A concise history of Brasenose

Brasenose Hall

Before the foundation of Brasenose College part of the site was occupied by Brasenose Hall, one of the mediaeval Oxford institutions which began as lodging houses and gradually became more formal places of learning. Various other halls and houses occupied the site alongside Brasenose Hall, but very little is known about the Hall itself. However, we do know that it was situated on the site of the College's entrance tower (situated on Old Quad). In the Survey of Inquisition of 1279 it is also stated that Oxford University held 'a house called Brasennose… in the parish of St Mary the Virgin'. When, in 1333, a group of rebellious students attempted to migrate from Oxford to Stamford in Lincolnshire, it is from the Hall that a Brasenose student supposedly took the Brasenose door knocker, which now hangs in the College's dining hall. The next mention of the Hall appears in 1416/17, in the deeds of University College, who granted the Hall to John Legh, chaplain of St. Anne’s chantry in All Saints’ Church. Then in 1435 occurs the first name of a Principal, as cautioning for the Hall to the University; we then have all the successive names of Principals from 1435 to 1510. The kitchen wing, which projects from the south side of the current dining hall is thought to be the oldest building on the College site, dating perhaps from the 15th century.

Transformation into Brasenose College

The transformation of Brasenose Hall into Brasenose College was so smooth that it is difficult to give an exact date to the change. Brasenose Hall had slowly absorbed several of the other Halls on the site, and it is clear that the name passed from one to the other. Two of the former Principals of the Hall (Matthew Smyth and John Formby) also became Principal and Fellow respectively of the newly formed College. A quarry in Headington was leased to provide stone for the new buildings on 19 June 1509 and this is the year which Brasenose College keeps as its foundation. The Royal Charter which created the body of Principal and Fellows is dated 15th January 1511/12 (this is 1512 in modern terms). It established a College to be called ‘The King's Hall and College of Brasenose’ (in this sense Brasenose Hall still exists) for the study of sophistry, logic, philosophy and, above all, theology.

The founders of Brasenose College were Sir Richard Sutton, a lawyer, and William Smyth, Bishop of Lincoln. Both were from the north west and the College has retained strong links with Cheshire and Lancashire throughout its history. The Bishop provided for the expenses of the building and the lawyer acquired the property for the site. The Royal Charter authorised both founders to make statutes for the College. The first statutes were made by Bishop Smyth, but these were later revised by Richard Sutton in 1522. Sutton’s statutes, subject to the interpretation of the Visitor, the Bishop of Lincoln, governed the college until the Oxford University Ordinances of 1855-1857.

16th century Brasenose

The Founders' statutes formed a College of a Principal and twelve 'scholar-fellows', six of whom were Senior and six Junior. The Principal and six Senior Fellows formed the Governing Body, and a Vice-Principal and a Bursar were elected anually, the posts revolving between the seniors. There may not have been any undergraduates at all until late in the 1500s. Before then the Colleges were for study, not teaching. Today, only All Souls College keeps the original pattern; the other colleges have been teaching undergraduates for centuries. Three of the early fellows gained notoriety, at least locally. One of them, William Eley, was at the execution of Thomas Cranmer in 1556, and is recorded as having disputed with him whilst he was actually burning at the stake. Another, William Sutton, kept the wife of a Chipping Norton tradesman in a love nest, leading to an open fight with the constables of the town. We do not know of what crime the first Bursar, Roland Messenger, was guilty, but each new fellow had to swear not to admit him to the College for more than one day; new fellows continued to swear this for over three hundred years.

Alongside the Fellows, the statutes also designated the servants roles, including the Steward of the Common Hall, the Manciple, a Bible-clerk, the Butler, a Head cook, one Porter, who also acted as the college barber and attended on the Principal in his spare time and the only woman employed by the college, a Laundress, who was not allowed within the gates.

