– notes, frequently asked questions and useful links from the archivist and curator of manuscripts at Balliol College, University of Oxford. Opinions expressed are the author's own.

Open Doors Questions

Here are some of the questions staff were asked at St Cross during 2015’s Open Doors days – and some answers:


Q: Request information about the building conversion project

A: See Dr John Jones’ History of St Cross.

Q: How was the building project funded?

A: See Dr John Jones’ History of St Cross.

Q: Has St Cross church been deconsecrated?

A. No. It has been decommissioned and is no longer a parish church, but there is no question of deconsecration. The conversion project has sensitively retained the ecclesiastical character of the building, preserved the furnishings of the chancel and left the nave space sufficiently flexible to allow for occasional services, which are held at least annually.

Q: What is the ecclesiastical status of St Cross Church now?

A:  It has been decommissioned and is no longer a parish church. St Cross last had its own vicar in 1962. It is part of the benefice of the University Church of St Mary the Virgin, in the High Street. Occasional services are held in the chancel by St Mary’s clergy or Balliol’s chaplain.

Q: Is there a connection between St Cross church and St Cross College?

A: The name. The church gave its name to the road, which gave its name to the first site of the college – see the College History.

Q: Who painted the chancel and nave ceilings?

A: See p.17 of Dr John Jones’ History of St Cross.

Q: What happened to the pipe organ at St Cross?

A: It was dismantled in early 2009 under the direction of the Reverend Alan Matchett, Rector of Adare, Limerick, and taken to Ireland.

Q: Were old memorial stones used to make the new floor at St Cross?

A: Yes, stones that were already there. Some had to be relocated, ie from an aisle to the nave, so that they would remain visible, but in many cases it was clear that the location of a memorial stone did not correspond to a specific burial below it. Although at least a hundred people lie interred within the walls, and lead coffins and a couple of skeletons were exposed briefly during the restoration and conversion work, the new load-bearing floors in the aisle and vestry area were installed without (further) disturbing any burials. No memorials on the walls were disturbed or inscriptions destroyed.

Q: How old is the stained glass in St Cross?

A: 19th and 20th century only. Here are Dr John Jones’ notes on the stained glass.

Q: The information by the Stainer window at the east end of the south aisle says the glass was made by Powell & Sons of Whitehall. They were based in East London – should that say Whitechapel?

A: It should say Whitefriars (it does now). They started in premises off Fleet Street and moved in 1923 to Wealdstone – west London.

Q: Is Balliol College responsible for the upkeep of St Cross churchyard?

A: The City Council is responsible for the upkeep of all ancient city churchyards, all of which were closed in the mid-19th century. Holywell Cemetery is not connected with St Cross church or churchyard.

Q: Which ‘St Catherine’s’ does the war memorial plaque in the south aisle refer to? The College of that name was not founded until later.

A: It’s the same St Catherine’s in a previous form – see their website for an explanation of St Catherine’s pre-college history.


Q: Whose signature is on the 1588 charter mounted near the west door?

A: The text is heavily abbreviated: ‘Exctiatur per Willm Brend’ and a notarial mark. This expands to ‘Excutiantur per Willelmum Brendon’ – translated, ‘Examined by William Brendon’. (Thanks to Michael Riordan for his help on this one!) We do not yet know who William Brendon was. The seal is the Great Seal of Elizabeth I.

Q: Request information about the Officer Training Corps billeted at Balliol during WW1

OCB to be precise: Officer Cadet Battalion No. 6 Balliol College was housed at Balliol from 1916. More details from Balliol and the University Archives.

Q: Are there any lantern slides or glass plate negatives in the collection?

A: Barely half a dozen glass plate negatives of miscellaneous subjects.

Q: What is the oldest document in the collections here?

A: A title deed of ca. 1180; more details.

Q: What was the first printed book?

A: The Bible as printed by Johannes Gutenberg in 1455. A useful article from the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas, Austin.

Q: What were books written on before printing?

A: Most western books were hand written on parchment – prepared animal skin, mainly sheep and calf. Paper was also used but it was extremely expensive and is not as durable as parchment, so relatively few medieval books on paper survive. Some early books were also printed on parchment, and imitated the look and style of manuscript books as closely as possible. The Medieval Manuscripts blog written by British Library curatorial staff is a great resource to learn more about medieval manuscript (handwritten) books.

Balliol College

Q: How do Oxford colleges work and how to they relate to University departments, central admin etc?

A: Good question! Think of it as a bit like the devolved government of Canada, with provincial governments as colleges and the federal government as the University.

Q: What is the college library like?

A: While colleges’ special collections are open by arrangement to any researcher, college libraries are normally for the use of college members only. Balliol Library website, some images


Q: How long is this exhibition up for and how available is it to the public?

A: The exhibition will be up until November and groups or individuals are welcome to make appointments to view it. Further public opening hours may be announced later.

Q: Do these collections get used?


Q: Are these collections digitised?

A: Some are. More will be. Images are online.

Q: How do I get to consult the books and collections kept here?

A: Have a look at the collection descriptions and catalogues on our website, and then get in touch to make an appointment.

Q: Do you have to wear gloves to handle documents?

A: Some repositories require them to be worn for handling all materials. Some require them only for handling photographic formats (prints, negatives, glass plates). I’m with the latter. If you are wearing them, remember that gloves are not magic and will not prevent you from causing many kinds of damage to the manuscript: avoid touching text, decoration and damaged areas with gloves on.

Q: I coordinate an MA course in archaeology and built heritage at another university. Can I bring my students to see the conversion of this building?

A: Of course! Always delighted to have students visit and to talk with them about the building and the collections. We’ll make an appointment.

Q: I am a University employee. Can I bring group visits here?

A: Of course! Always delighted to have groups visit and to talk with them about the building and the collections. We’ll make an appointment.

Q: Is this building open all the time?

A: Not for unscheduled access for the general public – it’s in use full time Monday-Friday, throughout the University year and most of the vacations, as Balliol’s special collections centre. For the security of the collections and staff working there, there is no access ‘off the street’ or out of staffed hours – you need to make an appointment and staff will meet you when you arrive. Much of the time there are researchers in the nave, which is used as the invigilated reading room, and unscheduled visitors would be highly disruptive as there is no separate space –  tourists do not have access to the Broad Street Library for the same reason. You CAN make an appointment to visit just to look at the building. More about access to St Cross.

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