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University of Oxford

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The most extraordinary myths have at various times prevailed as to the fabulous antiquity of Oxford as a seat of learning. It is sufficient to mention that the fifteenth century chronicler Rous assigns its origin to the time when "Samuel the servant of God was judge in Judæa"; while a writer of Edward III's reign asserts that the university was founded by "certain philosophers when the warlike Trojans, under the leadership of Brutus, triumphantly seized on the Islands of Albion". A much more long-lived fiction -- one, indeed, which, first heard of in the middle of the fourteenth century, persisted down to the nineteenth -- was that King Alfred, well-known as a patron of education, was the real founder of Oxford University. The truth is that it is quite impossible to asign even an approximate date to the development of the schools which in Saxon times were grouped round the monastic foundation of St. Frideswide (on the site of what is now Christ Church ) into the corporate institution later known as Oxford University. Well-known scholars were, we know, lecturing in Oxford on theology and canon law before the middle of the twelfth century, but these were probably private teachers attached to St. Frideswide'smonastery. It is not until the end of Henry II's reign, that is about 1180, that we know, chiefly on the authority of Giraldus Cambrensis, that a large body of scholars was in residence at Oxford, though not probably yet living under any organized constitution.

Half a century later Oxford was famous throughout Europe as a home of science and learning; popes and kings were among its patrons and benefactors; the students are said to have been numbered by thousands; and the climax of its reputation was reached when, during the fifty years between 1220 and 1270, the newly-founded orders of friars -- Dominican, Franciscan, Carmelite, and Austin -- successively settled at Oxford, and threw all their enthusiasm into the work of teaching. Kindled by their zeal, the older monastic orders, encouraged by a decree of the Lateran Council of 1215, began to found conventual schools at Oxford for their own members. The colleges of Worcester, Trinity, Christ Church, and St. John's are all the immediate successors of these Benedictine or Cistercian houses of study. Up to this time the secular students had lived as best they might in scattered lodgings hired from the townsmen; of discipline there was absolutely none, and riots and disorders between "town and gown" were of continual occurrence. The stimulus of the presence of so many scholars living under conventual discipline incited Walter de Merton, in 1264, to found a residential college, properly organized and supervised, for secular students. Merton College (to the model of which two institutions of somewhat earlier date, University and Balliol soon conformed themselves) was thus the prototype of the self-contained and autonomous colleges which, grouped together, make up the University of Oxford as it exists today. The succeeding half-century saw the foundation of ten additional colleges : two more were founded during the Catholic revival under Queen Mary ; and three in the reigns of Elizabeth and James I. Between 1625 and 1911 -- that is, for nearly three centuries, there have been only three more added to the list, namely Worcester (1714), Keble (1870), and Hertford (1874), the first and last being, however, revivals rather than new foundations.

The institution of "non-collegiate" students (i.e. those unattached to any college or hall) dates from 1868; one "public hall" (St. Edmund's) survives, of several founded in very early times; and there are several "private halls", under licensed masters who are allowed to take a limited number of students. As a corporate body, the university dates only from the reign of Queen Elizabeth, when, under the influence of the chancellor, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, an Act of Parliament was passed in 1571, incorporating the "chancellor, masters and scholars" of Oxford. In the same reign were imposed upon the university the Royal Supremacy and the Thirty-nine Articles, subscription to which was required from every student above the age of sixteen; and from that date, for a period of three centuries, the university, formerly opened to all Christendom, was narrowed into an exclusively Anglican institution and became, as it has ever since remained, in spite of subsequent legislation abolishing religious tests, the chosen home and favourite arena of Anglican controversy, theology, and polemics. Keble, however, is now the only college whose members must be Anglicans by creed, although a certain nmber of scholarships in other colleges are restricted to adherents of the English Church. Attendance at the college chapels is no longer compulsory; and there is no kind of religious test required for admission to any college (except Keble) or for graduating in Arts, Science, or Civil Law. Only the faculty of Divinity (including the degrees of bachelor and doctor) remains closed by statute to all except professing Anglicans ; and the examiners in the theological school, which is open to students of any creed or none, are all required to be clergymen of the Church of England.


