Once I was a clever boy learning the arts of Oxford... is a quotation from the verses written by Bishop Richard Fleming (c.1385-1431) for his tomb in Lincoln Cathedral. Fleming, the founder of Lincoln College in Oxford, is the subject of my research for a D. Phil., and, like me, a son of the West Riding. I have remarked in the past that I have a deeply meaningful on-going relationship with a dead fifteenth century bishop... it was Fleming who, in effect, enabled me to come to Oxford and to learn its arts, and for that I am immensely grateful.

Thursday, 11 June 2020


Regular readers of this blog and friends will not be surprised to discover that my attitude is one of opposition to the present popularist enthusiasm for pulling down statues of those now deemed guilty of racism, long after their deaths and the subsequent change in social attitudes. Leave the past alone and deal with what are real contemporary problems now. In that sense the past is... past.

I am similarly hostile to those fellow-travelling whinging “pinko-liberals” who go along with such dangerous ‘modernism’ and ‘presentism’.

Iconoclasticism has its own internal logic, and withal a fanaticism which accepts no compromise. That was the case with the Roman world’s use of damnatio memoriae, which has revived in the modern world. The specific, literal, policy of Iconoclasm in the Byzantine Empire divided it for upwards of two centuries, and with great bitterness.

Calvinists felt impelled in the reformation to “purge” churches of idolatry in France, the Low Countries and Scotland in a frenzy of destruction. Owen Chadwick tells the story in “The Reformation” of the Huguenot leader Admiral Coligny in one of the transitory truces in the French Wars of Religion of the 1560s being summoned to a Huguenot attack on a church. Pointing his pistol at a man up a ladder about to destroy a statue Coligny ordered him to desist. The answer he got is indicative: “Shoot me if you wish, but let me destroy this statue first.”

Margaret Aston and other historians have pointed out that destruction or removal is not enough for the iconoclast - they need their act of destruction to be preserved in the headless statue or empty plinth.

At the moment I have a sort of vested interest in this issue. My college, Oriel, is the focus of those who want to see the removal of the statue of Cecil Rhodes on the High Street facade of the college. There was a move to do this in 2015-6 which was commendably withstood by Oriel. Now the question has been raised by a non-socially distanced mob blocking the High Street the other day, egged on by the majority group on the City Council. (Oxford is, in my opinion, one of the worst run cities in the country, pandering to any and every ‘special interest’ group.) The Chancellor of the University has criticised the campaigners as can be seen at 'Bit of hypocrisy' over Rhodes statue removal call . The Vice Chancellor has also been clear in speaking good sense, as at Don't hide history, says Oxford head in statue row.

Oriel says it has no plans to remove the statue.

Independently of that particular argument my old friend Prof Nigel Biggar - a former Chaplain of Oriel - and someone who is not afraid to challenge modern fashionable preconceptions about the past had a letter in The Times two days ago where he talked of the “political power of adopted victimhood”.

As I said to a friend in a message today if I used Twitter I would be very tempted to add to messages #SaveOurCecil or #RhodesMustStay.

Just across the High Street from the Rhodes building of Oriel and the controversial statue of Cecil Rhodes is the University Church of St Mary. There in the 1630s the new south porch was adorned with a statue of the Virgin and Child. Across the street lived Alderman John Nixon, a man of Puritan sympathies, who was horrified to see students doff their hats to the statue or even, on one occasion, kneel before it. As the country drifted into Civil War Nixon fled to London and brought the story of the offending statue to join that of allowing a crucifix in the new stained glass of Lincoln College chapel whilst he was Chancellor to be brought, as capital charges in the end, against poor old Archbishop Laud. As for the statue, as Parliamentary troops evacuated the city in the early autumn of 1642 one soldier took the opportunity to blow its head off with his musket. Eventually, in more modern times, it was replaced.

Nowadays, when one is free to go out, the so called Martyrs Memorial - or the “Heretics Memorial” as a friend used to refer to it in our Pusey House days - is a landmark I often pass. Should I be offended by those three Anglican bishops, men who had Catholic blood on their hands or rochets in at least two cases? Should we start “Catholic Lives Matter”...?

But no - as I made clear above I do not want to destroy part of the city’s heritage. One can be post-modernist and come up with points that show:

a) that it is a backhanded compliment to the Oxford Movement from Rev Charles Golightly and his Establishment and Low Church friends in 1841, who feared what Newman, Pusey et al might achieve;
b) the irony that it is just the sort of structure Latimer and Ridley, and their later admirers, defaced in their time;
c) be really post-modernist and subvert the text and see it as a celebration of Church and State cooperating under Good Queen Mary to exterminate the enemy...

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