Dr Jonathan Foyle scales Britain's most iconic structures to reveal the buildings' secrets. Jonathan's journey takes him to New College in Oxford.
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If every cloud has a silver lining, then how could a cloud as dark and forbidding
as the Black Death in the middle of the 14th century
have led to architectural creativity and innovation?
The answer lies here at New College, Oxford.
This is Climbing Great Buildings,
and throughout the series,
I'll be scaling our most iconic structures,
from the Normans to the present day.
I'll be revealing the buildings' secrets and telling the story
of how British architecture and construction developed
over 1,000 years.
Today, I'll be climbing amongst the dreaming spires of Oxford.
Built in 1379, New College has earned its place
on my architectural journey for one important reason -
it set the template for the Quadrangle,
that enduring symbol of Oxford and Cambridge colleges.
We may take it for granted now,
but this was the first time anywhere in the world a college was designed
and constructed with all the essential buildings
for educating students in a single place.
New College Oxford was the brainchild of one remarkable man -
William Wykeham, the Bishop of Winchester.
Here, he created a training ground
for a new generation of educated clergyman, kind of a priest factory.
At the time, it was the largest of all the Oxford colleges,
in fact, bigger than all the others combined.
And the first to be set out as a system,
a coherent plan with all the buildings combined in one place.
That's why it was a blueprint for university college buildings
for centuries to come.
Built just inside the city walls, the T-shaped chapel where students
would worship lies to the west and next to it is the Great Hall,
where fellows would eat and socialise.
The buildings on the other three sides
contain the students' accommodation,
the kitchens, library, bursary and warden's lodgings.
I'm going to clamber all over this college
to get close up to parts of the buildings we never normally see.
As always, I'll be joined by top climber, Lucy Creamer,
and her riggers, along with daredevil cameraman, Ian Burton.
They're going to help me scale these buildings so I can investigate
the innovation of the Quad.
Handsome space, isn't it?
It's got serenity to it.
What more do you want when you're studying?!
And meet the man whose idea it was to build this college.
So this is William Wykeham.
-Quite small, isn't he?
Along the way, I'll learn I'm not quite the climber I hoped I was.
-Shunt, shunt, shunt...!
-Watch as my shunt gets...snarled.
Thrill as I scream and plunge!
New College's origins lie in the Black Death.
In the mid-14th century, Europe was decimated by the plague,
which would eventually wipe out
almost half the population of Britain.
The clergy who would often tend to the sick and dying
were hit particularly hard.
So William Wykeham built a New College to repopulate the clergy
with a new generation of young priests.
Back then, the only way to enter the college was through this gatehouse
on the western side of the Quad.
New College has the oldest of Oxford's college gatehouses,
and above that main entrance arch were the warden's lodgings -
there were rather more windows then than now,
which showed that he had the eye on the outside world -
no midnight dalliances,
no priests trying to bring in lady friends, God forbid.
But it didn't stop there, because the warden had large windows on the inside of the college as well.
But if the architecture had been doing its job,
the pupils wouldn't have needed an eye to be kept on them,
because this, the prototype Oxford Quad,
should have cultivated an atmosphere of learning.
When New College was conceived in 1379,
there were very few people who could read or write.
It was a privilege confined to the church and a few nobles.
700 years ago, the very concept of formal education was novel,
and it needed a new type of architecture.
For the first time, a college provided everything, from food and lodging
to a place to worship, and even somewhere to keep cash.
For my first climb, I'll be ascending this fortress-like building, called the Muniment Tower.
Back in 1379, with no banks to keep your valuables secure,
this tower was used to keep everything safe,
from the college's money to its priceless holy relics.
It's that first step isn't it? Right down to the ground.
-Ready for the up?
I'm going to scale this tower to get face-to-face
with the man who built New College,
and get a better view of his great architectural achievement, the Quad.
The college is built of locally quarried limestone,
and the masons here went to great pains
to give this place a sense of grandeur.
Bit of a change here, Luce, you see,
where the stone turns from a dreft rubble down there
to much neater blocks, you know, smoothly dressed.
I think it's about the first time you see this in Oxford.
So why the sudden change?
Well, it's interesting, isn't it? It is interesting.
It seems they've come across a good supply of this stone,
which makes a more monumental facade,
it doesn't look sort of roughshod,
the way you'd build a barn or a commonplace house.
