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John Fell

John Fell (1625 - July 10, 1686), was an English churchman.

The son of Samuel Fell, dean of Christ Church, Oxford, he was born at Longworth in Berkshire and received his primary education at the free school at Thame in Oxfordshire. In 1636 he obtained a studentship at Christ Church, and in 1640 he was specially allowed by Archbishop William Laud because of his "known desert," when wanting one term's residence, to proceed to his degree of B. A. He obtained his M.A. in 1643 and took holy orders (deacon 1647, priest 1649). During the Civil War he bore arms for King Charles I of England and held a commission as ensign. In 1648 he was deprived of his studentship by the parliamentary visitors, and during the next few years he resided chiefly at Oxford with his brother-in-law, Dr T Willis, at whose house opposite Merton College he and his friends Richard Allestree and John Dolben kept up the service of the Church of England throughout the Commonwealth.

At the Restoration. Fell was made prebendary of Chichester, canon of Christ Church (July 27, 1660), dean (Nov. 30), master of St Oswald's hospital, Worcester, chaplain to the king, and D.D. He filled the office of vice-chancellor from 1666 to 1669, and was consecrated bishop of Oxford, in. 1676, retaining his deanery in commendam. Some years later he declined the primacy of Ireland.

Fell showed himself a most capable and vigorous administrator in his various high offices, and a worthy disciple of Archbishop Laud. He restored the good order instituted in the university by the archbishop, which during the Commonwealth had given place to a general disregard of authority. He ejected the intruders from his college or else "fixed them in loyal principles." "He was the most zealous man of his time for the Church of England," says Anthony Wood, "and none that I yet know of did go beyond him in the performance of the rules belonging thereunto." He attended chapel four times a day, restored to the services, not without some opposition, the organ and surplice, and insisted on the proper academical dress which had fallen into disuse. He was active in recovering church property, and by his directions a children's catechism was drawn up by Thomas Marshall for use in his diocese. "As he was among the first of our clergy," says Burnet, "that apprehended the design of bringing in popery, so he was one of the most zealous against it."

He made many converts from the Roman Catholics and Nonconformists. On the other hand, he successfully opposed the incorporation of Titus Oates as D.D. in the university in October 1679; and according to the testimony of William Nichols, his secretary, he disapproved of the Exclusion Bill. He excluded the undergraduates, whose presence had been irregularly permitted, from convocation. He obliged students to attend lectures, instituted reforms in the performances of the public exercises in the schools, kept the examiners up to their duties, was present in person at examinations. He encouraged the students to act plays. He entirely suppressed "coursing," i.e. disputations in which the rival parties "ran down opponents in arguments," and which commonly ended in blows and disturbances. He was an excellent disciplinarian and possessed a special talent for the education of young men, many of whom he received into his own family and watched over their progress with paternal care. Tom Brown, author of The Dialogues of the Dead, about to be expelled from Oxford for some offence, was pardoned by Fell on the condition of his translating extempore the 33rd epigram of Martial:

"Non amo te, Sabidi, nec possum dicere - quare; Hoc tantum possum dicere, non amo te."
To which he immediately replied with the well-known lines:
"I do not love you, Dr Fell,
But why I cannot tell
But this I know full well,
I do not love you, Dr Fell."

Delinquents were not always treated thus mildly by Fell, and Acton Cremer, for the crime of courting a wife while only a bachelor of arts, was punished by having to translate into English the whole of Scheffer's history of Lapland. As vice-chancellor, Fell personally visited the drinking taverns and ordered out the students. In the university elections he showed great energy in suppressing corruption.

Fell's building operations almost rivalled the plans of the great ecclesiastical architects of the middle ages. In his own college he completed in 1665 the north side of Cardinal Wolsey's great quadrangle, already begun by his father but abandoned during the Commonwealth; in 1672, he rebuilt the east side of the Chaplain's quadrangle "with a straight passage under it leading from the cloister into the field," occupied now by the new Meadow Buildings; the lodgings of the canon of the third stall in the passage uniting the Tom and Peckwater quadrangles (c. 1674); a long building joining the Chaplain's quadrangle on the east side in 1677-1678; and lastly the great Tom tower gate, begun in June 1681 on the foundation laid by Wolsey and finished in November 1682, to which the bell "great Tom," after being recast, was transferred from the cathedral in 1683. In 1670 he planted and laid out the Broad Walk.

