Thomas Wolsey had served Henry VIII well through the years, but Henry’s desire to rid himself of Queen Katherine of Aragon, his first wife, became an important feature in Wolsey’s downfall. Henry started to pursue Anne Boleyn in 1526 and wanted Wolsey to broker an annulment of his marriage to Katherine. Anne was sympathetic to the Protestant reformation and developed a dislike of Wolsey, who she felt was not trying hard enough to influence the Pope in her favour. It is suggested by historians that her attitude to Wolsey led to his downfall in 1529 at the hand of Henry VIII. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anne_Boleyn.
In 1529 Wolsey was part way through his transformation of St Frideswide’s monastery into Cardinal College but, on his downfall, Henry acquired all Wolsey’s property including Cardinal College. An account of what happened after that is recorded in William Dugdale’s Monasticon Anglicanum, A History of the English Monasteries. Continuing from the end of Thomas Wolsey’s college it describes how Cardinal College was transformed into Henry VIII's College.
Accordingly Dugdale records, ‘…in 1532, the society was refounded by the king under the title ‘King Henry the Eighth’s College in Oxford’. The patent for this is dated July 8th, and orders, that the said college be again founded on the same site, ground and circuit, dedicated to the Holy Trinity, St Mary and St Frideswide, and endowed with £2000 yearly for the maintenance of the dean and twelve canons, who would form a chapter, or body corporate. Dr Hygden was again appointed dean, and on his death five months later he was succeeded by John Oliver DCL. This second foundation continued until May 20th 1545, when the charter was surrendered by the Dean and Canons into the hands of the king, who dismissed them with yearly pensions, to continue until they should be otherwise provided…’
Dugdale notes: ‘The king then changed the college into a cathedral church, translating the episcopal see from Oseney, where it had been established in 1542.’ The records then relate that ‘the bishoprick and chapter were founded twice,’ with different foundation charters.
‘In the first foundation the church is called ‘The Cathedral Church of Christ and the Blessed Virgin Mary’ with Robert King (the last abbot of Oseney) as bishop, John London as dean and six canons only.’
‘The second foundation is dated 4th November 1546 where the church is called ‘The Cathedral Church of Christ in Oxford’. Robert King is made Bishop, Richard Cox Dean, and there were eight Canons. On Dec 11th following (1546) the King made an endowment to the value of £2200. The canons, or prebendaries, occupied the lodgings of the abbot and monks, but the Bishop’s residence was in Gloucester Hall, now Worcester College. The footnote continues: 'Of this he was afterwards deprived and had no residence until Bishop Bancroft in Charles the First’s time, built one at Cuddesdon, which was burned down during the rebellion (Civil War). It was afterwards rebuilt by Bishop Fell and continues to be the residence of the bishops of the see.’ (It is now a theological college, Ripon College Cuddesdon).
These quotations tell us that, in 1542, Oxford became the centre of a new Diocese, and although Oseney Abbey was made the Cathedral initially, it was eventually decommissioned and the centre of the diocese was moved to the Priory Church of St Frideswide, which became Christ Church Cathedral in 1546.
It seems that Henry VIII decided that Oseney Abbey, a much bigger establishment, was too expensive to maintain but, as he already owned the monastery site having relieved Thomas Wolsey of it in 1529, he could re-found it as a college and Anglican Cathedral, the only one of its kind in the world. A patron saint was an added bonus for Henry who, despite his reforms, considered himself a good catholic. Also, his first wife Katherine of Aragon had revered St Frideswide and prayed at her shrine.
However, St Frideswide, who had been unofficially revered for 700 years, was officially canonised for only 60 years. Soon after her church was elevated to the distinction of a cathedral, she was demoted to a non-entity. Her festival was abolished in 1549 (Rosemary Radar, Medieval Women Monastics), and did not restart until more than 300 years later. See the page Augustinian Priory on this website for further details.
Despite all of Wolsey’s and Henry’s changes, Christ Church College was still architecturally incomplete at the end of the Tudor period, being left as it was when Wolsey was deprived. The nave of the church had been abrupted at the point where the west end of the organ case now stands and a large wall, with a high up window (visible in some etchings), had been inserted to close the west end. The Quadrangle was only three-quarters finished, and the north side and most of the northern end of the west and east sides did not exist.
The west side of the old cloister had been shorn off and replaced by the wall of the staircase to the Great Hall, and the present bell tower above this staircase had not been built. It was another one hundred years before the quad was completed.
It took a Stuart King and a determined Dean to complete what Wolsey had envisioned. But even they did not quite get it right. It is believed that Wolsey left the north wing of the Quad unfinished because he wanted to build a new church there to rival King’s College Chapel in Cambridge which however, was not finished at the time of Wolsey's demise, being only finished in 1536, one hundred years after it had started.
Instead, William Dugdale informs us: ‘The north side of the quadrangle was finished in 1665 (the year of the restoration of the monarchy) by Dr John Fell (the Dean), at which time the parapet of the whole was surrounded with stone rails. The tower over the gate, which was begun by Wolsey, was not finished until 1681, and then by Sir Christopher Wren (who built the bell tower known as Tom Tower). What is called the Chaplains Quadrangle (between the New Buildings and the Priory Rooms) was completed in 1672. It stands on the site of part of the original priory, where the hall or refectory of the monastery was supposed to have been placed.’
So we can see that Henry VIII’s battle with the Pope ended in disaster for St Frideswide’s monastery. His decision to take the law into his own hands, divorce Catherine of Aragon (also spelt Katharine) and marry Anne Boleyn without the Pope’s permission, meant that he had taken the authority of the Pope for himself, becoming head of the new Church of England.
The new reformist leanings that were afoot highlighted the corruptions of the religious system and Henry soon realised that, by dissolving the monasteries he would not only purge the church but acquire a massive boost of funding for his battles with France as well.
Although St Frideswide’s monastery became a college (first Cardinal College and then Henry VIII’s College), the church of St Frideswide, built in 1180 (the present structure), was still functioning as a minster church and had many treasures. The soldiers of Henry VIII entered the church of St Frideswide in 1538 and destroyed the shrine, emptying out the bones of the saint and taking her jewelled feretory for the king’s treasury. See more under the Shrine page on this website.
However, because of Henry’s decision to make it into Christ Church College and Cathedral, the church itself and the existing monastery buildings escaped destruction.
Do we have Saint Frideswide to thank for that? Perhaps.
When Henry VIII had to decide between Oseney and St Frideswide’s for his cathedral, he perhaps could not bring himself to demolish the church of a saint he revered, being the good Catholic that he was, and one to whom his wife had prayed in her last pregnancy. St Frideswide’s Church was saved only on the whim of a king.
However, during the 17th and 18th century Christ Church College was more interested in extending and expanding the college than maintaining the cathedral building, even though it also acted as the college chapel. Gradually it fell into decay and it would take an energetic and far-seeing new 19th century Dean to change its fortunes.