From here, it leads up
to these sculpted figures, so makes it a nice, smooth piece of wall,
to give these a noble setting.
-We're almost there, I think.
The life of William Wykeham is a tale of rags to riches.
Born into a peasant family,
he rose to become one of the wealthiest men in the country
and an advisor to kings.
So this is William Wykeham.
-He's quite small, isn't he?
But look at what you can see there.
-Yeah, on top.
-It's your colours, lady.
Yeah, I think he's painted green.
So, he would have been shimmering green?
Yeah, there's a bit of red in the band around his bishop's mitre
and he's showing himself, hands clasped,
eyes raised aloft to heaven, actually looking at the Virgin.
-There's Angel Gabriel opposite him.
He's in a pretty star-studded line-up, isn't he?
Look back at that gatehouse.
You see exactly the same permutation, don't you?
Wykeham, the Virgin Mary, the Angel Gabriel.
It's on the front of the gatehouse as well,
so one, two, this is the third time you have the chance to see him,
and here he is in vivid colour!
He'd have stood out against this blank stonework,
so what you get is a 14th century Piccadilly Circus,
a big advertising board to say, "Look at me,
"I'm in the presence of the Virgin."
And the scholars of this college who're looking up, thinking,
"If I'm going to aspire to greatness
"in the priesthood, here is a man who's inherited the wealthiest Bishopric in Britain,
"spending his money to show us all how he can gain an audience with the Virgin."
I don't mean that cynically, because, of course,
he's preparing his way for heaven, isn't he?
Wykeham was a fiercely pious man.
But when it came to the college's wealth,
he put his faith in stone and iron.
Between William Wykeham and the Virgin Mary,
you find a pretty defensive looking window with thick iron bars
no more than about four inches apart.
You certainly couldn't get through there.
It seems at first at odds with this fine sculpture,
but then a thought occurs to you.
Maybe, because Wykeham is one of the wealthiest men in England,
it's probably a good idea to show off the fact
that you've got money to hide.
New College was a leap forward in architectural planning
as much as it was style.
Although other colleges had grown organically, this was the first time
one had been constructed with such a clear vision.
The top of the Muniment Tower is a great place to look at the Quad.
You can see that the chapel nibbles a bit out of the corner,
but actually, the facing walls are parallel,
so it must have been set out very clearly, geometrically,
on a piece of parchment. That makes it very important.
It's a pioneering move - the Quad which became synonymous with Oxford and Cambridge Colleges starts here.
-The sky's getting dark too, isn't it?
-Yes, I think it's windy.
I enjoyed that, I liked seeing the traces of colour on Wykeham's robe,
that was something I'd never have been able to see from ground level.
Looking back on the Quads, it's a handsome space, isn't it?
It's got serenity to it.
What more do you want when you're studying?
Cool! Look at that for a view!
That is an amazing view, isn't it?
I think we're just in time, Luc, you know?
The whole idea of having a cloister,
a place of shelter in a college like this, has suddenly come home to me.
So shall we dive for it?
Let's do it, let's escape from this dreaded British summer time!
They are big drops.
Here comes the thunder, the great British summer time is with us.
I bet that hasn't changed since the Middle Ages.
Fortunately, it's a little drier in the Muniment Tower.
A quick dash down the steps and I'm in the top floor, the safe room.
The Muniment Tower has the least altered interiors at New College.
Those iron bars you saw in the windows outside
have oak shutters inside them, there's a metal door into this room.
A very attractive stone vault overhead,
no doubt for fire protection.
Then there are these marvellous caustic tiles,
the name comes from the fact they're clay tiles
and they're impressed with a design and that impression is filled
with a different-coloured clay,
and so the two tones,
they're solid, and you can walk on them and wear them out,
and the design still stays in them. These are 600 years old. Amazing.
This room is built for security
for documents stored in cupboards and chests like this.
But it's a very beautiful space.
In the 14th century,
the tower housed the college's most treasured artefacts.
Today, it still contains the college's valuables, but in the form
of archival documents, including statutes written by Wykeham.
This is a draft copy of the college statutes,
dates from the founder's lifetime.
How thorough was Wykeham
in setting the agenda, the rules for the pupils?
Very thorough indeed.
There are numerous...
There are 68 statutes altogether, a fair number of them
are concerned with what we might call day-to-day procedure.
