Emeritus Fellow Felicity Heal is the editor and co-author of a new official history of Jesus College - ‘Jesus College Oxford of Queene Elizabeth’s Foundation – The First 450 years’ – which will be published in January 2021. We spoke to Felicity about how this exciting new account of our history came together.

Felicity Heal
Dr Felicity Heal

Felicity, this is a wonderful book that combines fascinating historical research and gorgeous illustrations of the College, its people and treasures. Can you explain how the book is constructed.

There are three chronological chapters, about two-thirds of the book, which cover much of the College’s history, starting of course with the first century after the foundation. Those years were ones of instability and poverty, so it sometimes seems as though the College was lucky to survive. I write about the turbulent early years, taking our story up to the death of Sir Leoline Jenkins (1625-1685) who was Principal from 1661 to 1673. 

Colin Haydon FRHistS, a Jesus alumnus, then takes up the story covering the 18th Century and much of the 19th Century, and Richard Bosworth FAHA, an Emeritus Fellow and former Senior Research Fellow at Jesus, pursues the narrative in the third chapter through to the 1980s.

JC book - Elizabeth page

And how does the book cover our connections with Wales?

Rhidian Griffiths, another Jesus alumnus, has written a chapter on Jesus and Wales, which rather than featuring a narrative on Welsh students coming to Oxford, focuses on the College’s influence on Wales. We felt that it was important to look beyond the College walls to assess the impact of our community: this has never been confined to Wales, but is of particular significance there.

What about the rest of the book?

This could be described as a portrait of the College at 450. We feature chapters on our architecture, (by Caroline Stanford, an alumna), our portraits (by Susan Doran, Senior Research Fellow) and treasures, and the libraries (by Librarian Owen McKnight and Thomas Charles-Edwards, Emeritus Fellow). There are some wonderful images to accompany these chapters – especially of the Fellows’ Library.

JC images

The last section celebrates our community in the recent past and includes a look at academic and student life, with a detailed focus on sport and music. While there was so much more that I would have liked to include, we had a limited word length, and we have left our successors plenty to cover when the College reaches its 500th anniversary.

Our Principal has written an afterword which looks to the College’s future, taking in our relationship with the wider university, the strength in our community, our diversity and thriving student body in the 21st Century.

When did you first start work on the book?

The book was originally suggested by Lord Krebs, former Principal, and commissioned by the Governing Body in 2015. I put a team together quite quickly to define the book’s structure and to do the research. The first few months were difficult because of a hiatus in the archives, but we were very lucky that the College appointed Robin Darwall-Smith as archivist. Robin’s updating of the College archival systems, including moving them online, has been a key to the project’s success. He was also able to contribute two chapters to the volume - on music and sport. All the contributors have been amazing; getting material in on time and writing fascinating chapters.   

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And did you get any surprises along the way?

The photographer Colin Dunn, who took many admirable photos that can be seen in the book, was tasked with taking pictures of some of the items in the College’s silver cabinet, including a watch that may have belonged to Charles I and a ring owned by his wife Henrietta-Maria. The ring, which looks very much like a signet ring, contains a tiny portrait. Colin was able to photograph the ring and enlarge the image within it – which turned about to be a portrait of Charles 1, painted in the style of Sir Anthony Van Dyck. The ring was actually a mourning ring which would have been worn by Henrietta-Maria after the king’s death. It’s so distinctive and very beautiful. A few such rings survive elsewhere, but ours seems to be one of the best.

We think that the ring found its way to College from Leoline Jenkins, who was sent to France to manage Henrietta-Maria’s estate after her death. Although we don’t know for sure, it’s likely he was given the jewellery at that stage, and both the ring and the watch are featured in the book.         

Have you enjoyed writing and editing the College’s history?

It’s been a very interesting exercise. A few years into my retirement I still work on my own field, which is 16th and 17th Century history, mainly on religion and society, and I’m continuing to write on different aspects of the British Reformations.  Many College histories are what I describe as  ‘door-stoppers’, very exhaustive institutional studies: I was not sure I wanted to edit one of those. Moreover, it didn’t feel right for Jesus College, being ONLY four-and-a-half centuries old, and so what I hope we’ve achieved is a balance of historical research and beautiful illustrations; something that people really want to read. It’s certainly something that I would like to read!

‘Jesus College Oxford of Queene Elizabeth’s Foundation – The First 450 years’ will be published by Profile Editions in January 2021. Information on how to order your copy will follow soon. 

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