Taken as a whole, the university consists of about 14,500 members, graduate and undergraduate, having their names on the registers of the university as well as of the twenty-six separate societies (colleges, halls, public and private, and the non-collegiate body) which together form the corporation of the university. Of the above number about 3800 are undergraduates, of whom the great majority are reading for the degree of B.A., and about a thousand are graduates, either tutors, fellows of colleges, officials of the university, or M.A.'s unofficially resident within its precincts. About 4800 members of the university are thus actually living in Oxford, the remainder being those who, while keeping their names "on the books", reside in other parts of the kingdom. All masters of arts remaining on the registers are ipso facto members of "Convocation", the legislative and administrative body through which the university acts; and those actually residing in Oxford for a fixed period in each year form the smaller body called "Congregation", by which all measures must be passed previous to their coming before "Convocation". Legislation in every case, however, must be initiated by the "Hebdomedal Council", consisting of the vice-chancellor, proctors, and eighteen members elected by "Congregation".

The executive officers of the university comprise the chancellor, a nobleman of high rank, as a rule non-resident, who delegates his authority to the vice-chancellor, the head of one of the colleges, and the two proctors, who are elected by the several colleges in turn, and assist the vice-chancellor in the enforcement of discipline, as well as in the general supervision of all university affairs, including the administration of its property and the control of its finances. The peculiar feature of the constitution of Oxford (as of Cambridge), when compared with that of every other university in the world, is that the authority of the vice-chancellor and proctors, that is of the central university body, while nominally extending to every resident member of the university, is not as a matter of fact exercised within the college walls, each college being, while a constituent part of the university, autonomous and self-governing, and claiming entire responsibility for the order and well-being of its own members.


According to the combined university and college system which prevails at Oxford, each college is an organized corporation under its own head, and enjoying the fullest powers of managing its own property and governing its own members. Each college is regulated not only by the general statutes of the university, but by its own separate code of statutes, drawn up at its foundation (as a rule centuries ago) and added to or amended since as found expedient. Every college is absolutely its own judge as to the requirements for admission to its membership, the result being that in no two colleges is the standard of necessary knowledge, or the mental equipment with which a youth enters on his university career, identical or even necessarily similar. The mere fact of a man having matriculated at certain colleges stamps him as possessed of more than average attainments, while at others the required standard may be so low as to afford no guarantee whatever that their members are in any real sense educated at all.

The twenty-one colleges and four halls, and the delegacy of non-collegiate students -- that is of students not affiliated to any college or hall -- have all the same privileges as to receiving undergraduate members; and no one can be matriculated, i.e. admitted to membership of the university by the central authority, until he has been accepted by one of the above-mentioned societies. The colleges provide a certain number of sets of rooms within their own walls for students, the remainder living in licensed lodgings in the city. Meals are served either in the college halls or in the students' rooms; and attached to every college is a chapel where daily service is held during term according to the forms of the Church of England.


The university provides 130 professors, lecturers, and readers to give instructions in the several faculties of theology (9), law (8), medicine (17), natural science, including mathematics (27), and arts, including ancient and modern languages, geography, music, fine arts, etc. (69). The chief burden of tuition, however, does not fall on this large body of highly-equipped teachers, whose lectures are in many cases very sparsely attended, but on the college tutors, whose lectures, formerly confined to members of their own colleges, are now practically open to the whole university. The extension of, and great improvement in, the tuition afforded by the college tutors has led to the practical disappearance at Oxford, at least in work for honours, of the private tutor or "coach", who formerly largely supplemented the official college teaching. What is noteworthy at Oxford is the trouble taken by tutors in the work of individual instruction, which, while involving a great, and sometimes disproportionate, expenditure of time and talent, has done much to establish and consolidate the personal relations between tutor and pupil which is a distinctly beneficial feature of the Oxford system.