So what was Wykeham concerned the students might get up to
without these rules?
Oh, well, there's a statute expressly forbidding
riotous behaviour, rowdy games,
dancing and leaping about in the hall.
So there is one statute which expressly forbids them to do this.
So what about unwelcome guests?
There is a distinct statute saying
that outsiders should not be brought into college
if they're going to be a burden on the college,
they could not come for more than two days,
and must not stay overnight.
Here, we've got a little picture of a college official,
probably one of the porters,
evicting a very well-dressed young man
who clearly outstayed his welcome.
His cheeks have gone red, yes!
It seems that student behaviour
was as much a concern then as it is today.
As a training centre for priests,
the college's focal point is inevitably its chapel.
I want to get a look at its immense gothic windows,
so it's back up to the roof of the Muniment Tower.
That is painful.
Goes right up your coccyx.
The riggers have set up something called a traverse tyrolean
that stretches all the way from one side of the Quad to the other.
I'm getting used to heights now.
But it's still a sheer drop.
This is all very pleasant, like a Victorian cable car ride.
Gosh, what a view that is.
Amazing to get that perspective straight down on the hall.
You can see the hall's fairly small windows.
OK, they look big from here, but when you compare them
with the chapel windows next door,
you realise they're in fact much smaller in size. Here's the chapel.
And he virtually replaced the entire wall with glazing.
Back in the 14th century, large glazed windows were rare.
Common homes held little more than holes in their walls with shutters,
so these vast chapel windows would have been spectacular.
What made their grand scale possible was the development of tracery,
that's the stone lattice work that holds the glass.
This is the point of this little excursion.
We want to see how tracery patterns change.
And it's all about what's called the perpendicular style,
and how the verticals meet the top of the arch.
The tracery at the top of the window doesn't bend to the arch,
but drives straight into it,
becoming more of a grid, part of a radical new departure.
To understand it properly, though, you need to draw.
In the middle of the 13th century,
we had what's called the geometric style, which is all about circles.
Then came the roticulated style,
as one of the early 14th century styles.
But New College marks something of a departure - now vertical lines
dominate and the floor thrillingly reaching right up into the vaults.
This leads to the beginning of a whole fashion in Britain,
replacing as much wall as you can with as much window as you like.
It's at its early stages here, but here you see a seed which
was to be sown and which would only grow in the following two centuries.
The windows are incredible, but it's inside the chapel I want
to explore next, so I need to get down and once again, Lucy isn't going to give me the easy option.
-All right, so what do I do with this?
-Just drop it.
Don't hit the lights, the Victorian lamp.
Seems to be a risky move!
Oh, boy, if it swings and goes through that window, I think my life has ended.
I think on balance, that went well, not even the plants were harmed in that particular stunt!
Right, so let's get down.
Well, stage one was easy enough, but getting down isn't quite as simple as I thought.
See you later, Ian.
Shunt, shunt, shunt!
I just want to make sure the shunt works.
Welcome back to Smooth Moves In Climbing.
I'm your host Jonathan Foyle, and I'll be embarrassing myself on buildings across the nation.
Watch as my shunt gets...snarled.
Thrill as I scream and plunge.
Take two. Farewell, Ian.
After my slightly less than elegant descent, I want to explore the interior of the T-shaped chapel.
The chapel at New College was highly innovative -
originally intended to be a single space, Wykeham split it into two,
the smaller anti-chapel which forms the top of the T
was used for meetings and the resolution of disputes,
whilst the main chapel was reserved for the communal masses,
held seven times a day.
The interior of the main chapel is a hotchpotch of restoration and renovation.
The original screen behind the altar known as the reredos
depicting saints, kings and bishops, was destroyed
during the Reformation,
and what we see now is a 19th-century recreation.
Sadly, most of the original woodwork has also been replaced.
But there was one surviving part of the woodwork which still continues to surprise and delight.
They're called misericords and are, in a sense, mercy seats.
They're delightful pieces of carving.
They act as mercy seats because priests and trainee clergymen
weren't allowed to sit during long masses,
so they allow you to be propped.
I've got to say, they feel pretty good after a day in a climbing harness.
These beautiful original hand-carved seats each tell a story -
some depict English folk tales and mythical characters,
whilst others portray Christian parables and allegories of college life.
There are 62 misericords at New College,
and this one is my favourite.