He spent large sums of his own on these works, gave £500 for the restoration of Banbury church, erected a church at St Oswald's, Worcester, and the parsonage house at Woodstock at his own expense, and rebuilt Cuddesdon Palace. Fell disapproved of the use of St Mary's church for secular purposes, and promoted the building of the Sheldonian Theatre by Archbishop Sheldon. He was treasurer during its construction, presided at the formal opening on July 9, 1669, and was nominated curator, along with Christopher Wren, in July 1670. In the theatre was placed the Oxford University Press, the establishment of which had been a favourite project of Laud and now engaged a large share of Fell's energy and attention, and which as curator he practically controlled. "Were it not you ken Mr Dean extraordinarily well," writes Sir L Jenkins to J Williamson in 1672, "it were impossible to imagine how assiduous and drudging he is about his press." He sent for type and printers from Holland, declaring that "the foundation of all success must be laid in doing things well, which l am sure will not be done with English letters."

Many works, including a Bible, editions of the classics and of the early fathers, were produced under his direction and editing, and his press became noted not only in England but abroad. He published annually one work, generally a classical author annotated by himself, which he distributed to all the students of his college on New Year's day. On one occasion he surprised the Press in surreptitiously printing Pietro Aretino's Postures, and he seized and destroyed the plates and impressions. Ever "an eager defender and maintainer of the university and its privileges," he was hostile to the Royal Society, which he regarded as a possible rival, and in 1686 he gave an absolute refusal to Obadiah Walker, afterwards the Roman Catholic master of University College, though licensed by James II, to print books, declaring he would as soon "part with his bed from under him" as his press. He conducted it on strict business principles, and to the criticism that more great works were not produced replied that they would not sell. He was, however, not free from fads, and his new spelling (of which one feature was the substitution of i for y in such words as cies, daies, maiest) met with great disapproval.

Fell also did much to encourage learning in the university. While still a young man at Christ Church he had shown his zeal and charity by reading gratuitously with the poor and neglected students of the college. He had a high reputation as a Grecian, a Latinist and a philologist, and he found time, in spite of his great public employments, to bring out with the collaboration of others his great edition of St Cyprian in 1682, an English translation of The Unity of the Church in 1681, editions of Nemesius of Emesa (1671), of Aratus and of Eratosthenes (1672), Theocritus (1676), Alcinous on Plato (1677), St Clement's Epistles to the Corinthians (1677), Athenagoras (1682), Clemens Alexandrinus (1683), St Theophilus of Antioch (1684), Grammatica rationis sive institutiones logicae (1673 and 1685), and a critical edition of the New Testament in 1675. The first volumes of Rerum Anglicarum scriptores and of Historiae Britannicae, etc. were compiled under his patronage in 1684. He had the manuscripts of St. Augustine in the Bodleian and other libraries at Oxford generously collated for the use of the Benedictines at Paris, then preparing a new edition of the father.

Fell spent so much money on building, on the patronage of learning, and on charities, that sometimes there was little left for his private use. Occasionally imprudent in his schemes, he was the originator of a mission to India which was taken up by the British East India Company. He undertook to train as missionaries four scholars at Oxford, procured a set of Arabic types, and issued from these the Gospels and Acts in the Malay language in 1677. This was not the best method of communicating the gospel to the people of India, and the mission collapsed. He appeared to despise public opinion, and was masterful and despotic in his dealings with others, especially with those upon whom he was conferring favours.

Having generously undertaken at his own charge to publish a Latin version of Wood's History and Antiquities of the University of Oxford, with the object of presenting the history of the university in a manner worthy of the great subject to European readers, and of extending its fame abroad, he arrogated to himself the right of editing the work. "He would correct, alter, dash out what he pleased... He was a great man and carried all things at his pleasure." In particular he struck out all the passages which Wood had inserted in praise of Thomas Hobbes, and substituted some disparaging epithets. He called Leviathan "monstrosissimus" and "publico damno notissimus." To the printed remonstrance of Hobbes, Fell inserted an insulting reply in the History to "irritabile illud et vanissimum Malmesburiense animal," and to the complaint of Wood at this usage answered only that Hobbes "was an old man, had one foot in the grave; that he should mind his latter end, and not trouble the world any more with his papers." In small things as in great he loved to rule and direct. "Let not Fell," writes R. South to R. Bathurst, "have the fingering and altering of them (i.e. his Latin verses), for I think that, bating the want of siquia'ems and quinetiams, they are as good as his Worship can make." Wood styles him "a valde vult person."

