Ten things you didn’t know about the Sheldonian Theatre to celebrate its 350th anniversary.


By Hannah Hiles

Nervous freshers all go to the Sheldonian Theatre to matriculate – and probably return a changed person for graduation. But with emotions running high at the ceremonies, many of the Grade I listed building’s secrets stay hidden. On July 26, it will be 350 years since the foundation stones were laid so in honour of the anniversary, here are 10 things you didn’t know about the Sheldonian Theatre.

  1. The Sheldonian Theatre was purpose-built for the University’s degree-giving ceremonies, which had previously been held in the church of St Mary the Virgin. Known as “the Act”, the ceremony included two sets of debates in which students proved they were ready to be admitted as members of the University, as well as musical works and a satirical – sometimes scandalous – speech by an anonymous speaker known as Terrae Filius, or Son of the Earth.
  2. Christopher Wren (1632-1723), designer of the Theatre, was Savilian Professor of Astronomy at Oxford throughout the construction of the building. His first architectural project in the city was a sundial at All Souls.
  3. The theatre is named after Gilbert Sheldon (1598–1677), then Archbishop of Canterbury and later Chancellor of the University. He initially donated £1,000 towards the project in June 1664 but, according to accounts in the Bodleian, ended up shouldering the whole cost of £14,470 11s 11d – around £1.9million today.
  4. Only two of Wren’s designs for the Theatre still exist: a preliminary plan, which included a stage, and a drawing showing an organ case over an internal side door. A wooden model of Wren’s early design was sent to Charles II for his approval and was exhibited at the Royal Society.
  5. The Sheldonian Theatre is credited with leading a renaissance in architecture and public building in seventeenth-century Oxford. It is often described as being inspired by the Roman Theatre of Marcellus and shares features in common with chateau Vaux le Vicomte in Seine-et-Marne.
  6. The ceiling painting by Charles II’s court painter Robert Streater (1621-79), represents “Truth descending on the Arts and Sciences to expel Ignorance from the University”. The 32 oil-on-canvas panels were transported to Oxford from London by canal. It was restored between 2004 and 2008. 
  7. A row took place at the building’s official inauguration on July 9, 1669, when University orator Robert South launched a blistering attack on the Royal Society in front of a packed audience.
  8. The Theatre was designed with a printing house underneath as a home for the developing Oxford University Press. This use came to an end in 1713 with the opening of the Clarendon Building, which was purpose-built for the Press.
  9. Architectural historian John Summerson drew attention to the Theatre’s unusual design in an oration delivered to commemorate its restoration on November 16, 1963. He said: “So here we have the top and bottom parts of a classical façade brought together by the omission of the middle storey. It is very curious. It is rather like a man with his trousers pulled up to his chin and his hat pulled over his nose […] It is odd. It had never, so far as I can make out, been done before. And I should perhaps add that Wren never did it again.”
  10. Wren used his extensive knowledge of mathematics and science to construct the roof, which used a lattice of timber trusses and beams, supported only by braces and screws, to span the 70ft by 80ft auditorium.  The original roof was re-built in 1802, and the cupola was redesigned and enlarged in 1838.

The Sheldonian Theatre: Architecture and Learning in Seventeenth-Century Oxford by Anthony Geraghty is published by Yale University Press, price £35.