Whether an Oxford resident, student or visitor, no one can fail to be impressed with the steeple of Lincoln College Library (formally All Saints Church).
Lincoln Library Tower
Whether an Oxford resident, student or visitor, no one can fail to be impressed with the steeple of Lincoln College Library (formally All Saints Church). Other structures in the city may be grander (e.g. Magdalen and Tom Towers, Radcliffe Camera), but because of its height and central location on The High, it is the more iconic of Oxford’s dreaming spires, arguably second only to the older and taller steeple of the University Church nearby. Architectural historian Howard Colvin describes it thus:
‘There are few who will deny that among the Gothic spires of Oxford the steeple of All Saints stands as a worthy representative of the classical tradition in English architecture’.
And according to the Universal British Directory (1791):
‘The church of All Saints, situated in the High Street, is an elegant modern structure, much in the style of many of the new churches in London … The steeple is remarkable, in the modern manner.’
Records indicate that All Saints Church was on the site in 1122 but the Church was probably there for some time before that. The spire rocked in 1662, causing people in nearby houses to move out. On 8th March 1700, the spire was struck by lightening and collapsed, destroying most of the Church. The damage was so severe that the only solution was to build a new church. There was an appeal for funds and many contributed, including Queen Anne, Lord Crewe, Bishop of Durham, the Duke and Duchess of Marlborough, the Rector of Lincoln, Sir Creswell Levins and all but three of the Oxford colleges.
The new Church is thought to have been designed by amateur architect Henry Aldrich, the Dean of Christ Church, and completed in 1720. Nicholas Hawksmoor produced several designs for the spire after Aldrich's death in 1710 (he was well known in Oxford for his work at Blenheim, Queen’s, All Souls and other colleges). The general consensus is that elements of both Aldrich and Hawksmoor’s designs were incorporated into the completed steeple.
The body of the Church, including the tower, was built between 1706 and 1709. Then the money ran out, and nothing more was done until October 1718 when the vestry minutes record that the undertakers of the work were prepared to finish the steeple if the parish would guarantee to pay them £50 on account. The parishioners agreed and the work was completed, mainly due to a donation of £200 from the Bishop of Durham.
Unfortunately the steeple was made of poor quality local Headington stone and repairs were necessary in 1783, 1803, and 1804. In 1872 the steeple was rebuilt to the original design under the supervision of E.G. Bruton. Between 1887 and 1890 Wilkinson Moore supervised further repairs to the rebuilt tower, parts of which had become dangerous.
The steeple is not only aesthetically pleasing to the eye, it also provides aural enjoyment. The tower has a full peal of eight bells, four of them surviving from the collapse of the original structure. They are rung weekly by the Oxford Society of Change Ringers, for certain Feast Days and Royal occasions and special College occasions, such as the election of a new Rector.
In 1970, The Church of England rationalised the churches in Central Oxford because of the dwindling number of people living in the parishes and it was agreed that work could begin to convert All Saints into Lincoln College Library in 1971. The work was completed in time for Michaelmas Term 1975. The renovation was done by Robert Potter, the architect responsible for the refurbishment of the Radcliffe Camera and the restoration of the Duke Humphrey Library.
As a resident of Oxford for many years, the spire has always been of special interest to me.
Whilst I was able to view the Library on an Open Doors weekend, the tower has never been open to the public. When I first started working at Lincoln, I hoped that one day I would have good reason to not only explore the tower, but also see Oxford’s iconic medieval skyline from a different perspective via the base of the turret or spire.
The opportunity eventually presented itself when I was asked to accompany a film crew working on the popular TV drama Lewis to the roof. With camera in hand, I started climbing … and climbing, excited that I had this wonderful opportunity.
Alas, one photo I hoped to get, a selfie on the balustrade below the Corinthian pillars, or, even better, the one below the tapering spire will never materialise; despite appearances to the contrary when viewed from below, there is no exit from the top of the tower, turret nor spire!
Hopefully the current structure will not meet the fate of its predecessor and will continue to dominate Oxford’s skyline for many, many years to come, much to the delight of residents, students and visitors alike.