Dominican Priories: Oxford

Dominican Priories: Oxford

At the University of Oxford where I am presently staying, Our Lord has given [us] the promise of a great catch…” These words of the year 1230, written by Jordan of Saxony—St. Dominic’s first successor as Master of the Order—could just have well been written by his 84th Successor, fr Timothy Radcliffe, a member of today’s Dominican community in Oxford. By the time of Jordan’s visit, the brethren had been settled in Oxford for nine years and were already looking to build a larger house to replace the one they’d established on 15th August 1221. ‘Friar Fever’ had swept the city, with many new recruits signing up. John of St Giles was so overcome by fervour that in the middle of a sermon he was preaching on poverty, he was clothed in the habit. His biographer notes that he eschewed much more lucrative work to lecture in the Blackfriars Studium (plus ça change).

It was St. Dominic himself who sent the brothers to England, and who gave explicit instructions that they should settle in Oxford first. On 6th August, the day of Dominic’s death, the brothers had presented themselves to the Primate at Canterbury; by August 10th they were passing through the seat of royal power at London. It was with some haste, however, that they made their way to their final destination of Oxford, already the country’s intellectual capital. It was here that the then highly innovative Dominican way of life was established at the heart of the nascent University, preaching the Gospel of Our Lord to the opinion formers of their time. In time, three of the friars would become Chancellors of the University, including John Bromyard OP, who holds the unique distinction of having been both Chancellor of Oxford and a more modern University situated the other side of Milton Keynes (excuse the anachronism). The brethren’s work was, of course, not limited to a narrow intellectual and liturgical apostolate: by 1250, Dominicans had established a reputation as defenders of the marginalised (particularly the Jews); by 1246 Oxford was designated by the Order as an international study house, a studium generale that attracted brethren from across Europe. We were welcoming international students to Oxford long before anyone else.

Writing in 1662, Anthony Wood tells us that “there was not so much as one stone to give testimony to the world that so famous a place as the college of the Dominicans of Oxon was there once standing”. There remains nothing of our first priory, and no monument or plaque records where it stood; the remnants of the second are not worth writing home about, although the names of some roads hint towards its presence. But the pains and divisions of this sad interruption to our Dominican life in Oxford need not be dwelt upon here, save to pray that we learn the lessons of the past. The inscription above the gate to the third and current Blackfriars reads, “[h]aving returned after a long exile, the Friars Preachers, established this second new convent on 15th August 1921, the same date that the former was founded in the year of Our Lord 1221”. This return was made possible by the vision of then provincial Fr Bede Jarrett OP and the generosity of an American widow, Mrs Charlotte Jefferson Tytus. The innocuous gate on St Giles conceals a unique three-fold institution—Dominican Priory, Oxford University Hall, Studium Generale—and a community of prayer and study, dedicated to preaching at the heart of the University and in service of the townsfolk. As well as study, brothers are engaged in apostolates across the University and town; the twenty-seven current members of the Blackfriars of today are conscious of the past, grateful for the way of life that has been bequeathed to us by our elder brothers, and yet convinced that the faithful proclamation of the Gospel is as essential in the University of the future as it is throughout the world of today. “Not so much as one stone”?!

fr. Oliver is Master of Students of the English Province, teaches dogmatic theology at Blackfriars, Oxford, and has recently been appointed Director of the Aquinas Institute.