The College founders left property and estates, which would provide income for the College. These estates included the Priory of Cold Norton in Oxfordshire, the Manor of Erdborow or Burrough in Leicestershire, land at North Ockington in Essex, as well as further lands in Oxford, Oxfordshire and London. Throughout the centuries further benefactors left endowments of money and property, which enabled the College to make an income. This also explains why the College archives have such a large collection of manorial documents. In 1580 the College received the site of St Mary's College, now known as Frewin Hall, situated on St Michael's Street/New Inn Hall Street. This site was let to tenants until 1946, when it was first used as student accommodation.

The Valor Ecclesiasticus of 1547 states that the Principal and Fellows 'of an old custome have ever 60 pore scholars who have their chambers and service a the cost of the college', whilst a list of members of colleges in 1552 gives the total numbers as 70. These were graduate students, and it is thought that undergraduates were first admitted after the founding of the first scholarships in the mid to late 1500s. Indeed from 1549 (when admissions were first entered in the Vice-Principal's Register) numbers increased rapidly. The endowments of some benefactors also raised the number of fellowships available.

Between 1509 and the 1650s the College was formed of just one series of buildings, known as Old Quad. The dining hall, living quarters, chapel and library were all situated on this one Quad. A handful of the fellows acted as tutors to undergraduates from the late 16th century onwards and their original function was to monitor and control their pupil's finances. Life in College was strictly regulated, with the gates shut between 9pm and 5am. The College was, above all, a religious institution, wherein all members were to hear Mass daily in the chapel and pray for the souls of the founders and benefactors. The students had lectures on theology, logic, philosophy, geometry, Greek and grammar.  Drinking, dicing, and cards were forbidden and students who broke the rules could be fined or even flogged. Food was plain and sanitation poor; there were six outbreaks of plague in Oxford between the 1550s and 1590s.

17th century Brasenose

By the end of the first hundred years there were 28 fellows and 87 undergraduates. The top storey (of dormer windows or 'cocklofts') was added to Old Quad between 1605 and 1640.  There also appears to have been a garden in Old Quad during the 17th century. Students began their day with compulsory Chapel, followed by a morning's study.  They then went on to a meal in Hall during which only Latin could be spoken.  After the meal the afternoon might be spent in more work, or in riding or music and dancing lessons.  Evening chapel and supper in Hall followed and everyone had to be within the College gates by 9pm.

During the first half of the seventeenth century Brasenose suffered recurring financial problems and by the 1640s the College was very poor and deeply in debt, owing £1,400 to tradesmen. These problems had not been solved when the Civil War began and Charles I made Oxford his headquarters. The city became an armed camp and academic life more or less ceased. Although Brasenose had hitherto had a Puritan reputation it joined the other colleges in supporting the king, giving up most of the silver for the war effort. When the Parliamentary authorities finally took over the University the Principal of Brasenose, Samuel Radcliffe, was one of those who refused to recognize their authority. He ignored orders expelling him from his position and remained defiant to the end, dying in the Principal's Lodgings six months later.

Between 1657 and 1666 the present library and chapel were built, on the area now known as the Deer Park. The Library is situated on the upper floor of what was an open cloister, used for burials (at least 59 people are buried there) and converted into rooms in 1807. The interior of the library was remodelled and the ceiling decorated by James Wyatt in 1779-1780. The Chapel of St. Hugh and St. Chad consists of a Choir and an Ante-Chapel, and is well-known for its 15th century hammer-beam roof, removed from the chapel of St. Mary's College in 1656 and re-erected at Brasenose. This is mostly concealed by the plaster-vault ceiling erected in 1659, which was later decorated by Charles Eamer Kempe in 1895. The Chapel is quite rare, because very few ecclesiastical buildings were built in the Commonwealth period (between the execution of Charles I and the restoration of Charles II).

