as rather pissy.”

    It’s such a shame that has happened so much through human history – the “we’re a bit different and we don’t like you but we’ve got better weapons so we’ll smash your stuff” attitude. All those incredible buildings, artworks and books lost…

    Cool post, SL.

  2. Posted November 22, 2007 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

    The Puritans did not see it a something lovely – they had a similar view of “Papist” places of worship to yours on post 1945 architecture – it was nothing a few tons of gunpowder could not fix. They were positively offended by it, seeing it as an affront to God and filled with graven images of Him.

  3. FDB
    Posted November 22, 2007 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

    The worst I’ve seen is the huge and stunning mosque in Cordoba in Spain where a section of the middle was knocked out and a great gaudy piece of shit Cathedral squats there like a malevolent gilt toad.

  4. Posted November 22, 2007 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

    The interesting thing here is that Christ Church Cathedral in Oxford would have looked much like the “great gaudy piece of shit Cathedral” in the middle of the mosque until the Puritans did their thing to it.

  5. FDB
    Posted November 22, 2007 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

    I’m generally a fan of austerity and foreboding in my cathedrals. Maybe not austerity so much, as I love gargoyles and crazy masonry. And that cool stripey place in Sienna.

    Anyway, it’s the gold and fat cherubs that bug me, and the stained glass saints. So aesthetically I’m not a huge fan of medieval Catholic churches. Nor of tearing them down of course.

    Really the Mezquita in Cordoba got off lightly in not being torn down altogether – my guess is the re-conquerors just couldn’t bring themselves to dispose of something so magnificent altogether.

    All this cathedral talk makes me want to read Hawksmoor again.

  6. Posted November 22, 2007 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

    Yes, but modern architecture is inherently offensive – God doesn’t come into it 😉

    I must admit that I’m not hugely impressed by gaudiness, but I do dislike willful damage, and it is interesting to see architecture that Cromwell’s lot didn’t get to – like the ceiling in Brasenose’s chapel. Yes, it’s very loud, but it’s also extremely striking, and couldn’t be described as gaudy at all. Of course, Christ Church pre-Cromwell was still protestant, but it was ‘high’ (lots of bells and smells) – as is pretty much everything in Oxford.

  7. Posted November 22, 2007 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

    Avoid Einsiedeln next time you are in Switzerland, then – the salmon pink interior is relieved only by the high Baroque art, gold highlights and black Madonnas.
    Photos here.

  8. FDB
    Posted November 22, 2007 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

    Ewww… I just had lunch REYNOLDS!!

    Although the black Madonna and Child is pretty interesting.

  9. Posted November 22, 2007 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

    ‘Fascinatingly ugly’ sums it up, really.

  10. Posted November 22, 2007 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

    When I went there it was all I could do not to burst out laughing. It is a fair way from the charitable ideal of the Church.
    If CL is around he may have a contrary opinion, though.

  11. FDB
    Posted November 22, 2007 at 3:28 pm | Permalink

    He sure would!

    “They’re storing assets against the possibility of future recession!”

    “Clinton was worse!”

  12. Posted November 22, 2007 at 4:52 pm | Permalink

    It would be interesting to see who the new owner of Einsiedeln would be if they tried to realise the assets during a recession. I am trying to think of someone with tastes that would match that. Mohammed Fayed perhaps?

  13. Posted November 22, 2007 at 7:27 pm | Permalink

    Remember, remember the Fifth of November,
    The Gunpowder Treason and Plot,
    I know of no reason
    Why Gunpowder Treason

    In The Sandman Shakespeare is shown composing the first couplet and Ben Jonson composes the second. A little English Catholic-Protestant co-operation. They teach to some kids. Shakespeare says it might last a hundred years but Jonson doubts it muchly.

    I was looking around for information on the origins of the doggerel and I came up with the the blog of an “unabashed libertarian communist”!!!! There’s a Bakunin quote headlining.

    Ideology is more mutagenetic than a super-virus.

    RE: Architecture.

    Here’s a bit of Catholic art that that notorious anti-Catholic bigot Orwell hated. I don’t.

    This is the foxiest traditional religious type building I’ve ever been in.

    modern architecture is inherently offensive

    Awww. C’mon? It’s not all bad

    Good architecture should always be applauded.

  14. Posted November 22, 2007 at 7:42 pm | Permalink

    modern architecture is inherently offensive

    Awww. It’s not all bad. (Watch thousands disagree). And here’s a whacky cathedral for fun.

  15. Posted November 22, 2007 at 10:47 pm | Permalink

    No idea where the doggerel comes from, although it wouldn’t surprise me if it were fairly spontaneous. I’ve always found it funny that the Brits celebrate parliament NOT being blown up by letting off a whole heap of bangers. Their famous sense of irony, I suppose… although in some places it gets quite political. There are towns that burn an effigy of the pope, for example.

  16. Posted November 23, 2007 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

    If you are ever in Lewes for bonfire night it is worth seeing – Paul V and Guy Fawkes are burnt every year.
    You may go to Lewes – as the county town for East Sussex they have a rather busy crown court.

  17. Posted November 23, 2007 at 3:31 pm | Permalink

    Sorry re #14. I thought the server chewed up #13.

    I remember celebrating Guy Fawkes night. When I came to Oz we had it once (well it was more let’s light fires and set of fireworks night) but then they banned the fireworks. 🙁

  18. Posted November 23, 2007 at 11:52 pm | Permalink

    Apparently people were starting bushfires and blowing up mailboxes, so it went down the long slide. I remember it as a kid, and learning the doggerel. Then it disappeared quite suddenly, and I remember buying up a whole lot of crackers for our last ever bonfire night one year. I suspect you can still buy them if you know where to look (or have lots of Chinese people living locally), but I’ve never tried.

  19. FDB
    Posted November 24, 2007 at 9:25 am | Permalink

    Still legal in Canberra, home of all that’s exciting.

  20. Posted November 24, 2007 at 4:41 pm | Permalink

    Apparently people were starting bushfires and blowing up mailboxes,

    We used to put roman candles in plastic tubes and play Star Wars. Probably not a good idea.

  21. Posted November 24, 2007 at 4:46 pm | Permalink

    Actually in Cairo they used to sell these things at kiosks (little corner sheds that sold bubble-gum and soft drinks) called bon-bons. Bon-bons were basically small balls made of gunpowder and pebbles wrapped in brown paper and wire. You threw ’em on the ground and they’d make a small explosion.

    Kids were free to buy ’em 2 piastres for 10. In fact kids were the only ones ever to buy ’em. Great fun they were too.

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