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Plate 1.62: Oxford Decree Against Papal Jurisdiction, 1534
Scholarly Commentary with DZI View for Vetusta Monumenta, Plate 1.62. Commentary by Noah Heringman.
Plate: Engraved by George Vertue (1684-1756) and dated 1741. Both the British Museum and the British Library hold individual copies of this print, and the latter describes it as follows: “Facsimile of Oxford University's decree against the Papal supremacy (1534), presented beneath a crowned Tudor rose flanked by the arms of the City and University of Oxford, and again in the corners by the obverse and reverse of Henry's portrait medal as Fidei Defensor (1545). Either side of the document are the shields of the twelve Oxford colleges extant in 1534, and below is an English translation of the text, arranged around the Common Seal of the University.” The British Library also holds a separate study of the seal by Vertue, described as a smaller etching (15.3 cm x 8.2 cm) bearing the same title as this plate. While the seal impression was still attached to the original that Vertue studied, the medal was produced later, and added to the upper vignette created during the second stage of engraving to accommodate the title of the print. The other elements in the wide border around the facsimile itself, including the arms of the colleges and the text block with the English translation, were added to the composition at this stage.
Object: The oldest surviving version of the document is in the Letter-Book [FF] of the University of Oxford (MS Bodl. 282), fol. 129, where it is accompanied by the heading, “Letters patent of the chancellor and Convocation, 27 June 1534” (Mitchell 1980, 342). Other copies include BL Add MS 32091, fol. 132, and Cotton Cleopatra Edw. VI. 209. The latter may correspond with the copy in the Harleian Library used by Vertue to engrave this plate, but current catalogues of the Harleian manuscripts do not list this document. Vertue includes the original wax impression of the university’s thirteenth-century common seal and may have made the cast now held in the British Museum (2000,0103.181), which was donated by the Society of Antiquaries of London. Vertue engraved the very rare gold Fidei Defensor medal of Henry VIII (1545) from the collection of James West to accompany the title of this plate; an example is currently held in the British Museum (M.6802). The Decree of Oxford against the Pope’s jurisdiction was one of several steps that paved the way toward the proclamation of Henry as supreme head of the Church in England in January of 1535. This medal may have been struck to commemorate the tenth anniversary of this proclamation, and the print draws a causal connection between the Oxford decree of June 1534 and the royal supremacy by combining the two objects.
Top: DECRETVM OXONIENSE contra PONTIFICIS ROMANI in ANGLIA jurisdictionem Anno Dom. MDXXXIV.
Medal, Label: AR ex museo J. West ar.
Medal, Obverse: HENRICVS OCTA ANGLIÆ FRANCI ET HIB REX FIDEI DEFENSOR ET IN TERR ECCLE ANGLI ET HIBE SVB CHRIST CAPVT SVPREMVM.
Medal, Reverse: The same text as on the obverse in Hebrew and Greek.
Banderoles: FIDEI DEFENSOR ET IN TERRA ECCLESIÆ ANGLICANÆ SVPREMVM CAPVT.
Heraldic Emblem: DOMINUS ILLUMINATIO MEA.
