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Museum of Oxford Digital Exhibitions

An atheist's apotheosis

Photo credit: Andrew Shiva, CC BY-SA 4.0

The Romantic poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792–1822) began studying at University College in 1810. With his close friend Thomas Jefferson Hogg (1792–1862), he wrote The Necessity of Atheism published in 1811. This short but deeply controversial pamphlet argued against the existence of God and defended the liberty not to believe. It ends with the claim: ‘Truth has always been found to promote the best interests of mankind. Every reflecting mind must allow that there is no proof of the existence of a Deity.’ Shelley and Hogg caused uproar by sending their pamphlet to bishops, clergymen, and heads of Oxford Colleges. When they refused to deny that they had written The Necessity of Atheism, both students were expelled from the College in March 1811. Shelley lived much of the rest of his life in Italy and his unorthodox beliefs and commitment to freedom are evident in his imaginative and moving poetry. In 1822, aged only 29 he died in a shipwreck off the coast of Viareggio in Northern Italy. This extraordinary memorial, depicting the poet’s drowned corpse, was commissioned by his daughter-in-law Jane Gibson Shelley to be placed in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome, where Shelley is buried. However, the sculpture designed by Edward Onslow Ford (1852-1901) proved too large for its intended site and was installed at University College in 1893 instead. The poet and radical now enjoys a lasting monument in the same College that had expelled him.