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Higher education postcard: University College, Oxford

This week's card from Hugh Jones' postbag takes us on a tour of bad loans, medieval court cases and mythology
This article is more than 2 years old

Hugh Jones is a freelance HE consultant. You’ll find a daily #HigherEducationPostcard if you follow him on Twitter.

Greetings from Oxford!

This is University College, Oxford: more properly The College of the Great Hall of the University of Oxford. (I expect that this is what the college is called by the University when it is in trouble, much like your mum using your full name.) A wonderful medieval building on the High Street at Oxford.

But was University College founded in AD872? Spoiler alert: No.

University College traces its origins to a bequest of 310 marks (just over £200 then, about £250k now) given to the University by William of Durham. The University lent a chunk of this to ‘certain magnates of the realm’ – possibly Simon de Montfort, who was agitating against King Henry III – and never got it back. Probably because de Montfort’s agitation ended in his death.
In 1280 the executors of the will complained, and the University in response issued statutes establishing the College. But with funding for only four fellows, not the twelve originally anticipated by William of Durham’s will.

Hence the University of Oxford got its first College. And so far, so good.

In the 1380s the College was involved in a dispute over properties, and found no joy in the courts. It appealed to the King’s Council. The Master and Fellows wrote to the King in 1384 as follows (translated from the Norman French, and not by me I hasten to add):

To our most excellent, most great, and most reverend lord, our lord the King and to his most wise council, your poor petitioners the Master and Scholars of your College called Great University College in Oxford, which College was first founded by your noble ancestor King Alfred, whom God preserve, for the maintenance of 24 perpetual divines.

Remember, King Alfred did not establish the College. That was William of Durham. There were tales that Alfred founded Oxford University (not true either) so what the Master and Fellows were doing was embroidering a fib to create, en passant, a grander and possibly more useful fib.

They lied to the monarch. The myth was born that King Alfred had founded University College, Oxford.
In 1720, the myth gained a bit of solidity: in a dispute about the election of the Master of the College, the courts declared as fact that King Alfred had founded the College.

In this light, a dinner in 1872 to celebrate the College’s millennium seemed a reasonable thing to do. And a post-1903 postcard declaring University College to have been founded in 872 AD is not a bad commercial proposition.

If you’re interested in reading more, the college website has a trove of materials and is well worth a look.

Having been in existence for almost 1000 years (no, not 1150 years as the card would have it), the College has had its fair share of famous alumni. It’s hard to say who is the most influential: In a competition between Percy Bysshe Shelley and Stephen Hawking, for example, how could you choose?

2 responses to “Higher education postcard: University College, Oxford

  1. Another sign that Univ liked to be a bit tricky by pretending to be older than was, is that those buildings. They’re not medieval – that quad is 17th century, but the matching one next to it is early 18th century (when other colleges were building in neo-Palladian to attract more gentleman-commoners).

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