Main Text: Vniversis sancte matris ecclesie filijs ad quos presentes litere pervenerint Joannes, permissione divina Lincolniensis episcopus, alme universitatis Oxon. Cancellarius, necnon universus Doctorum ac Magisrtorum regentium et non regentium in eadem coetus salutem in Authore salutis. Quum illustrissimus simul ac potentissimus princeps et dominus noster, Henricus Octavus, Dei gratia Anglie et Francie rex, fidei defensor et dominus Hibernie, assiduis peticionibus et querelis subditorum suorum, in summo suo parliamento super intolerabillibus exterarum potestatum exactionibus nuper propositus, controversiisque quibusdam habitis, super potestate ac jurisdictione Romani Episcopi, variisque et urgentibus causis contra eundem Episcopum tunc ibidem expositis et declaratis, aditus atque rogatus fuerit ut commodis suorum subditorum in hac parte consuleret et querelis satisfaceret, Ipse tanquam prudentissimus Solomon, sollicite curans que suorum sunt subditorum quibus in hoc regno divina disponente clementia preest, altiusque secum considerans quo pacto commodissimas regno suo sanciret leges, denique ante omnia precavens ne contra Sacram Scripturam aliquid statuat, quam vel ad sanguinem usque defendere semper fuit eritque paratissimus solerti suo ingenio sagacique industria, quandam questionem ad hanc eius academiam Oxon. publice et solemniter per Doctores et Magistros eiusdem disputandam transmisit, viz: an Romanus Episcopus habeat maiorem aliquam iurisdictionem sibi a Deo collatam in Sacra Scriptura in hoc regno Anglie quam alius quivis externus episcopus; mandavitque, ut habita super hac questione matura deliberacione, et examinacione diligenti, quid Sacrae Literae in hac parte nostro iudicio statuant eundem certiorem facere sub instrumento sigillo communi nostre universitatis communito et firmato curaremus. Nos igitur Cancellarius, Doctores ac Magistri predicti, sepe reminiscentes ac penitius apud nos pensitantes quanta sit virtus, sanctitas ac nostre professioni quam consona res et debite submissioni, obedientie, reverentie ac charitati congrua premonstrare viam iustitie et veritatis cupientibus Sacrarum Literarum vestigiis inferre securiorique et tranquilliori conscientia in lege Domini sacram (ut aiunt) suam anchoram reponere, non potuimus non invigilare sedulo quin in petitcone tam iusta et honesta tanto principi (cui velut auspicatissimo nostro supremo moderatori obtemperare tenemur) modis omnibus satisfaceremus. Post susceptam itaque per nos quaestionem antedictam, cum omni humilitate, devotione, ac debita reverentia, convocatis undique dictae nostrae academiae theologis, habitoque complurium dierum spatio, ac deliberandi tempore satis amplo, quo interim cum omni, qua potuimus, diligentia, iustitiae zelo, religione,et conscientia incorrupta, perscrutaremur tam Sacrae Scripturae libros, quam super iisdem approbatissimos interpretes, et eos quidem saepe et saepius a nobis evolutos, et exactissime collatos, repetitos, et examinatos; deinde et disputationibus solemnibus, palam, et publice habitis, et celebratis, tandem in hanc sententiam unanimiter omnes convenimus ac concordes fuimus, viz. Romanum episcopum maiorem aliquam iurisdictionem non habere sibi a Deo collatam in Sacra Scriptura, in hoc regno Angliae, quam alium quemvis externum episcopum. Quam nostram assertionem, sententiam, sive determinationem, sic ex deliberatione discussam, ac iuxta exigentiam statutorum et ordinationum huius nostrae universitatis per nos conclusam, publice totius academiae consensu, tanquam veram, certam, sacræque Scripturæ consonam affirmamus sincereque testificamur per praesentes. In quorum omnium et singulorum fidem et testimonium, has literas fieri, et sigillo nostrae universitatis communi roborari fecimus. Dat’ in domo congregationis nostrae, xxvijo die mensis Junij, anno a Christo nato millesimo quingentesimo tricesimo quarto.
Below the Main Text: Exemplar hoc Archetypo in bibliotheca Harleiana servato, per omnia congruens descriptum est.
Halls, Left to Right:
Aula St. Albani
Aula St Edmundi
Aula B. Maria V.
Aula novum Hospitii
Aula B. Ma. Magdalena
Schola Publ. et Bibliotheca
Seal Legend: Sigill Cancellarii et Universitatis Oxoniens
Bottom: Sumptibus Antiq. Soc. Lond. MDCCXLI.
Top: The Judgment of Oxford against the Jurisdiction of the Roman Pope in England in the Year of our Lord 1534.
Medal, Label: From the collection of J[ames] West, esquire.
Medal, Obverse and Reverse: Henry VIII, King of England, France, and Ireland, defender of the faith, and under Christ the supreme head on earth of the Church of England and Ireland.
Banderoles: Defender of the Faith and Supreme Head on Earth of the Church of England.
