St John's College Oxford

Laudian vestments and College silver to go on display

The College's collection of late medieval church vestments and a selection of silver will go on display on 10 June

The College is mounting a display of its remarkable collection of liturgical vestments and embroidery from the late medieval period. 

The vestments include copes (cloaks) and hoods for use in church services which are some of the finest surviving examples of their kind in England, outside the collections of public museums and galleries. 

Laudian vestments

Professor Hannah Skoda, Fellow in History at St John's, says of the liturgical vestments: 

‘Whilst the English Reformation did no favours to the survival rates of elaborate liturgical garments, it was the Europe-wide appetite for English embroidery which meant that pieces survive from across the continent. In England, more copes than chasubles survive, perhaps because chasubles were used for the Eucharist whose theology and liturgy changed so dramatically, whereas copes were used more widely in processions and testify to the continued role of Churches within their communities.’

The rarest of the pieces in the St John's collection is a set of vestments for the pre-Reformation High Mass, including a white satin cope embroidered with flowers and two white satin ‘dalmatics’ (tunics) edged with crimson velvet. It is not known exactly who used the vestments, but garments of this kind were worn by priests during the service of the Mass. Most of the pieces probably date from the 15th century.

There are also two mid 16th-century banners, probably made for the Chapel, with the arms of the Merchant Taylors' Company and of the College, and a red altar frontal (formerly a cope) made in England in the late 15th century. 

What are these pieces doing in St John’s?
Despite being known as the 'Laudian vestments', these pieces are probably not connected with William Laud, who became President of the College in 1611. It was commonly believed that Laud had given some of the vestments to the College. Perhaps this was because his own interest in ‘the beauty of holiness’, when he became Archbishop of Canterbury, set off fears that he was trying to return England to the Roman Catholic Church. It was these fears that led to Laud’s downfall and execution, and contributed in part to the outbreak of the English Civil War. To call the vestments ‘Laudian’ was not necessarily to praise them.

The College’s archives tell us that the vestments were already in the possession of St John’s by 1602. An inventory of that year describes a collection of ‘old superstitiouse church ornaments’ given to the President by the niece of the College’s Founder, Sir Thomas White. White was a Catholic and founded the College during the reign of the Catholic Queen Mary. He was also a wealthy merchant, and his college took the name of the College’s patron saint, St John the Baptist, because St John was the patron saint of the guild of Merchant Taylors. White may well have given the vestments and embroideries to form part of the furnishings of the College’s Chapel, as there is a note that he gave the Chapel ‘divers utensils, ornaments, vestments, copes, crucifixes etc’ in 1557.

It seems most likely that the Founder’s niece had kept the vestments in White’s manor house at Fyfield near Oxford after the accession of Elizabeth I and the return to the Protestant faith — when of course these kinds of vestments were disapproved of in church services. Fyfield was a place of refuge for the Fellows of St John’s (who fled there to avoid plague, among other things). It was also somewhere that objects could be hidden, to avoid them being destroyed by the authorities or simply looted. The collection has remained largely intact since the 17th century, despite forming part of the dressing-up box of the children of one College President in the 19th century!

St John's College silver

To accompany the display of the Laudian vestments there will be an exhibition of a selection from the College's beautiful and historically important collection of silver. Some dates from the sixteenth century, but the majority post-dates the civil war of 1642 to 1651. Last term, we displayed pieces from the early eighteenth century. This term, we move into the late eighteenth century, a generally stable period for the College.

The College was relatively unaffected by external events, although members clearly took notice both of the American and French Revolutions.  The College donated £20 towards the relief of the distressed clergy of the Church of England in North America, and in 1792 gave 30 guineas for the relief of French refugee clergy.

The tone of the College, and indeed of the University, was however shifting. Whereas in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, student life had been intensely hierarchical, with different categories of students (ranging from ‘gentleman commoners’ to ‘pauperi scholari’ or ‘servitors’), in the second half of the eighteenth century these categories of poorer students were largely replaced by domestic bedmakers and waiters.  Even the gap between ‘gentlemen commoners’ and ‘commoners’ was closing – gentlemen no longer had the right to dine at high table, use particular seats in chapel, and so on. Moreover, all new students seem now to have been expected to present a gift of silver, such as the tankard on display.

The food for undergraduates had, by the eighteenth century, a terrible reputation – it tended to involve boiled or roasted meat, vegetables, bread and beer (high table was far superior, with the best silver used, as shown by some of the pieces in the display). But while the colleges may have attempted to impose some austerity on their students, the students themselves often continued to push the boundaries. Bizarrely, in 1754, St John’s responded to the growing number of barbers entering the College, by decreeing that only the official College barber was allowed in. Whether such a measure of control was successful for the College's more fashionable students is unclear! 

The aesthetics of the College remained reassuringly similar in this period – with some additions. Notably, the remodelling of the Groves took place in the second half of the eighteenth century. Tradition attributes this romanticisation of the gardens to Capability Brown, though there is no record of payment to him. 

The intellectual credentials of the College were varied. On the one hand, President Fry (President 1757-72) is said to have been particularly diligent in his selection of tutors. Fry was apparently shocked on speaking to Dr Brown, the Hebrew Professor, because the latter would ‘say nothing of Wharton’s Theocritus, which he pretended not to have seen, or at least not to have read – this may possibly have been the case, for he has little, or no taste, and seems in all respects to be a low, lick spittle fellow.’  The College produced a number of judges, and Members of Parliament. On the other hand, the evidence of Thomas Frognall Dibdin, who suggested the foundation of the Roxburghe  Club (responsible for an important series of publications), indicates that standards were low: ‘College exercises were trite, dull and uninstructive… There seemed to be no spur to emulation and to excellence… All the lectures had only the air of schoolboy proceedings; nothing lofty, striving, or instructive was propounded to us. There were no college prizes; and lectures and chapel were all that we seemed to be called upon to attend to. After lecture the day was over; and oh! What days were these. Boating, hunting, shooting, fishing'.  Reading on, though, it seems that Dibdin was extremely enthusiastic about these less scholarly pursuits – perhaps too much so, as he himself was said to have been ‘without the learning of a schoolboy, whose works swarmed with errors of every description’.

For further reading, see W. Costin, The History of St John’s College Oxford (OUP, 1958) and L. Brockless, The University of Oxford: a History (OUP, 2016).

Date: Saturday 10 June 2017
Time: 2.00-5.00pm
Location: Garden Quad Reception Room
vestment photo credit Stuart Bebb