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Religion and Dissent in 17th-Century Oxford

The tour begins at St. Giles Church at the northern end of St. Giles' Street and concludes at Regent's Park College in Pusey Street.

By Larry J. Kreitzer, the tour takes in many of the locations important for the beginnings of the nonconformist churches within the city of Oxford.

Objects

St. Giles Church and St. John’s College

In June of 1654 two Quaker women from Kendall in
the north of England, Elizabeth Heavens and Elizabeth Fletcher, were attacked by students of St. John’s College.  They were beaten and drenched in the college fountains, as well as being subjected
to a public ducking in the pool located nearby at St. Giles Church.

The two Quaker women were then arrested by University officials and imprisoned in the Bocardo, and the Mayor of the city of Oxford, the Baptist Thomas Williams, was asked to sanction their punishment. This he refused to do. The University officials persisted without the Mayor’s sanction and had the women ‘whip out of the city’. Thomas Williams was also involved in several other confrontations with University officials over treatment of the Quakers during his Mayoral year in office (September 1654-September 1655).

Edward Harrison, a Baptist chaplain who served in the Parliamentary army from 1647-9, was a student at St. John’s College and took his BA degree in 1637. He later became an important leader in London and was licensed as a Baptist in 1672. Few Dissenters ever completed a University education in Oxford during this period.

Bocardo Prison

The Bocardo Prison formed part of the north gate of the city and was attached to the Tower of St. Michael, the oldest building in Oxford which dates to circa 1050.
Richard Tidmarsh, Lawrence King, and Richard Hatchman were imprisoned in the Bocardo Prison in January of 1662. The Baptist trio thus joined an illustrious band of religious reformers imprisoned in the Bocardo; these included Thomas Cranmer, Nicholas Latimer and Hugh Radley, all of whom suffered
martyrdom in the reign of the Catholic Queen Mary (1533-8).

Angel Inn Coffee Shop

The first coffee house in England was opened in Oxford in 1651 by Jacob the Jew at the Angel Inn, presently the site of the Examination Schools buildings and incorporating what was later in 1874 to become famous as the Cooper’s Marmalade Shop. Interestingly, the presence of Jews in England was not officially allowed until 1656 as part of Oliver Cromwell’s liberal policy with regard to Jewish immigration during the Commonwealth period (Jews had been forced to leave England in 1290).

The University Church of St. Mary the Virgin

In January of 1670 the Vice-Chancellor of the University, Dr. Peter Mews (the President of St. John’s College), forced members of a Baptist conventicle meeting at Lawrence King’s house to attend worship here.  They were made to ‘heare a sermon at St. Maries’ as part of their punishment for holding the illegal meetings at King’s house. The Vice-Chancellor was later commended in his action by the Privy Council of Charles II.

Illegal contenticles were considered breeding grounds for antinomianism and sexual license.  The term ‘tubb’ was used contemptuously by members of established churches about nonconformist pulpits.

All Saints Church

Lawrence King was baptized here as an infant on 18 November 1629. Vavasor Powell, the fiery Baptist preacher and Fifth Monarchist from Wales, preached here on 15 July 1657. According to Anthony Wood, ‘he rayl’d against the Universities’.

Anne King, the wife of Lawrence King, was buried here in June pf 1681. Her burial caused quite a dispute amongst ecclesiastical representatives of the Church of England. The sexton of All Saints Church was called before an ecclesiastical court and was asked why he allowed a Dissenter to be buried within the church grounds; records of the court proceedings against him have survived (see image).

 

The spire of All Saints collapsed in 1699 and the church was rebuilt in 1708. Since 1975 the building has been used as a library for Lincoln College.

Conspiracy against the King

Lawrence King, who was a glover by trade, lived here at 119, High Street with his wife Anne and their family. His home also a well-known meeting place for Baptist and there are several recorded instances of it being raided by authorities. Similarly, on 25 June 1683 the house was searched by royalist soldiers looking for arms in the aftermath of the Rye House plot to assassinate Charles II.

The building is now the premises of the gown-makers Ede & Ravenscroft. A fine 17th – century stone fireplace can still be seen inside the shop. Amazingly, as recent as 1993 a safe-conduct pass from the Civil War dated was found hidden in a chimney recess within the building. It was dated to June 1646 and signed by General Thomas Fairfax.

Butcher’s Row

Thomas Hatchman, a member of the Baptist church in Oxford and a butcher by trade, would have assisted in the family business from here. There were only 20 licensed butchers in Oxford at any given time during the 17th century and their trade was  strictly regulated by the city. Thomas Hatchman was made a freeman of the city on 16 August 1654.