Heraldic Emblem: The Lord is my light. [Arms of the University of Oxford]
Main Text (the following English translation, by Thomas Birch, Director of the Society of Antiquaries (1742-47), is printed on the plate): To all the Sons of our Holy Mother the Church, to whom these present Letters shall come, John by Divine Permission Bishop of Lincoln, Chancellor of the University of Oxford and the whole Congregation of the Doctors & Masters, Regents & non Regents, in the same, with all Happiness in ye Author of Salvation. Whereas the most Illustrious & most powerful Prince our sovereign Lord Henry VIII by the Grace of God King of England and France, Defender of the Faith, and Lord of Ireland by the daily Requests and Complaints of his Subjects lately laid before him in his high Court of Parliament with relation to the intolerable Exactions of Foreign Powers, and on occasion of several Disputes started concerning the Authority and Jurisdiction of the Bishop of Rome, and of the various & urgent Causes then & there exhibited & declar’d in opposition to the said Bishop has been address’d to and desir’d to consult the Good of his Subjects in that Point, & to satisfy their Complaints. He, like the wise Solomon, being solicitous for ye Interest of his People, over whom by Gods Providence he presides & thoroughly considering with himself in what manner he might establish such Laws as are most advantageous to his Kingdom and above all things being careful that he might not settle any point contrary to Holy Scriptures which he always has been & will be ready to defend with his Blood, agreeable to his excellent Judgment and Sagacity has transmitted to this his University of Oxford a certain Question in order to be discussed publickly & solemnly by the Doctors & Masters of the same namely, whether the Bishop of Rome hath any greater Jurisdiction in this Kingdom of England conferred on him by God in the Holy Scriptures, than any other Foreign Bishop; and he commanded us, that upon a mature Deliberation & diligent Examination of this Question we should by an Instrument under the common Seal of our University, certify him, what the Holy Scriptures, according to our Judgment, determine in this Point, we therefore, ye Chancellor, Doctors & Masters aforesaid often recollecting with ourselves & deeply weighing in our Hearts, how great a Virtue, how sacred a Duty, & how agreeable to our Profession & to due Submission, Obedience, Reverence & Charity it is, to point out the Way of Righteousness & Truth to those who desire to pursue the Footsteps of the sacred Writings, & with a more secure & quiet Conscience to fix their Sheet Anchor in the Law of the Lord, could not but use our utmost Endeavour to satisfy in all Respects so great a Prince (whom we are bound to obey as our most auspicious & supreme Governor) in so just & honourable a Request; wherefore after we had receiv’d the abovementioned Question with all Humility, Devotion & due Reverence, having call’d together from all Parts the Divines of our said Vniversity, & having taken a sufficient Space of Time for Deliberation, in which we might with all possible Diligence, Zeal for Truth & Religion, & with an incorrupt Conscience examine both ye sacred Writings & the most approv’d Expositors of them, which were very often read over by us, & most exactly compar’d together, & having afterwards held publick & solemn Disputations upon the Subject, we have at last all unanimously come to this Determination, viz. that the Bishop of Rome has no greater Jurisdiction in this Kingdom of England conferr’d on him by God than any other Foreign Bishop, which our Assertion, Resolution or Determination thus discuss’d with mature Deliberation & according to the Obligation of the Statutes & Ordinances of this our University by us concluded, we in ye Name of the whole University by these Presents affirm & sincerely testify to be true, certain & consonant to the Holy Scriptures in testimony of all and singular of which we have order’d these Letters to be drawn up & confirm’d by the Common Seal of our University, given in our Congregation House the XXVII Day of June Anno Domini MDXXXIV.
Below the Main Text: A faithful copy of the original in the Harleian Library.
Halls, Left to Right:
St. Alban’s Hall
Hart Hall [now Hertford College]
St Edmund Hall
St Mary the Virgin’s Hall
New Hall [now New College]
St Mary Magdalen Hall [now Magdalen College]
Public School and Library
Seal Legend: Seal of the Chancellor and University of Oxford
Preparatory Drawings: Click here to see the Preparatory Drawings for Plate 1.62.
Commentary by Noah Heringman: George Vertue’s engraving of the 1534 Decree of Oxford against the Pope of Rome spans two folio pages. It is only the third double-size plate in the 24-year history of the series to that point, and the first document to be presented in this form. An ornamental border devised by Vertue occupies much of this space, further elevating the importance of this document. The decree itself is relatively obscure, an institutional profession exacted by Henry VIII during the critical early period of his Reformation that produced a veritable flood of oaths, attestations, professions, and other documentary evidence to legitimate his breach with the Roman Catholic Church. The University of Oxford consented semi-voluntarily to Henry’s proposition that there is no Scriptural warrant for the Pope’s jurisdiction in England, as Cambridge had done the month before, but these decrees were part of a long series of formal exchanges between 1530 and 1535 during which the government demanded concessions from the clergy, and from the universities that educated them, and the clergy more or less reluctantly granted them. The Oath of Supremacy of the same period, or a more foundational document such as the Magna Carta, might have been worthier of such lavish treatment.