For students aspiring to the B.A. degree are prescribed two strictly-defined compulsory examinations, and two so-called public examinations, in which candidates may choose from a wide range of alternative subjects. Responsions, generally passed before matriculation, includes Latin, Greek, and mathematics, all of a pretty elementary kind. The second compulsory examination, that in Holy Scripture (for which a book of Plato may be substituted), includes the Greek text of two of the Gospels. In the two "public examinations", i.e. Moderations and the Final Schools, either a "pass" or "honours" may be aimed at. The passman must first satisfy the examiners in Moderations (i.e. classics combined with logic or mathematics), and then for his Final School may choose between various subjects, such as classics, mathematics, natural science, and modern languages. The "honour-man", if aiming at "greats", has, as a rule, first a searching examination in classics, and then a final examination in ancient history and philosophy ; the successful candidates in both these examinations being divided into four classes. A first class in "Greats" (or literæ humaniores ) is still reckoned the highest honour attainable in the Oxford curriculum; but the student has seven other Final Honour Schools open to him, those of modern history (which now attracts the largest number of candidates), mathematics, jurisprudence, theology, English literature, Oriental studies, and natural science.


A student who has passed the examinations requisite for the B.A. degree, can further qualify himself for the degree of (a) Bachelor of Medicine and Surgery, by passing two examinations in medical and surgical subjects; (b) Bachelor of Civil Law, by passing an examination in general jurisp0rudence, Roman, English, or international law ; (c) Bachelor of Theology (if in orders of the Church of England ), by presenting two dissertations on a theological subject. For what are known as "research degrees" (Bachelor of Letters or Science ) two years of residence are required, followed by an examination, or the submission of a dissertation showing original work. Candidates for the degree of Bachelor of Music are exempted from residence, and need only have passed the examination of Responsions. Bachelors of Arts can present themselves for the degree of Master at the end of a stated period, without further examination ; but the Bachelor of Medicine must pass an examination or submit a dissertation before obtaining the degrees of M.D. or Master of Surgery: and there is a similar qualification required for proceeding to the degrees of Doctor of Divinity, of Civil Law, of Music, and of Letters or Science. There is now no religious test in the case of any degrees excepting those of theology ; but all candidates for masters' or doctors' degrees have to promise faithful observance of the statutes and customs of the university. Honorary degrees in all the faculties may be granted to distinguished persons, without examination, by decree of Convocation.

Diplomas in certain subjects, as health, education, geography, and political economy, are granted by Convocation after a certain period of study and an examinational test. These diplomas are obtainable by women students, who are not eligible for any degrees, although they may, and do, enter for the same examination as men. The halls of women students are entirely extra-collegiate; but women receive on examination certificates testifying to the class gained by them in such honour-examinations as they choose to undergo.


It is difficult to fix this even approximately, so much depends on a student's tastes, habits, and recreations, and also on the question whether the sum named is to include his expenses for the whole year, or only for the six months of the university terms. £120 a year ought to cover the actual fees and cost of board and other necessary charges, which are pretty much the same at all the colleges ; and if another £100 or £120 be added for the supplementary expenses of college life, and vacation expenses as well, we arrive at what is probably the average annual sum expended. A man with expensive tastes or hobbies may of course spend double or treble that amount, whereas members of some of the smaller colleges may do very well on much less; while the emoluments of the numerous college and university scholarships and exhibitions lessen the expenses of those who hold them by a corresponding amount. The Rhodes Scholarships, open to Colonial and American students, are of the annual valule of £300 each; but it is to be considered that their holders have as a rule to make this sum suffice for all their wants, in vacation as well as in term-time.