Thomas Hatchman is cited as the subject of church discipline in the minutes for the 21st General Meeting of the Abingdon Baptist Association (5-7 April 1659). Richard Tidmarsh, the pastor of the Baptist church in Oxford, gave a sad report about Thomas Hatchman, ‘a butcher who brake and ran away and halt wronged many and much blurred the gospell’.

Church of St. Peter-le-Bailey

John Pendarves, the charismatic leader and founding father of the Baptist church at Abingdon in Berkshire, was a student of Exeter College. Pendarves matriculated into the University in 1637 and graduated in 1641. After completing his studies he moved to nearby Abingdon where he became an influential figure, serving briefly as a Parliamentary army chaplain in 1647, and pastoring the Baptist church in Abingdon from about 1650 until his untimely death in 1656.

Pendarves’ funeral on 30 September 1656 was the occasion of a great meeting of Baptist from towns and cities throughout the surrounding counties; Richard Tidmarsh and Richard Quelch attended as representatives of the church in Oxford. The event was interpreted by the civil authorities as proof of an Anabaptist plot to overthrow the government.

The church of St. Peter-le-Bailey was rebuilt several times before being demolished in 1872-3 in order to enlarge Queen Street. New Road Baptist Church is now located on part of the original site of this church. The earliest image of the Baptist church building is a water-colour drawing which dates to 1799.

New Inn Hall

An academic hall within the University, New Inn Hall was a centre for the study of theology in the 17th century, and many Presbyterian and Independents studied here. New Inn Hall was used as the royal mint by Charles I when he set up his capital in Oxford from 1642-6, the Principal and students having abandoned it in the face of the occupation of the city by the king and his army. Coinage proclaimed the ‘Protestant Religion, the Law of England, and the Freedom of Parliament’.

Part of the 17th century buildings attached to New Inn Hall are now part of the premises of New Road Baptist Church. Some of the old oak beams and he stone chimney breast can still be seen in No. 1, New Inn Hall Street.

House of Richard Tidmarsh

Richard Tidmarsh, who was a tanner by trade, lived near the Castle Mill in the parish of St. Thomas with his wife Jane and their family. Tidmarsh was a prominent leader of the Baptist within the city; together with Lawrence King his house was registered as a meeting place for Baptists in 1672. There is a long- standing tradition, probably dating back to the late 1790s, that states Richard Tidmarsh baptised people in the Castle Mill Stream near his home and that there were stone steps leading down into the water from his house.

City council records show that Tidmarsh became involved in the repairs to an ‘archway’ across the stream which was near his house, probably the structure now known as Quaking Bridge. The Tidmarsh house was demolished in 177 in order to make way for the building of New Road.

Complaining Testimony

Richard Quelch, a member of a well-known family of water makers in Oxford, was identified as an agent for the Fifth Monarchists in Oxford and implicated in a plot to overthrown the government. In April of 1657 it came to light that he used the Swan Inn as a contact point for his clandestine activities. Quelch lived nearby in the parish of St. Thomas and probably was a member of the church that met in Richard Tidmarsh’s house. He served with Tidmarsh as one of the two Oxford representatives at the funeral of John Pendarvis of Abingdon on 30 September 1656, a gathering which was interpret by the authorities at the time as a call for violent revolution. Pendarves has been one of the signatories for the pamphlet entitled Sights for Sion (1656), and Tidmarsh and Quelch were signatories from the Oxford church of The Complaining Testimony of Some… of Sion’s Children (1656), an important document issued in light of the uproar which took place at Pendarves’ funeral.

The Swan Inn was demolished in 1904 as part of a re-development scheme for the area.

George Tower in the Castle

During the Civil War (1642-6) the fortress of the old Oxford Castle was used by Charles I as a prison for captured soldiers loyal to the Parliamentary cause. Among those imprisoned here was Lieutenant-Colonel John Lilburne, a long-standing friend of the Baptist leader William Kiffin (1616-1701) and the visionary founder of the Levellers. Lilburne was captured in the aftermath of the battle of Edgehill on 12 November 1642 and was imprisoned here until May of 1644 when he was freed as part of a prisoner exchange deal negotiated between Charles I and Parliament in London.

The ruins of George Tower still remain, although many of the surrounding buildings of the Castle complex fell into disuse after the surrender of Oxford in June of 1646.

Map

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