Although the decree is not lacking in intrinsic significance, the elaborate treatment given to this manuscript must be explained at least partly on institutional and methodological grounds. Vertue made the preparatory drawings in the Harleian Library shortly before the death of Edward Harley, the second Earl of Oxford (1689-1741), who continued his father’s patronage of the Society of Antiquaries of London (SAL). Besides this manuscript and seal impression, several other objects depicted earlier in the series came from the Harleian collection, including coins (Plate 1.56), medals (Plates 1.43 and 1.55), and two additional manuscripts (Plates 1.21 and 1.69); many more were exhibited at meetings of the SAL by Vertue and others. Humfrey Wanley (1672-1726), the original curator of the collection, was one of the three original founders of the revived SAL in 1707; both Wanley’s personal expertise in paleography and the Harley patronage remained powerful influences thirty-five years later, when this print was being made. While these prestigious traditions within the SAL help to explain the decision to engrave a facsimile of this document, the society’s ambitious new director, Thomas Birch (1705-1766), was also a driving force behind the creation of the print. Birch served as acting director in 1738 and then became director of the SAL in 1742, the same year the print was published. Birch served until 1747 and was productive as a scholar in his own right, producing voluminous memoirs of the reigns of Queen Elizabeth (1764) and other monarchs based on original manuscripts, collections of biographies, and other works. James West (1703-1772), who was elected a fellow of the Society in 1726 and very active in the production of Vetusta Monumenta at this time, supplied the gold medal at the top of the plate from his collection.
Today eighteenth-century antiquarianism is often remembered as a forerunner of archaeology, but this plate is one of several in Vetusta Monumenta that present facsimiles of documents rather than monuments or material culture (cf. Plates 1.21-1.26, 1.28-1.33, 1.67-1.68, 1.69. and 2.6). This subset of plates and the scholarly practices that privileged archival sources are better described not as proto-archaeology but as “erudite history,” to borrow an expression from the historian Martin Rudwick: a growing body of national histories that staked their truth claims on primary source material (Rudwick 2005, 182). Along with Harley’s patronage and Birch’s ambition, this methodological principle accounts for the aura of importance that this print builds up around a document that historians have not made much of in recent decades.
Vertue’s engraving underscores the importance of archival source material by foregrounding the materiality of the original manuscript and inserting it into a kind of media history. The decree itself, apparently written by a professional scribe in “secretary hand” in the sixteenth century, occupies the center of the composition. It seems fair to conjecture that the aesthetic qualities of the handwriting itself, with its scrupulously dotted “i”s, cleanly distinguished minims, and sinuous regularity, provided inspiration to Vertue, Birch, and the other actors responsible for commissioning the plate. The difficulty of tracing these letters in copper is undeniable. The center of gravity in this composition is the seal attached to the bottom, which literally traverses the boundary between manuscript and print. This seal—the common seal of the university, dating to the thirteenth century—is the only decorative element that certainly was not superadded by Vertue. It is mentioned specifically in the description of his preparatory drawing in the minutes (SAL Minutes IV.31). The prominent shadow cast by the seal onto the text block containing the English translation makes it boldly three-dimensional. The chancellor’s book in the center of the seal gives weight to the university’s utterance and provides a kind of anchor for the monarch floating in the corresponding border above the text. The Latin title at the top was drafted in November 1741, one year after the print was first commissioned (IV.90v), presumably when Vertue brought his first proof, which typically provided the occasion for the collective drafting of titles and captions on these prints. The evidence in the minutes suggests that Vertue then spent considerable time engraving the border to accommodate both the title and the translation. The medal of Henry VIII as defender of the faith (a title granted to him, ironically enough, by Pope Leo X in 1521), shown at the top, is not part of the original document and may well have been an afterthought. By adding it, Vertue incorporated numismatics into an already complex media history involving the medieval seal, the early modern manuscript, and modern print.
