A visit to the beautiful University Town of Oxford would not be complete without a leisurely stroll along Broad Street. As its name suggests, Broad Street is a wide road that follows the line of an old ditch that ran along the outside of the original city wall. Now, this busy street boasts museums, libraries, exhibitions, bookshops, cafes, colleges, the Tourist Information Centre and historic University buildings. Colloquially known as “The Broad” by Oxford students and locals alike, it is at the heart of Oxford and the University. Every student going about their day-to-day to life at Oxford University probably has a tale or two that involves the Broad. And of course not forgetting the Broad offers an Inspector Morse pub in which to seek refreshment along with one of Oxford’s latest editions – a Harry Potter themed gift shop, where “Wizards are welcomed and Muggles tolerated”.
The Oxford Emperors
At the far end of Broad Street, proudly standing guard in front of the famous Sheldonian Theatre are the heads of “The Oxford Emperors”. These are an imposing group of regal-looking gentlemen that look down on the passing tourists. They are carved in hard Clipsham stone and weigh around a tonne each. There are seventeen heads and they have been called many names over the years. Whilst today we call them the Emperors, we can’t be sure if the original name was the Emperors, the Philosophers or the Kings. As these are the third set of heads to adorn the gates their original name along with any original symbolic meaning has been lost to the annuls of time as has what exactly they originally looked like.
The Emperors are regularly abused by the resident students of Oxford University. At the end of term, drunken students often try to get a traffic cone to sit on top of each head. I’ve even seen them sporting boating hats. One year every head had shaving foam sprayed on their beards, another time they all had buttons stuck into their eyes. On another occasions they can be seen sporting lipstick and rouge. Whatever they are wearing these heads are certainly iconic in Oxford.
The first, original set of fourteen heads were carved in 1669 by a sculptor named William Byrd and were designed by architect Sir Christopher Wren as he was designing the Sheldonian Theatre. Wren was only 31 years old when he built the Sheldonian and this was only the second building he had designed. Wren had been getting a real name for himself as a talented architect as, straight after he finished the Sheldonian Theatre, he submitted plans to re-design the London landmarks following the Great Fire of London in 1666. Wren went on to re-build 51 churches and monuments across London including St Paul’s Cathedral, and he lived to the fine age of 92.
Wren’s original heads famously had wide-eyed and shocked expressions. This was to portray his disgust at the limited and insufficient budget he was given to design the Sheldonian Theatre. The building’s patron, Gilbert Sheldon, was notoriously tight-fisted with his money. Wren wanted the building to be far more ornate, but Wren said he had to “confine the bolder strokes of his pencil” due to the financial restraints put upon him.
Wren’s original heads suffered the ravages of pollution, acid rain ate into them, some were defaced or stolen and others taken away to be used as garden ornaments. Eventually, the Victorians decided to put up a new set of heads, but unfortunately they used the wrong type of stone. These heads weathered quickly in the industrially polluted air of the time and they soon looked like misshapen lumps.
The current heads were carved in 1972 by the sculptor Michael Black. Upon his commission, he went searching and found five of the original Wren heads from 1669 in local gardens around Oxford where they had been taken years before, and two in a house as far afield as Herefordshire. So Black modelled his heads on the Wren originals, with their famously “shocked” faces. Also, he amusingly carved every head with a different style of beard. Sadly Michael Black, who resided in Oxford’s artisan Jericho passed away in February 2019.
If you look closely, you can see where Michael Black carved hidden features into his heads.
- One head has the sculptor’s initials carved into its shoulder.
- One has a scallop shell in his hair (I presume for Shel-donian)
- One head has a bird carved in its hair (because William Byrd carved the originals and Christopher Wren designed them).
The Heads at the Weston Library
Currently, The Weston Library (opposite the Sheldonian Theatre) is exhibiting two of the older heads. One a Wren original head from 1669 that normally resides in the gardens of Wadham College (the college Wren attended at Oxford University before being invited to All Souls College) and an original 1669 Emperor’s Head – the other head on display is one of the drastically weathered Victorian replacements.
The Weston Library was commissioned in 1940 to house another five million books that were overflowing from the University Bodleian Library complex on the opposite side of Broad Street. It is a must-see in Oxford, with its free exhibitions including Medieval documents and books, quaint gift shop and the café that I think serves the best cake in the city.
So, if you find yourself in Oxford then join me for a stroll along Broad Street. It will be my pleasure to show you all the sights and tell you more about the fascinating history of this beautiful town and university. As always, I recommend booking on one of my free walking tours, which I strongly insist is the best way to get to know Oxford.