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Museum of Oxford Digital Exhibitions

A Congregationalist pantheon


Photo credit: By kind permission of Mansfield College, Oxford

These are but three of the seventy figures represented in the stained-glass windows of the chapel at Mansfield College. Founded by Congregationalists, Mansfield was the first Nonconformist college to be established in Oxford. The three men in the window – left to right Sir Henry Vane (1613-1662), Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658), and John Hampden (1595-1643) – were Puritans who fought against Charles I in the English Civil Wars, which broke out in 1642.  The most famous is Cromwell. He commanded the cavalry in Parliament’s major victories over the Royalists and afterwards led a ruthless campaign against Catholics in Ireland. Once his army career was over in 1651, he actively participated in political life and in December 1653 was appointed Lord Protector of the realm, virtually operating as a king until his death. In the window he is shown in the robes of the Chancellor of the University of Oxford, a position he held from 1650.

The other two men are less well known. Hampden died early in the war. Shot twice in the shoulder at the battle of Chalgrove Field, he expired six days later and was buried in Great Hampden church, Buckinghamshire. Vane, a civilian, was a leader of the ‘war party’ in Parliament during the war but, after it ended, he quarrelled with Cromwell over the constitution of the new republic. Unlike Cromwell, Vane opposed the execution of the king in 1649, but nonetheless he was brought to trial and executed on a charge of high treason at the restoration of the monarchy.

Because these men were nonconforming Puritans who demanded religious toleration for all Protestants, they were heroes of the Congregationalists.  What is more, Congregationalists traced their roots back to mid-seventeenth Puritans, like Cromwell and Vane. They were all equally opposed to a national Church, run by either bishops or presbyterian synods, and believed that local congregations should follow their own form of Protestant (preferably Calvinist) worship and manage their own affairs. 

Congregationalism was enjoying a revival during the nineteenth century, and in 1857 its leaders established Spring Hill College in Birmingham to train ordinands for the ministry. The College moved to Oxford in 1886, fifteen years after the Universities Tests Act of 1871 allowed non-Anglicans to become full members of the University. The College was then renamed after its main donors, brother and sister George and Elizabeth Mansfield. Its Gothic buildings were designed by Basil Champneys (1842-1935) on a site bought from Merton College. In 1955 the College was granted the status of Permanent Private Hall within the University of Oxford, and in 1995 a Royal Charter was awarded giving the institution full college status. Today its links with the Congregationalists are much weaker. It no longer trains ordinands, while its chaplains have been ministers of other denominations of the Protestant Church.