The decree was issued during an extremely eventful time in the university’s history. The king intensified his scrutiny after the university tendered a less than whole-hearted endorsement of his arguments against the validity of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon in 1530, which had met with a more favorable reception from the foreign universities canvassed by soon-to-be Archbishop Thomas Cranmer (Cross 1986, 124-25). At the same time, the university lost its most powerful patron in Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, who died in the king’s custody that year. The History and Antiquities of the University of Oxford (1674) by Anthony à Wood, whose work was highly regarded by members of the SAL throughout the eighteenth century, offers a critical perspective on the king’s long campaign to enforce compliance, which began at this time. In his chronology of university administrators, Wood describes the royal appointment of a new chancellor in 1532 in the guise of an election: “At length K. Henry VIII granting to the University power to elect a Chancellor (their liberties and privileges being now in his hands) by Sir William Fitzwilliams, their chief Steward, who intimated to them whom the King had desired, and designed for that office, namely, Dr. John Longland, Bishop of Lincoln, they accordingly on the first day of the term following, . . . elected the said person Chancellor” (Wood 1790, 82). Even after Henry deprived the university’s law faculty of “much gain” by outlawing appeals to the ecclesiastical courts in 1532, and visited the university himself in 1533, his order that “every Theologist that was to preach . . . publickly to the University, was to declare that the Pope was not the head of the Church” met with a mixed response: “some did it very boldly, others faintly, and a third party not at all” (Wood 1792-96, 2.54, 57). The 1534 entry in Wood’s annals presents the decree or “sentence” of 27 June as the culmination both of this sequence of internal events and of broader political developments, including Canterbury Convocation’s acknowledgment of royal supremacy in 1530 and the Act of Submission of Clergy, confirmed by Convocation in 1532 and by Parliament in 1534. “Which grounds so laid,” Wood concludes, Henry “resolved with himself to abolish the Pope and his power from his Kingdom” (2.58). Wood then quotes the entire Latin text of the decree later engraved by Vertue (2.58-59).
The committee delegated to decide “whether the Bishop of Rome hath any greater Jurisdiction in this Kingdom of England conferred on him by God in the Holy Scriptures, than any other Foreign Bishop,” as the king’s question is translated by Birch on this plate, answered in the affirmative “to please the King and save the University harmless” (Wood 1792-96, 2.58). Wood also notes that the consensus now was stronger than it had been the previous year, and that the consequences for those who did not go along were severe: “But as for those that would not renounce [the Pope], [they] were, if Foundation men, turned out of their Fellowships, Scholarships, and Chaplainships” (2.59-60). Following the university’s decree, members of the individual colleges and halls had to approve the same question, and many of these professions are preserved in manuscript along with the university’s statement (Letters and Papers 1920, 7#891).
Modern histories place more emphasis on the royal visitation of the university the next year and pass over the decree of 27 June 1534 more lightly, if they mention it at all (Cross 1986; Logan 1991; Gray 2013). Wood also acknowledges the visitation (an external review by royal officials) as a more critical turning point in the university’s fortunes, but nonetheless gives a prominent place to the decree, quoting the full text from the university’s Letter-Book, the same source used by the modern editor of the Latin text (Mitchell 1980). Wood’s detailed attention, followed by Vertue’s print, indicates that this document may have seemed more important in the eighteenth century than it does to historians today.1 Emphasizing this decree refocuses Henry’s intervention in university affairs as a campaign that can be clearly distinguished from the suppression of the monasteries, which began about the same time and was carried out by some of the same actors. The universities, unlike the monasteries, survived the Reformation, but it had a profoundly destabilizing effect, especially on Oxford—generally considered more conservative than Cambridge. Claire Cross’s account shows this transformation as a lengthy process, in which the university’s enforced renunciation of papal authority marked an early stage. In Cross’s view, “the fortunes of the university reached their nadir . . . in the reign of Edward VI,” Henry’s short-lived heir, under whom enrollment “reached its lowest ebb for the entire century” the university’s statutes were revised so they “for the first time formally associated the university with protestantism” (1986, 140, 137-38).