It shows Wykeham standing on a bridge out of Oxford gesturing to five
ruddy-cheeked lads coming from the Oak Lees of the country.
He says, "Come on, lads, come through the civilising machine that is Oxford,"
proud even then of its pinnacles.
By the time they emerge, they're dressed as priests,
even a cardinal in this case, carrying croziers and staffs.
It's the gateway to wealth, fame and virtue - New College in a nutshell.
William Wykeham established from the start that New College was to have a musical future
and made provision in its statutes for 16 choristers to sing daily.
It's a tradition that continues to the present day.
For my third climb, I'm going next door to the ante-chapel.
I want to get up close to the beautiful stained glass that I saw from the outside. But, before I do,
there's one more thing I want to take a better look at.
The corbels - these are the stone blocks that support the roof,
and are often carved to depict prominent figures of the day.
I'm level with the corbels now and you can see that they have
crowns and mitres on, they're kings and bishops.
This chap looks a lot like Richard II.
It would be surprising if the King weren't here in the main space of the chapel.
After all, he was the king under who Wykeham operated.
He was Bishop of Winchester in his reign from 1377 to 1399,
which means if Richard II is there,
well then, that chap in the corner must be our man Wykeham.
An expressive chap, isn't he?
His mouth is kind of... It's a noble sort of smile.
One thing I've noticed from being up at this height, couldn't
see it from ground level, is that this one character, the Richard II, is different to all the others.
He's very big - his shoulders extend beyond the innermost arch, so he seems to have been an afterthought,
or maybe someone said to the sculptor, "No, make the present king
"the biggest of them all - doesn't matter, just chop out what you need,
"but get him in in full size".
OK, now, I need to...shift over.
To do that, I've got to use my shunt.
That is the only way to travel for me now.
It's great to see these windows close up.
The colours are very different to those we saw
in Lincoln, for example, those dark solid blues and reds.
Here there's the background colour of pure white glass on which are...
lemons and oranges, it's a new kind of palette of those colours.
Rather disconcertingly called yellow stain.
Yellow stain was a new chemical process that glaziers had discovered, which allowed
them to paint many different colours on a single piece of glass without having to use lead to separate them.
It was this glazing innovation that helped to create the wonderfully rich images in this chapel.
It's extraordinary from this perspective, you're surrounded by saints.
Interesting, it's like a great picture book for these students
to take note of and look at the fathers of the church.
But then, you see an inscription running right the way around the bottom, "Pray for William Wykeham,
"Bishop of Winchester, founder of this college",
amongst all the saints, all the kings in this chapel, ultimately,
Wykeham doesn't let you forget about him.
This place is a place where you pray and remember him in perpetuity.
Wykeham's master plan wasn't all about grand chapels and even grander windows.
New College's prime function was to educate the young men who attended,
so not only did he put all the buildings required for their education in one place,
he also had the scholars and their masters living together for the very first time.
Previously, undergraduates lived in crowded and insanitary hostels in the town, where they could easily
be led astray by the temptations medieval Oxford had to offer.
I want to find out what student life was like in the 14th century.
Right, let's go into the hall, and have a look at Wykeham's great
-dining room for his students.
-It's a grand space, isn't it?
It's absolutely huge, it's vast, certainly on an aristocratic, if not princely scale.
What would have changed since the students knew it?
The biggest thing apart from the portraits and napkins is the lack of a fire.
There should be a fire burning or smouldering away in the middle of that floor down there.
-Smoke going up through the roof.
-Do we know what times of day they ate?
That's quite interesting, because the dinner, the main meal,
was actually about 11 o'clock or noon,
with supper held in the afternoon,
and then you had a collation before.
Medieval dinners were much earlier in the day than they came later on.
-But once the tables were cleared away...?
-There was also...
Some teaching went on here, lectures might be given,
disputations might take place, all in Latin and without any drink.
When the food went, the drink went away, you couldn't drink after dinner.
So no drinking after meals, but during meals, what did they have?
They drank ale, which the college would have brewed.
In a hall this size, you have enormous kitchens, a brew house,
you brew your own ale and it would be drunk in reasonably prodigious quantities.
-What about getting up to the loo?
-If you want to go to the loo,
you've got to follow me round the Quadrangle, through the passage,
into the garden until you finally get to the long room.
In the middle of the room, there was a great row of cubicles.
I was looking for the loos. They don't exist today.