Not content with ruling his own college, he desired to govern the whole university. He prevented Gilbert Ironside, who "was not pliable to his humour," from holding the office of vice-chancellor. He "endeavoured to carry all things by a high hand; scorn'd in the least to court the Masters when he had to have anything pass'd the convocation. Severe to other colleges, blind as to his own, very partiall and with good words, and flatterers and tell-tales could get anything out of him." According to Bishop Gilbert Burnet, who praises his character and administration, Fell was" a little too much heated in the matter of our disputes with the dissenters...He had much zeal for reforming abuses, and managed it perhaps with too much heat and in too peremptory a way...But we have so little of that among us that no wonder if such men are censured by those who love not such patterns nor such severe task-masters." And Anthony Wood, whose adverse criticism Inust be discounted a little on account of the personal dispute,--after declaring that Fell "was exceeding partial in his government even to corruption; went thro' thick and thin; grasped at all yet did nothing perfect or effectually; cared not what people said of him, was in many things very rude and in most pedantic and pedagogical,"--concludes with the acknowledgment, "yet still aimed at the public good." Roger North, who paid Fell a visit at Oxford, speaks of him in terms of enthusiasm: "The great Dr Fell, who was truly great in all his circumstances, capacities, undertakings and learning, and above all for his superabundant public spirit and goodwill ... O the felicity of that age and place when his authority swayed!"

In November 1684, at the command of the king, Fell deprived John Locke, who had incurred the royal displeasure by his friendship with Shaftesbury, and was suspected as the author of certain seditious pamphlets, of his studentship at Christ Church, summarily and without hearing his defence. Fell had in former years cultivated Locke's friendship, had kept up a correspondence with him, and in 1663 had written a testimonial in his favour; and the ready compliance of one who could on occasion offer a stout resistance to any invasion of the privileges of the university has been severely criticised. It must, however, be remembered in extenuation that the legal status of a person on the foundation of a collegiate body had not then been decided in the law-courts. With regard to the justice of the proceeding Fell had evidently some doubts, and he afterwards expressed his regret for the step which he was now compelled to take. Such scruples, however strong, would yield immediately to an order from the sovereign, who possessed special authority in this case as a visitor to the college; and such subservience was considered proper at that period.

Fell, who had never married, died worn out, according to Wood, by his overwhelming public duties. He was buried in the divinity chapel in the cathedral, below the seat which he had so often occupied when living, where a monument and an epitaph, now moved elsewhere, were placed to his memory. "His death," writes John Evelyn, "was an extraordinary losse to the poore church at this time"; but Fell was fortunate in the time of his departure; a few months more of life would have necessitated a choice, painful to a man of his character and creed, between fidelity to his sovereign and to his church. With all his faults, which were the defects which often attend eminent qualities such as his, Fell was a great man, "the greatest governor," according to Speaker Onslow, "that has ever been since his time in either of the universities," and of his own college, to which he left several exhibitions for the maintenance of poor scholars, he was a second founder. He was a worthy upholder of the Laudian tradition at Oxford, an enlightened and untiring patron of learning, and a man of exemplary morals and great piety which remained unsullied in the midst of a busy life and much contact with the world. A sum of money was left by John Cross to perpetuate Fell's memory by an annual speech in his praise, but the Felii laudes have been discontinued since 1866. There are two interesting pictures of Fell at Christ Church, one where he is represented with his two friends Allestree and Dolben, and another by Anthony van Dyck. The statue placed on the N.E. angle of the Great Quadrangle bears no likeness to the bishop, who is described by Hearne as a "thin grave man."

Besides the learned works already mentioned Fell wrote the lives of his friends Dr Henry Hammond (1661), Richard Allestree, prefixed to his edition of the latter's sermons (1684), and Dr Thomas Willis, in Latin. His seasonable advice to Protestants showing the necessity of maintaining the Established Religion in opposition to Popery was published in 1688. Some of his sermons, which Evelyn found dull, were printed, including Character of the Last Daies, preached before the king, 1675, and a Sermon preached before the House of Peers December 22, 1680. The Interest of England stated (1659), advocating the restoration of the king, and The Vanity of Scoffing (1674), are also attributed to him. Fell probably had some share in the composition of The Whole Duty of Man, and in the subsequent works published under the name of the author of The Whole Duty, which included Reasons of the Decay of Christian Piety, The Ladies' Calling, The Gentleman's Calling, The Government of the Tongue, The Art of Contentment, and The Lively Oracles given us, all of which were published in one volume with notes and a preface by Fell in 1684.

Dr Fell inspires Hannibal Lecter's Florentine alias in the 2001 film Hannibal.


Wood's Athenae Oxonienses and Fasti (ed. Bliss); Wood's Life and Times, ed. by A Clark; Burnet's Hist. of His Own Time, ed. 1833; J Welch, Alumni Westmonasterienses; Thomas Hearne.