Nonetheless, by 1534 the renunciation of papal authority had a number of precedents and carried important political implications. First of all, as Wood observed, the king, or Thomas Cromwell acting on his behalf, had carefully prepared the ground for this step. In fact, the king’s letter of 18 May 1534 makes two requests: first, that the university reappoint Longland as chancellor for life; and second, that they send their “sentence and assertyon” in response to his question “concernyng the power and primacye off the bysshoppe of Rome” (Mitchell 1980, 339). The first request was granted by convocation on 19 June and the committee to decide the king’s question was appointed at the same session, producing the decree featured in this print eight days later. Second, other instruments from this time used similar language. The oath required of bishops-elect from April 1534 included the derogatory reference to the “bishop of Rome” (Gray 2013, 225), and the clerical version of the oath of supremacy of 1536 began with the requirement that “he [the deponent] shall utterly renounce refuse relinquish or forsake the Bisshopp of Rome” (242). (Henry would not have been pleased to see the word “Pope” in the title of this print.) Third, the king’s charge to the university, to “certify . . . what the Holy Scriptures determine in this point” by examining both “the sacred writings” and “the most approv’d Expositors of them,” is derived from the arguments of Martin Luther and other reformers on the Continent who had found no Scriptural warrant for the Pope’s jurisdiction (Wandel 2011, 100-02, 149-51). These arguments played no small part in the creation of Protestant states in Germany and elsewhere, beginning in the 1520s, and were used to extend the jurisdiction of Catholic princes as well.
The royal “visitors” of 1535, led by Richard Layton and John Tregonwell, intervened more directly and systematically in the university’s affairs than any written request from the king had done, but their program of demands included—to the faculty’s surprise—a reaffirmation of the position already formalized by the 1534 decree: “The visitors have signified to them the King's order that they should renounce the papal authority under their common seal, and swear fealty to him and his successors. Though they have done this already, they do it afresh” (Letters and Papers 1920, 7#1148). Gray, in his study of oaths and the Reformation, clarifies the distinction between oaths and “oathless subscriptions” that do not require signatories to swear (Gray 2013, 52). In this context, the request for reaffirmation seems less redundant, since the 1534 decree had not included the oath of fealty that was joined to the new order to renounce the Pope’s authority (Gray 2013, 62, 70). This order was only the beginning. The visitors implemented curricular reforms, purged the university libraries, and threatened the ruin of the institution, or so it appeared to Wood in his critical history. Even the inventory of university property that preceded the visitation “did strike . . . terrour into the minds of Students,” so that “divers Scholars, upon a foresight of the ruin of the Clergy, had and did now betake themselves to Physick,” and the visitors had to bar the practice of medicine by anyone who had not been examined by the Professor of Physick (Wood 1792-96, 2.61-62). The visitors made such “sad havock in the University” that by 1537 “most of the Halls or Hostles were left empty, and threatned a decay; Arts declined, and ignorance began to take place again” (2.63, 67).
Wood concedes that the plague in that year might also have played a role, and the matter looks entirely different in histories by stronger partisans of the Anglican Church, such as Richard James, who in 1625 published the first English translation of the decree of 1534. James makes Parliament the driving force behind the reforms: “a motion was made in Parliament, that the King should be declared Head of the Church, but his Majesty refused, till he had advised with his Universities, of that point” (James 1625, 43-44). John Strype, writing in 1721, refers to these events simply as the “great work now on foot, of reducing the Bishop of Rome’s power, . . . and restoring the King his authority” (Strype  1832, 1.283). The Oxford decree of 1534 helps to disentangle these strands of the Reformation by focusing attention on the events that intervened between the Act of Succession in March of 1534 and the Act of Supremacy in November of that year. The affirmation of royal supremacy prior to these events had not entailed explicit renunciation of the Pope. The “multiplicity of professions” in 1534, in Gray’s apt phrase, attests to the escalation of Henry’s campaign and the greater difficulty of exacting this renunciation (2013, 67). A surviving letter to Cromwell of 30 April from William Tresham, the Commissary or Vice Chancellor appointed by Longland, illustrates the careful planning of the campaign: “The matter should be somewhat further opened in sermons before the question [of papal jurisdiction] were sent to us” (Letters and Papers 1920, 7#565). In the event, the University of Oxford was the last body to comply, following Canterbury Convocation (in April), the University of Cambridge, and the Convocation of York (both in May) (Gray 2013, 61).