The chief university buildings are grouped round the quadrangle of the Bodleian Library, founded in 1602 by Sir Thomas Bodley, and first housed in the room (built in 1480) known as Duke Humphrey's Library. Since 1610 the Bodleian has received by right a copy of every book published in the kingdom, and it now contains more than 500,000 books and nearly 40,000 manuscripts. In the galleries is an interesting collection of historical portraits. West of the Bodleian is the beautiful fifteenth-century Divinity School, with its elaborate roof, and further west again the Convocation House, built in 1639. Close by are the Sheldonian Theatre, built by Wren in 1669, where the annual Commemoration is held, and honorary degrees are conferred; the Old Clarendon Printing-house, built in 1713 out of the profits of Lord Clarendon's "History of the Rebellion"; the old Ashmolean Building, and the Indian Institute, built in 1882 for the benefit of Indian students in the university. South of the Bodleian rises the imposing dome of the Radcliffe Library, founded in 1749 by Dr. William Radcliffe for books on medicine and science but now used as a reading room for the Bodleian. The Examination Schools (1876-82), a fine Jacobean pile which cost £100,000, are in High Street; and the chief other university buildings are the New Museum (1855-60), an ugly building in early French Gothic, containing splendid collections of natural science and anthropology, as well as a fine science library ; the Taylor Buildings and University Galleries, a stately classical edifice containing the Arundel and Pomfret Marbles, a priceless collection of drawings by Raphael, Michelangelo, Turner, and other masters, and many valuable paintings ; the Ashmolean Museum, behind the galleries, containing one of the most complete archæological collections in England ; the new Clarendon Press (1830), and the Observatory, founded in 1772 by the Radcliffe trustees.

Taking the different colleges in alphabetical order, we have: All Souls, founded by Archbishop Chichele in 1437, in memory of those who fell in the French wars. Its features are the absence of undergraduate members, the magnificent reredos in the chapel, re-discovered and restored in 1872, after being lost sight of for three centuries, and the splendid library, especially of works on law.

Balliol, founded by Devorgilla, widow of John Balliol, about 1262, and distinguished for the brilliant scholarship of its members, and the liberality and tolerance of its views. The buildings are mostly modern, and of little interest; in the fine hall (1877) is a striking portrait of Cardinal Manning (a scholar here 1827-30). Opposite the Master of Balliol's house a cross in the roadway marks the spot where Cranmer, Ridley, and Latimer were burned in 1555 and 1556; and the so-called Martyrs' Memorial (by Gilbert Scott, 1841), opposite the west front of the college, commemorates the same event; it was erected chiefly as a protest against the Tractarian movement headed by Newman.

Brasenose, founded in 1509 by Bishop Smyth of Lincoln and Sir Richard Sutton, as an amplification of the much older Brasenose Hall, a knocker on the door of which, in the shape of a nose, is the origin of the curious name. In the chapel, a singular mixture of classical and Gothic design, are preserved two pre-Reformation chalices. A magnificent new south front in High Street (by Jackson) was completed in 1910.

Christ Church, the largest and wealthiest college in Oxford, founded as "Cardinal College " by Thomas Wolsey in 1525, on the site of St. Frideswide's suppressed priory, and re-established by Henry VIII as Christ Church in 1546. Wolsey built the hall and kitchen (1529), the finest in England, and began the great ("Tom") quadrangle, which was finished in 1668. The old monastic church, dating from 1120, serves both as the college chapel and as the cathedral of the Anglican Diocese of Oxford, erected by Henry VIII ; in Catholic times Oxford formed part of the immense Diocese of Lincoln. Peckwater Quad was built 1705-60, and Canterbury Quad (on the site of Canterbury Hall, a Benedictine foundation), in 1710. The hall and library contain many valuable portraits and other paintings.

Corpus Christi, founded in 1516 by Bishop Richard Foxe of Winchester, and dedicated to Sts. Peter, Andrew, Cuthbert, and Swithin, patrons of the four sees, (Exeter, Bath, Durham, and Winchester ), which he had held in turn. The buildings, though not extensive, are of great interest, mostly coeval with the founder; and the college possesses some valuable old plate. Angels bearing the Sacred Host are depicted in an oriel window over the great gateway. Corpus Christi has always maintained a high reputation for sound classical learning.

