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Museum of Oxford Digital Exhibitions

The great survivor


Photo credit: Studio Edmark/ Art UK, CC BY-NC 4.0

John Wilkins, Warden of Wadham College between 1648 and 1659 was a clergyman, philosopher and supreme survivor: proof that a middle was possible between the extremes of the Civil Wars. Despite association with the court of Charles I, he thrived under the rule of the Commonwealth, marrying the Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell’s younger sister. Cromwell promoted him to become Master of Trinity College Cambridge and although he was ejected from this post at the Restoration of Charles II, he would nonetheless become Bishop of Chester in 1668. He used this position to advocate for greater religious tolerance within the Church of England.

In some ways, Wilkins looks like the supreme operator, someone who manged to flourish no matter who was in charge. But, more than that, what he represents is the idea that Oxford should be a place for multiple different voices. It was telling that Royalists sought to place their sons at Wadham while he was Warden.  That was why the young Christopher Wren (1632-1723) found himself there. It was also why the College became the focus for the University’s scientific community, with the Royal Society prefigured by meetings of the Oxford Philosophical Society that took place in Wilkins’ rooms.