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Museum of Oxford Digital Exhibitions



Photo credit: © Oriel College, Oxford

How has the Reformation been commemorated, forgotten, or re-imagined in Oxford over the past five hundred years? We first began thinking about this question when we noticed a memorial on Oxford’s High Street that surprised us. On the front of Oriel College’s Rhodes Building, opened in 1911, is a statue of Cardinal William Allen. A fierce enemy of Queen Elizabeth I, Allen spent his life trying to undo the Protestant Reformation in England. He set up schools and seminaries in Europe to train priests and encouraged English Catholics to rebel against their queen by aiding the Spanish Armada in 1588. Why was a statue of this exceptionally controversial figure put up in the centre of early twentieth-century Oxford?

Allen was, for a short time, head of St Mary’s Hall which was incorporated into Oriel in 1902; so, his statue signals continuity with the disappearing pre-Reformation past, especially as the College’s surviving medieval quadrangle was demolished to make room for the Rhodes Building. But, as we have discovered, this is not the whole story. The statue also reflects the many dramatic changes in Oxford since the sixteenth-century Reformations. It evokes the nineteenth-century Oxford Movement which sought to return the English Church to its pre-Reformation past and which began at Oriel, led by another English Cardinal, John Henry Newman. Paid for out of the profits of Empire, the Rhodes building is a testament to the transformation of Oxford through the processes of colonialism. As such, it also foreshadows the arrival and expansion of communities of different faiths in the City and University in the twentieth century. As debates about the weight of the past on the present have gripped Oxford and the wider world, this exhibition takes a long view of the contested memories of the Reformation in this history-making city. ‘Oxford Re-Formed’ traces how from being a Catholic and then a Protestant stronghold, the City and the University have become a home for diverse communities of all faiths and none.

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