Exeter, founded in 1314 by Bishop de Stapleton of Exeter. Most of the buildings are modern; the chapel (1857) being an elaborate copy by Gilbert Scott of the Sainte Chapelle at Paris. There is a charming little garden. Exeter has of recent years been more frequented by Catholic students than any other college.

Hertford, revived in 1874, having been originally founded in 1740 but dissolved in 1818 and occupied by Magdalen Hall. A handsome new chapel by Jackson was opened in 1909.

Jesus, frequented almost exclusively by Welsh students, was founded by Queen Elizabeth in 1571; and more than half the scholarships and exhibitions are restricted to persons of Welsh birth or education. Sir John Rhys, the eminent Celtic scholar, is the present principal. The buildings are modern, or much restored.

Keble, founded by subscription in 1870 in memory of John Keble, and now the only college whose members must, by the terms of its charter, all be members of the Anglican Church. It is governed by a warden and council (there are no fellows), and one of its principles is supposed to be special economy and sobriety of living. The buildings of variegated brick are quite foreign to the prevailing architecture of Oxford, but the chapel is spacious and sumptuously decorated.

Lincoln, founded by Bishop Richard Fleming and Thomas Rotherham, both of Lincoln, in honour of the B.V.M. and All Saints, specially to educate divines to preach against the Wycliffian heresies. The buildings are of little interest, but the chapel contains some very good seventeenth century Italian stained glass .

Magdalen, perhaps the most beautiful college in Oxford, if not in Christendom, was founded in 1458 by Bishop Waynflete of Winchester. The chapel, hall, cloisters, tower, and other buildings, all erected in the founder's lifetime, are of unique beauty and interest. The extensive and charming grounds include the famous "Addison's Walk", and a deer-park with fine timber. The musical services in the chapel are famous throughout England. Magdalen possesses much landed property, and is one of the wealthiest colleges in the university.

Merton, founded in 1264 by Walter de Merton, in Surry, and transferred to Oxford in 1274, was the first organized college, and the prototype of all succeeding ones. The library (1349) is the oldest in England, and the so-called "Mob" quad is of the same date. The chapel, of exquisite Decorated Gothic, contains some beautiful old stained glass . Merton was specially intended by its founder for the education of the secular clergy.

New, founded in 1379 on a magnificent scale by Bishop William de Wykeham, of Winchester (founder also of Winchester College ). The splendid chapel, with its elaborate reredos, was restored in 1879; the ante-chapel windows contain the original pre-Reformation glass, and there are many fine brasses. Other features of the college are the picturesque cloisters (used during the Civil War as a depot for military stores), the great hall, with its rich panelling, the valuable collection of old plate, and the lovely gardens, enclosed on three sides by the ancient city walls. New College vies with Magdalen in the excellence of its chapel choir.

Oriel, founded by Edward II in 1326 on the suggestion of his almoner, Adam de Brome; but none of the buildings are older than the seventeenth century. The college is identified with the rise of the Oxford Movement, led by Newman, who was a fellow here from 1822 to 1845. There are two portraits of him (by Ross and Richmond respectively) in the college common-room.

Pembroke, second of the four colleges of Protestant foundation, erected in 1624 out of the ancient Broadgates Hall, and chiefly notable for the membership of Dr. Samuel Johnson, of whom there is a fine portrait and various relics.

Queen's, founded in 1340 by Robert de Eglesfield, chaplain to Queen Philippa, in honour of whom it was named. The buildings are mostly late seventeenth-century; there is some good Dutch glass in the chapel, and a very valuable library, chiefly historical. The hall is hung with (mostly fictitious) portraits of English kings, queens, and princes.