As an antiquarian publication, Vetusta Monumenta avoids the strong ideological commitments entailed by narrative history. According to Richard Gough (1735-1809), the facts authenticated by antiquaries were needed to make history more credible. “History,” he wrote in his introduction to Archaeologia, the second major publication series of the SAL, is “not a mere narrative taken up at random and embellished with poetic diction, but a regular and elaborate inquiry into every ancient record and proof,” and the antiquary’s role was to supply these (Gough 1770, ii). Vertue’s print sets out to do just that. Up to this point, short verbal explanations of the objects depicted were engraved on only a few of the plates, and this one, like most, contains hardly any original prose at all (though this was soon to change with the addition of letterpress accounts beginning with Plate 1.66). Two factors complicate this strong distinction between unreliable historical narrative and the ostensibly neutral presentation of “ancient records”: first, Vertue’s commitment to the art of engraving, above and beyond the creation of a mere facsimile; and second, the long-term effects of the English Reformation as felt in the everyday lives of antiquaries in the 1740s, which mitigate the sense of historical distance produced by the archaic secretary hand and the ancient symbolism embodied in the medals, arms, and seal. Vertue himself came from a Catholic family, as did John Talman (1677-1726), the first director of the SAL, and other prominent antiquaries. Later on, Gough was one of several prominent members who professed Anglicanism but were nonetheless publicly suspected of harboring Catholic sympathies. Vertue, Talman, and more famous Catholics such as Alexander Pope pursued careers outside the universities and outside public service, careers that did not require them to subscribe to the current version of the Oath of Supremacy. Thomas Birch, who instigated this engraving, did take the Oath of Supremacy sometime in his thirties for a different, but related reason. Birch was offered a living as an Anglican divine, and had to take the oath because he was raised a Quaker, and the Quakers like all Dissenting Protestant sects (also espoused by other early antiquaries such as Peter Le Neve) were subject to many of the same exclusions as Catholics.
The Minute Books of the SAL, like the Decree of Oxford itself, are silent regarding the private religious commitments of members and the reflections these must have provoked, particularly as they recovered source material from relatively recent periods of British history. These records do, however, offer substantive details that are helpful for reconstructing the history of this print. The project is first mentioned in the minutes for 20 November 1740:
The “former order” is not mentioned earlier in the minutes, and may have been the result of a private agreement. Birch contributed the biographical essays to a major piece of Vertue’s commercial work, Heads of Illustrious Persons of Great Britain, engraven by Houbraken and Vertue (1747–52), so it is clear that they collaborated outside the confines of the SAL. The ballot (affirmative) and the order to engrave the decree followed the next week (IV.33). The title of the print, already mentioned above, was drafted one year later (IV.90v), but during the interim Vertue also presented the SAL with “two curious prints” from the series he was “now engraving by subscription,” one of which reproduced a painting of “the Royal Family of King Henry the VIII” then attributed to Holbein (IV.85; Alexander 2008, 366).
The Rev Mr Director Birch moved that the deed relating to the University of Oxford’s declaration, in relation to the Pope’s not having any more jurisdiction in England, than any other Bishop be Engraved at the Expence of this Society &c. Mr Vertue upon a former order brought this evening an exact drawing upon a sheet of paper being a copy of this decree of the University of Oxford litteratim, and also a draught of the Seals appendent to the deed. (SAL Minutes IV.31)
A resolution to distribute the print followed on 3 December 1741 (SAL Minutes IV.90v), but no further mention is made of the plate until the following October. This gap offers indirect evidence that Vertue invested substantial time on the border around the facsimile of the manuscript. Since the title postdates the proof of the facsimile itself, it seems likely that the vignette on which the title is displayed—with its elaborate array of banderoles and other decorative elements, including the medal—was created afterward to accommodate the title. The text block containing the English translation in the lower border forms the pendant to this vignette, and the translation is mentioned specifically in the entry for 7 October 1742: “Ordered Thanks to Mr Director Birch for his Translating the Oxford Decree, and that half a doz. Prints be presented him. The Revd Mr Wise being a favourer of Antiquities and assistant to Mr Vertue relating to the Oxford Decree the Society orders a Print of the Same to be presented him” (IV.131v.). At a December meeting, Vertue moved that both this plate and the set of plates depicting seals (Plates 1.53-1.54 and 1.58-1.60) be presented to John Anstis (1669-1745, and elected FSA in 1735), Garter King of Arms in the College of Heralds, “for his friendly assistance communicated to this Society” (SAL Minutes IV.141v). Francis Wise (1695-1676; elected FSA in 1749) is described as “late fellow of Trinity College, Oxford, and keeper of the archives”, so he is likely to have been a great help to Vertue (Fenn 1798, 10); Anstis might have provided information concerning the seal and the arms of the twelve colleges that Vertue included along the left and right margins. Richard Rawlinson (1690-1755; elected FSA in 1727), another former Oxonian who is not mentioned here, donated Wood’s “MSS relating to the History and Antiquities of the University of Oxford” to the SAL four years later (SAL Minutes V.75). This indirect connection attests to Wood’s strong reputation at the time; Birch and Vertue most likely consulted the Latin version of Wood’s History and Antiquities then in print and probably knew that he, too, was forced to retake the Oath of Supremacy when he was suspected of complicity in the Popish Plot in the 1670s (Parry 2008).
