Oxford University (Medieval)

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Oxford University

It is difficult to assign 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's monastery. 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.

The older monastic orders, encouraged by a decree of the Lateran Council of 1215, also 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.

Balliol College

Balliol college was founded by John I de Balliol in about 1263, under the guidance of the Bishop of Durham. After his death in 1268, his widow, Dervorguilla of Galloway, made arrangements to ensure the permanence of the college. She provided capital, and in 1282, formulated the college statutes, documents that survive to this day.

Merton College

Merton College was founded in the 1260's by Walter de Merton, chancellor to Henry III and later to Edward I, afterwards Bishop of Rochester. Walter drew up statutes for an independent academic community and established endowments to support it. By 1274 when Walter retired from royal service and made his final revisions to the college statutes, the community was consolidated at its present site in the south east corner of the city of Oxford, and a rapid programme of building commenced. The hall and the chapel and the rest of the front quad were complete before the end of the 13th century, but apart from the chapel they have all been much altered since.

Duns Scotus is supposed to have studied or lectured at Merton, on account of the famous entry in a Merton College manuscript[1]. making it appear he was a member of that college and therefore a native of Northern England. However, the statutes of the college excluded monks; and as Scotus became a Franciscan when he was quite young he could not have belonged to the college prior to joining the order. It is more likely he was a member of Greyfriars (see below).

University College

University College was founded by William of Durham in 1249, to support ten masters. Until the 16th century was only open to Fellows studying theology.

Blackfriars College

Blackfriars was founded by Dominicans who arrived in Oxford on 15 August 1221, at the instruction of Saint Dominic himself, little more than a week after the friar's death. They establish themselves first in Jewish quarter, then move to area around Speedwell Street. The hall has some claim to be heir to the oldest tradition of teaching in Oxford. Like all the monastic houses in Oxford, Blackfriars came into rapid and repeated conflict with the University authorities, as the friars claimed all the rights and privileges of University membership but also claimed immunity from the University discipline or regulation.


In 1225 Franciscan friars, the 'Greyfriars', found a house of studies in Oxford, in St Ebbes / Westgate. Former students of this foundation include:

In 1281 Benedictine monks of Gloucester Cathedral founded a house of studies, Gloucester Hall (where Worcester College now stands). This is soon used by many Benedictine houses of the South and West. In 1286 Durham College (where Trinity College now stands) was founded, a house of studies for the Benedictines of Durham Cathedral and the North.

Gloucester College

In the year 1283 John Giffard of Brimpsfield, having bought a house in Stockwell Street, Oxford, from the Hospitallers of St. John of Jerusalem, presented it to the community of the Benedictine order of the province of Canterbury, that thirteen monks might study there[2].

The abbots who presided over the conference of the order requested the abbey of St. Peter, Gloucester, to take charge of this gift, and accordingly monks were sent from Gloucester under the charge of Henry de Heliun as prior; and in 1284 we find H. 'prior Oxonie,' voting as the prior of a cell of Gloucester[3]. In 1291, when John Giffard granted four more tenements, the conference of the Benedictine order decided that an independent priory should be established under Henry de Heliun as first prior, the patron saints being St. John the Evangelist and St. Benedict. The abbey of Gloucester released him from all subjection and renounced all special claim upon the premises; and in consequence the abbots of the order consented to make contributions towards the erection of buildings, on condition that they should have the privilege of sending monks to reside there for a course of study. Besides these temporary inmates there were to be other permanent members of the priory, probably monks who had taken their degrees; and when the office of prior became vacant both alike should have the privilege of voting, and whoever was chosen was to be presented to John Giffard or his heirs, as the founder and patron of the priory[4]. It is clear, therefore, that Gloucester College was not, like Durham College, a cell of another house; and the title 'Gloucester' adhered to it merely because for the first eight years it was affiliated to Gloucester Abbey. On 6 July, 1291, an agreement was made between Oseney Abbey, which held the parish churches of St. Mary Magdalen, Saint George, and St. Thomas, and the prior 'of the monks of St. Benedict in Stockwell St.' that the priory, which was situated in these three parishes, should be exempt from tithe by a payment of 6s. 8d. a year[5], and that the monks might build a chapel for their own use with the right of sepulture.

At the Dissolution the property passed to the English Crown, then to the Bishop of Oxford in 1542 [2], who sold it to Sir Thomas Whyte. Whyte was the founder of St. John's College, Oxford, and Gloucester Hall, as it then became, was treated as an Annexe to St. John’s. The position changed only in the 18th century, when the college was refounded in 1714 by Richard Blechynden as Worcester College, Oxford. Oxford's Gloucester Green, which was opposite the old College, preserves the name.


See also



  1. ^ A note in Codex 66 of Merton College, Oxford, records that Scotus "flourished at Cambridge, Oxford and Paris"
  2. ^ Cartul. of S. Peter's, Glouc. (Rolls Ser.), i, 32; Reyner, Apostolatus Benedictinorum, App. 54; Annals of Worc. (Rolls Ser.), 488.
  3. ^ Cartul. of Glouc. (Rolls Ser.), iii, 26.
  4. ^ From Reyner, who obtained his facts from Cott. MS. Tib. E. iv, fols. 43, 44; Wood (Life and Times, iv, 105) thought the manuscript had additional facts, but in reality Reyner copied the whole.
  5. ^ MS. among muniments of Ch. Ch. Oxf.