St. John's, formerly St. Bernards, a house of studies for Cistercian monks, was refounded in 1555 by Sir John White, in honour of St. John the Baptist. The chapel, hall, and other parts of the outer quad belong to the monastic foundation; the inner quad, with its beautiful garden front, was built by Archbishop Laud, president of the college 1611-21. The gardens are among the most beautiful in Oxford.

Trinity, originally Durham College, a house of studies for the Durham Benedictines, was refounded by Sir Thomas Pope in 1554. The old monastic library, and other fragments of the buildings of Durham, remain; the chapel, with its fine wood-carving by Grimling Gibbons, is from designs by Wren. Newman became a scholar of Trinity in 1819; he was elected an honorary fellow in 1878, and visited the college as cardinal in 1880. A fine portrait of him, by Ouless, hangs in the hall.

University, which ranks as the oldest college, though its connexion with King Alfred, said to have founded it in 872, is absolutely legendary. It was really founded by Archdeacon William of Durham in 1249, and acquired its present site a century later. None of the buildings are more than two hundred years old. Frederick William Faber, the famous Oratorian, was a member of this college, which was much identified with the Catholic revival in James II's reign.

Wadham, founded in 1610 by Dorothy Wadham, in completion of her husband's designs; it occupies the site of a house of Austin Friars, who probably laid out the beautiful garden. Wadham is interesting as a fine specimen of Jacobean work, and as the only college whose buildings remain practically as left by their founder.

Worcester, established in 1283, under the name of Gloucester College, as a house of studies for Benedictines from Gloucester and other great English abbeys, survived as Gloucester Hall for a century and a half after the Reformation, and was re-founded and endowed by Sir Thomas Cookes, under its present name, in 1714. There still remain the ancient lodgings used by the students of the several abbeys, overlooking the finely-timbered grounds and lake. The interior decoration of the eighteenth-century chapel is very sumptuous.

The only survivor of the once numerous "public halls" is "St. Edmund's", founded in the thirteenth century in honour of St. Edmund Rich , Archbishop of Canterbury, canonized by Innocent III in 1247. The buildings are all of the seventeenth century. This hall is closely connected with Queen's College, the provost of which appoints the principal.


Besides the colleges and single public hall, there are at present three "private halls" conducted by licensed masters (i.e. M.A.'s authorized and approved by the Vice-Chancellor) and receiving a limited number of undergraduate students. Two of these halls are in Catholic hands, one (Pope's Hall) founded for students belonging to the Society of Jesus , and the other (Parker's Hall) established by Ampleforth Abbey, in Yorkshire, for Benedictine students belonging to that monastery. Good work is done in both of these institutions, the members of which, for the most part, are preparing to take part in tuition at the English Jesuit and Benedictine colleges ; and many of their members have obtained the highest academical honours in the various university examinations. The Franciscan Capuchin Fathers have recently (1910) opened a small house of studies for junior members of their Order; they have at present the status of non-collegiate students. The lay Catholics who enter the university as undergraduates have no college or hall of their own under Catholic direction, but become members of any one of the colleges which they desire to join, or of the non-collegiate body which, since 1868, has been authorized to receive students who are not members of any college or hall.

Catholics are, of course, exempt from attending the college chapels, and they have a central chapel of their own, with a resident chaplain appointed by the Universities Catholic Board (of which one of the English bishops is chairman), who says Mass daily for the Catholic students. The Board also appoints every term a special preacher or lecturer, who gives, by the special injunction of the Holy See, weekly conferences to the students on some historical, theological, or philosophical subject. There are two or three resident Catholic fellows and tutors in the university ; but the general tone and spirit of the instruction given in the lecture-rooms, though not on the whole anti-Catholic, may be described as generally non-religious. The mission church of St. Aloysius is served by several Jesuit fathers , and good preachers are often heard there; and several religious communities have recently been established in the city. The number of Catholic members of the University, graduate and undergraduate, resident in Oxford does not exceed a hundred.

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