Read MAGDALEN COLLEGE 1: SITE AND BUILDINGS of The Charm of Oxford, free online book, by J. Wells, on

“Where yearly in that vernal hour
The sacred city is in shades reclining,
With gilded turrets in the sunrise shining:
From sainted Magdalene’s aerial tower
Sounds far aloof that ancient chant are singing,
And round the heart again those solemn memories bringing.”

Macaulay was too good a Cambridge man to appreciate an Oxford college at its full worth; but he devotes one of his finest purple patches to the praise of Magdalen, ending, as is fitting, “with the spacious gardens along the river side,” which, by the way, are not “gardens.” Antony Wood praises Magdalen as “the most noble and rich structure in the learned world,” with its water walks as “delectable as the banks of Eurotas, where Apollo himself was wont to walk.” To go a century further back, the Elizabethan, Sir John Davies, wrote:

“O honeyed Magdalen, sweete, past compare
Of all the blissful heavens on earth that are.”

Such praises could be multiplied indefinitely, and they are all deserved.

The good genius of Magdalen has been faithful to it throughout. The old picturesque buildings on the High Street, taken over (1457) by the Founder, William of Waynflete, from the already existing hospital of St. John, were completed by his munificence in the most attractive style of English fifteenth century domestic architecture; Chapel and Hall, Cloisters and Founder’s Tower, all alike are among the most beautiful in Oxford. When classical taste prevailed, the architectural purists of the eighteenth century were for sweeping almost all this away, and had a plan prepared for making a great classic quad; but wiser counsels, or lack of funds, thwarted this vandalistic design, and only the north side of the new quad was built, to give Magdalen a splendid specimen of eighteenth century work, without prejudice to the old. And in our own day, the genius of Bodley has raised in St. Swithun’s Quad a building worthy of the best days of Oxford, while the hideous plaster roof, with which the mischievous Wyatt had marred the beauty of the hall, was removed, and a seemly oak roof put in its place. It is a great thing to be thankful for, that one set of college buildings in Oxford, though belonging to so many periods, has nothing that is not of the best.

But the great glory of Magdalen has not yet been mentioned. This is, without doubt, its bell tower, which, standing just above the River Cherwell, is worthily seen, whether from near or far. A most curious and interesting custom is preserved in connection with it. Every May morning, at five o’clock (in Antony Wood’s time the ceremony was an hour earlier), the choir mounts the tower and sings a hymn, which is part of the college grace; in the eighteenth century, however, the music was of a secular nature and lasted two hours. The ceremony has been made the subject of a great picture by Holman Hunt, and has been celebrated in many poems; the sonnet of Sir Herbert Warren, the present President, may be quoted as worthily expressing something of what has been felt by many generations of Magdalen men:

“Morn of the year, of day and May the prime,
How fitly do we scale the steep dark stair,
Into the brightness of the matin air,
To praise with chanted hymn and echoing chime,
Dear Lord of Light, thy sublime,
That stooped erewhile our life’s frail weeds to wear!
Sun, cloud and hill, all things thou fam’st so fair,
With us are glad and gay, greeting the time.
The College of the Lily leaves her sleep,
The grey tower rocks and trembles into sound,
Dawn-smitten Memnon of a happier hour;
Through faint-hued fields the silver waters creep:
Day grows, birds pipe, and robed anew and crowned,
Green Spring trips forth to set the world aflower.”

The tower was put to a far different use when, in the Civil War, it was the fortress against an attack from the east, and stones were piled on its top to overwhelm any invader who might force the bridge.

Tradition connects this tower with the name of Magdalen’s greatest son, Thomas Wolsey, who took his B.A. about 1486, at the age of fifteen, as he himself in his old age proudly told his servant and biographer, Cavendish. Certainty he was first Junior and then Senior Bursar for a time, while the tower was building, 1492-1504. But the scandal that he had to resign his bursarship for misappropriation of funds in connection with the tower may certainly be rejected.

On the right of Magdalen Bridge, looking at the tower, as we see it in the picture, stretches Magdalen Meadow, round which run the famous water walks. The part of these on the north-west side is especially connected with Joseph Addison, who was a fellow at Magdalen from 1697 to 1711. He was elected “demy” (at Magdalen, scholars bear this name) the first year (1689) after the Revolution, when the fellows of Magdalen had been restored to their rights, so outrageously invaded by King James. This “golden” election was famous in Magdalen annals, at once for the number elected seventeen and for the fame of some of those elected. Besides the greatest of English essayists, there were among the new “demies,” a future archbishop, a future bishop, and the high Tory, Henry Sacheverell, whose fiery but unbalanced eloquence overthrew the great Whig Ministry, which had been the patron of his college contemporary.

Magdalen Meadow preserves still the well-beloved Oxford fritillaries, which are in danger of being extirpated in the fields below Iffley by the crowds who gather them to sell in the Oxford market.

Of the part of the College on the High Street, the most interesting portion is the old stone pulpit (shown in Plate XIV). The connection of this with the old Hospital of St. John is still marked by the custom of having the University sermon here on St. John the Baptist’s Day; this was the invariable rule till the eighteenth century, and the pulpit (Hearne says) was “all beset with boughs, by way of allusion to St. John Baptist’s preaching in the wilderness.” Even as early as Heame’s time, however, a wet morning drove preacher and audience into the chapel, and open-air sermons were soon given up altogether, only to be revived (weather permitting) in our own day. The chapel lies to the left of the pulpit, and is known all the world over for its music; there are three famous choirs in Oxford those of the Cathedral, of New College, and of Magdalen, and to the last, as a rule, the palm is assigned. It is to Oxford what the choir of King’s is to Cambridge; but the chapel of Magdalen has not

“The high embowed roof
With antique pillars massy proof,
And storied windows richly dight,
Casting a dim religious light”

of the “Royal Saint’s” great chapel at Cambridge.