They were up here, the cesspit, enormous cesspit was downstairs,
but in 1868,
JC Buckler drew
and made a record of the whole place before it was dismantled.
It's quite unbelievable, because what we had was about 52...
loos in here,
half of them faced one way and half of them faced the other.
Right, so if I sit in this direction...
..And I sat that,
there could have been 25 fellows facing this way, 25 fellows facing that way.
Like a game of musical chairs. It's a bit personal, isn't it?
No, there were partitions. That's the wonderful thing about this record, there was a partition all
the way round, so you couldn't see anyone from where you were sitting.
-Like a squared snake, as it were?
-That's right, yes.
You could just sit and look up at this fantastic roof.
This is what really tells us about Wykeham,
is the money he spent on the roof of a lavatory building,
enormous oak beams, wonderful great brown posts.
It is actually very pleasant.
-I could spend a very happy hour in here reading the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.
-I think you could.
For my final climb, I'm scaling the tallest building in the college,
the Bell Tower, to get the best view of Wykeham's achievements.
-Last one, Jonathan.
-Yes, it is.
It's a craggy looking building, isn't it?
Well, it's a crag I wouldn't want to climb on, because it's falling down, unfortunately.
-Ropes are the way forward then? Yeah.
You want harnesses rather than fingertips on this.
Let's try and keep ourselves off the building as much as possible.
It's not the prettiest part of the building, but it'll give us the best view, isn't it?
Certainly the highest part of the college.
So race you to the top, yeah?
Right, let's go.
The tower, along with the cloisters, was somewhat of an afterthought,
built by different masons some ten years after the main building.
As a result, the tower, whilst functional and well proportioned,
is less ambitious than the rest of the college.
From this vantage point, you can see that the chapel is a bit dislocated from the cloisters.
The cloisters seem a bit tacked on.
You might expect the main front of a chapel, its door,
its major window there to be shown off to best effect,
but actually it's screened by this cloister to the extent
there's a bit of an awkward - how would you characterise that, Luce?
-A back passage?
-Something like that! Maybe a bin shelter.
That kind of function. A slightly lost bit of space.
It just doesn't hang together in terms of planning.
The windows are also less ambitious,
their square-headed design being much closer to the domestic
than to the ecclesiastical architecture of the day.
I wanted to see these windows close up because they're not typical of the Bell Tower windows in Oxford.
Have a look at the crossing tower of Merton.
Much more decorative. Big windows.
Whereas here, the tracery is very simple by comparison,
just square-headed windows.
Of course, those towers are integral to the structure, whereas this is a detached Bell Tower.
If you look down there, you can see it happens just some way along one side of the cloister.
It might be here, it could have been plonked further along.
It feels very much like an afterthought in planning, and also in detail.
In fact, you get the sense that the money was starting to run out.
How's it going, Jonathan?
It's going well, it's going very well.
This is just one of the most famous views of England.
It's graced a billion and one calendars I should think, and you get to see it.
It's also graced probably a billion and one episodes of Morse.
Not now, Lewis!
Now, this Bell Tower may not be the most beautiful amongst them or the best part of this college,
but it's a great view from which to see the rest of this stupendous achievement.
On the hall and the chapel, all of those various parts of the college which William Wykeham built
and which are so well resolved into this functioning machine
for generating new priests and learned men.
When he died in 1404, aged 80,
he must have looked back on his achievements here
and been a happy man indeed.
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
E-mail [email protected]
Dr Jonathan Foyle, architectural historian and novice climber, scales Britain's most iconic structures, from the Normans to the present day, to reveal the buildings' secrets and tell the story of how our architecture and construction has developed over 1000 years.
Jonathan's journey takes him to New College in Oxford. Built in 1379, this college set the blueprint for universities all over the world for the next 600 years.
Jonathan climbs the dreaming spires to investigate how the devastation of the Black Death led to an architectural innovation. He tests his newly-acquired climbing skills by scaling almost 100 feet to reveal how the enduring symbol of university life - the quadrangle - originated here. On his climbs, he discovers the bishop whose vision it was and sees how he literally left his mark all over the college in a medieval PR stunt; discovers carvings of English folk tales in the chapel; and traverses a sheer drop of 80 feet to explore how a new glazing technique, known as 'yellow stain', allowed New College to create some of the most magnificent medieval stained glass in the country.