Vertue’s decision (possibly a committee decision) to add the gold medal of Henry VIII at the top of the plate inevitably introduces an element of historical narrative and expands the scope of the printmaker’s art. Vertue may be suspected of promoting a triumphalist narrative of the Reformation by giving pride of place to royal supremacy, via this medal, as the implied and justified conclusion of the king’s negotiations with Oxford. He may even be suspected of critiquing that narrative by exposing the ideological machinations that Henry set in motion—which even a casual reading of this document makes plain—in order to achieve that outcome. He may also be suspected, with more justice, of seeking to integrate the several facets of antiquarian engraving that he had mastered in the course of nearly twenty-five years of work on Vetusta Monumenta: the depiction of seals, coins, manuscripts, and coats of arms—the only element lacking here is architecture, and even that is indirectly present in the trefoiled canopy over the seat of the chancellor in the Oxford seal. By means of this synthesis, Vertue provides a rich field for meditation on the transition from manuscript to print, which was increasingly used for official papers in his own time, and on the importance of engraving for the assertion of institutional authority: copper engraving (as instantiated by the print), seal engraving, and the creation of the dies from which coins were struck, the oldest engraving technology incorporated here. The medal demonstratively invokes ancient authority to support its claims by duplicating its legend in the languages of the Old and New Testaments on the reverse. The upper and lower borders display an elaborate symmetry that is very difficult to reduce to a narrative of progress: the ancient languages above are sharply divided from the English text below, as the artisanal production of the medal and the vignette is divided (at least implicitly) from the mechanical reproduction of print evoked by the text block below. Yet the medieval seal, with its tonsured chancellor, casts its shadow on this modern text and conjures up the conflicted past of the institution that was redefined by Queen Elizabeth’s time as “an adjunct to the state” (Cross 1986, 149). Vertue’s finishing touch is the bow extending just beyond the upper border of the print, mirroring the end of string beneath the seal and reminding viewers that this neat triangle—formed by the seal (below) with the king’s twin powers as head of church and state (above)—is a mediated vision, a tidy package for the ongoing violence of history.
: It should be noted that the document is described not as a “decree” but as a “judgment” and as “letters patent” in the primary sources. The term “decree” is used in the Letter-Book for related documents (e.g., Mitchell 1980, 345) and has a technical sense in the university’s administrative jargon, which might have led some Oxonians to quibble with the use of the term in the title for this plate.
Cross, Claire. 1986. “Oxford and the Tudor State from the Accession of Henry VIII to the Death of Mary,” In The History of the University of Oxford, Vol 3: The Collegiate University, edited by James McConica, 117-149. Oxford: Clarendon.
Fenn, John. 1798. A List of the Members of the Society of Antiquaries of London. London: John Nichols.
Gough, Richard. 1770. “Introduction.” Archaeologia 1: i-xxxix.
Gray, Jonathan Michael. 2013. Oaths and the English Reformation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
James, Richard. 1625. A Manuduction or Introduction unto Divinity, Containing a Confutation of Papists by Papists. London: H. Cripps and H. Curteyne.
Logan, F. Donald. 1991. “The First Royal Visitation of the English Universities, 1535.” The English Historical Review 106: 861-88.
Mitchell, W. T., ed. 1980. Epistolae Academicae, 1508-1596. Oxford: Clarendon.
Parry, Graham. 2008. “Wood, Anthony [Anthony à Wood] (1632–1695).” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography Online. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Rudwick, Martin J. S. 2005. Bursting the Limits of Time: The Reconstruction of Geohistory in the Age of Revolution. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Strype, John. (1721) 1832. Ecclesiastical Memorials, Relating Chiefly to Religion, and the Reformation of It. 2 vols. Oxford: Clarendon.
Wandel, Lee. 2011. The Reformation: Towards a New History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Wood, Anthony à. 1790. Appendix to the History and Antiquities of the Colleges and Halls of the University of Oxford. Edited by John Gutch. Oxford: Clarendon.
------. 1792-1796. The History and Antiquities of the University of Oxford. Edited by John Gutch. 2 vols. Oxford.1