Sheldonian Theatre

Sheldonian Theatre

The Sheldonian Theatre, located in Oxford, England, was built from 1664 to 1668 after a design by Christopher Wren for the University of Oxford. The building is named after Gilbert Sheldon, chancellor of the university at the time and the project's main financial backer.


What came to be known as the Sheldonian Theatre was Wren's second work, and was commissioned by John Fell, Dean of Christ Church, Oxford, in late 1663.

With the triumph of the Restoration and with it the Church of England, Dean Fell sought to revive a project proposed in the 1630s by the late William Laud Archbishop of Canterbury: a separate building whose sole use would be graduation and degree ceremonies.

In the past these increasingly rowdy occasions had taken place in the university's church of St.-Mary-the-Virgin-on-High. "The notion that 'sacrifice is made equally to God and Apollo', in the same place where homage was due to God and God alone, was as repugnant to Fell and his colleagues as it had been to Laud." [Tinniswood, Adrian, "His Invention for Fertile: A Life of Christopher Wren", (Oxford University Press, 2001) p. 102] ; with this in mind they approached the current Archbishop of Canterbury Gilbert Sheldon, both for his blessing, his assistance, and a donation.

Sheldon was forthcoming with all three; he himself giving an impressive £1,000, and a pledge to gather the needed money from other, like-minded sponsors. Sheldon had little luck, ultimately financing nearly the entire cost himself -- £14,470 in an age where a mid-level craftsman's wage averaged between £2-£4 per year.

Nothing is known for sure of Wren's first design(s) for the Sheldonian since the initial ideas were quickly wrecked on the shoals of financial reality. But the finished building was a sharp, unmistakable break from the Gothic past. Wren designed the Sheldonian based on Serlio's engraving of the D-shaped Theatre of Marcellus in Rome in the first century BC.

Like any Mediterranean theatre of that time, the Theatre of Marcellus had no roof. The audience relied on temporary awning for inclement weather; but 17th century Oxford was not ancient Rome. The Theatre needed a permanent roof. Yet the span of the D-shaped roof was upwards of 70-feet. Obviously no timbers existed that were long enough and/or in such abundance. Dismissing at once the obvious, and in that era the only real, solution of a Gothic roof, Wren, instead, decided to use the "geometrical flat floor" grid developed twenty years before by his fellow college and Oxford professor John Wallis.

It involved:

"...creating a series of trusses which were build up from shorter section and held in place by their own weight, with help from judiciously placed iron bolts and effective [was the roof] that for nearly a century the University Press stored its books...and for many years it was the largest unsupported floor in existence...' [Ibid.#1]

In 1720 surveyors inspecting the roof over rumours it was no longer safe were both surprised and impressed at what they discovered. [ [ BBC NEWS | Magazine | The facts and a good story ] ] Though sagging slightly from the massive weight of books, the inspectors pronounced "...the whole Fabrick of the said Theatre is, in our Opinion, like to remain and continue in such Repair and Condition, for one hundred or two hundred Years yet to come." [Wren, Christopher, Jr., "Parentalia". p.337] .

The theatre is used for music recitals, lectures (such as the annual Romanes Lecture), conferences, and for various ceremonies held by the University (such as graduation and matriculation). Handel performed here, including the first performance of his third oratorio "Athalia" in 1733.

The building seats 800–1,000 people and is situated in the grounds of part of the Bodleian Library adjacent to Broad Street. To the left at the front is the Clarendon Building and to the right is the Old Ashmolean Building. Behind the Sheldonian is the Divinity School.

The building has a prominent eight-sided cupola in the centre of the roof, which is accessible via a staircase leading to the dome over the main ceiling. The cupola has large windows on all sides, providing views across central Oxford, and is open to visitors.

See also

* Holywell Music Room
* Oxford Bach Choir


External links

* [ Sheldonian Theatre website]
* [ Photograph and other information on]
* [ Carthalia — Oxford: Sheldonian Theatre]

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