Elizabeth Back – Archives Assistant (Trainee), Oxford University Archives

Hello all, I’m Elizabeth. I’m in my first month working with the Oxford University Archives.

Tower of the Five Orders

For those who don’t know, OUA hold the administrative records of the University. We are housed in the Tower of the Five Orders in the Old Bodleian, guarded by James I who sits on his stone throne outside the Lower Archive Room. If Wikipedia can be believed, ‘the Tower is so named because it is ornamented, in ascending order, with the columns of each of the five orders of classical architecture: Tuscan, Doric, Ionic, Corinthian and Composite.’ If you look at the capitals on the columns you can see the differences in the five classical styles so, in this instance, I am inclined to believe them! The tower was likely finished between 1615 and 1619, but the tower as we see it today owes much to restoration work in the 1870s.*

View of the Weston from my desk.
View of the Weston from my desk.

We also have stacks in the new Weston library and any external readers who have requested to view something from our collections are invited to do so in the Rare Books and Manuscripts reading room over here. We also assist internal University departments as many of our documents are still relevant and useful to them.


Like other Library and Information Services roles, it’s a job that can require a lot of lifting and handling of sometimes heavy materials but this particular role also involves a lot of stairs. I don’t think I’m going to need a gym membership to keep me fit this year!

I am really enjoying my placement so far. There are some real gems in this collection and I’m looking forward to getting to know it better. My favourite item so far is the Proctorial Cycle (1628) as it is beautifully illuminated with birds and flowers, and bears the signature of King Charles I. It is a calendar organising the order in which the colleges would have the privilege of electing a University proctor from their ranks. The role of Proctor still exists at the University and if you want a less dry introduction to what they do there is an Oxford Student article where the then Proctors were interviewed here.

As you may know, the University does not have an official founding date but the earliest University document held in the University Archives dates back to 1214 (you can see it here). It details privileges conferred by the papal legate following a dispute between town and gown (in which, I understand, a woman was alleged to have been murdered by a scholar and the town sought retribution by hanging two University clerks. They didn’t have Morse back then, so the Pope had to settle it).

Many of our records are much more recent than these and I have enjoyed helping family and local historians trace their ancestors. We often hear from people interested to know if their grandfather or great grandfather came here and I really enjoy it if I can tell them that they did and perhaps give them a few details.

I hope this has been an illuminating insight into what I do. By the end of this year I am sure I will be full of facts about the University’s history. I find it all fascinating so I hope I don’t get carried away with anecdotes that no one wants to hear!


* Cole, Catherine, ‘The Building of the Tower of Five Orders in the Schools’ Quadrangle at Oxford’ in Oxoniensia Vol. XXXIII (1968) pp. 92-107

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