Between 1695 and 1697 a brewhouse was built on the college site, and Brasenose Ale (or Lambs' Wool) became a popular and much-loved beverage within the College. In 1826 a new brewhouse was built, situated behind the kitchens, but brewing ceased in 1889 when the building of New Quad necessitated the removal of the brewhouse. The beer was celebrated in the Brasenose Ale Verses, which continue to the present day (though the beer is no longer home-made).

18th and 19th century Brasenose

The eighteenth century was the period of the drunken Oxford undergraduate and the prosperous Brasenose fellow. By this time the College had the reputation of being one of the wealthiest in Oxford and it had become the college of the country gentry, perceived as a place where the sons of gentlemen got a modicum of education and did a great deal of horse racing and fox hunting. However, the wealth was unfairly divided. From early days part of the revenue from the granting of leases by the College had been divided between the Principal and the six senior fellows, resulting in many complaints by the junior fellows, who could barely scratch a living. Of course the solution was for the juniors to reform the position when they became seniors, but somehow when they were promoted they seemed to lose their sense of the iniquity of the system. By the eighteenth century disputes between junior and senior fellows were the principal feature of College politics, hardly surprising when the senior fellows were earning five times as much as the juniors. The gap was to widen still further before the mid nineteenth century parliamentary reforms of the University.

Before the nineteenth century organized games were not usual for undergraduates; indeed some were actively forbidden. The growth of sport in Oxford was probably due to the influence of the public schools. Rowing came first, followed by cricket. Brasenose was an early leader in Oxford sport and in the nineteenth century it acquired a great sporting reputation, rowing head of the river for many years and at one stage providing no fewer than eight members of the University cricket team.

In the 1850s came the first of the Parliamentary reforms of the University.  They were resisted at first but the reformers prevailed and the second half of the 19th century saw Fellows allowed to marry for the first time, the transformation of finances and the abolition of Religious Tests, which opened the University to all without the requirement to subscribe to the tenets of the Church of England.

In the 19th century an undergraduate would have a set of rooms, both bedroom and study, to himself. He would attend compulsory chapel, work in the mornings and play games or take long walks in the afternoons. In the evenings he dined in Hall or with his dining club and attended concerts and meetings of societies.

Work on the present New Quad began in 1880, and by 1889 Staircases 9-11, the High Street Tower, Staircase 13 and a new Principals’ house (on the corner nearest to the University Church) were in use. Unfortunately the financial situation did not allow the risk of further building, so there then followed a twenty year period during which the College had only half a High Street front. New Quad was completed 1909-1911, as part of the celebrations to mark the 400th anniversary of the College.

20th century onwards

Life at Brasenose was severely affected by the World Wars. 673 Brasenose men served in World War I, of whom 114 of were killed.  During the war College life virtually ceased and soldiers were billeted in the buildings. In World War II structured recruiting through conscription, and the presence of service cadets matriculated for short courses, meant that there were many more students than in World War I.

Before the wars, accommodation for students was still rather basic. One account from a student explained that ‘my sitting room was comfortable and had a fire place for a coal fire.  There was no plumbing but the bedroom contained a washstand and a chamber pot.  Baths were only accessible at two times, before breakfast in the morning and for an hour or two in the afternoon, when there was a big rush of games players.’ During the twentieth century more and more accommodation was needed for students. By 1959 everything on site was being used for day to day College purposes and every staircase except one was equipped with toilets and bathrooms or showers. So in 1959-1960 the old bathhouses were demolished and Staircases 16-18 built in the area, by the post-war architects Philip Powell and Hidalgo Moya.

The 20th century brought many changes to the College, but most significant of all was the admission of women in the 1970s. Contact with the opposite sex was strictly controlled in the 1920s, although women had been admitted to full membership of the University in 1920.  The greater freedoms enjoyed by women during the first world war led to some difficulty in sustaining the rules, but it was only in the mid 1930s that they disappeared, when the rule that at least two women must be in any mixed party was abolished. The greatest change in the history of Brasenose took place in 1971, when the College decided to alter the statutes to allow the admission of women. The first woman lecturer was appointed in 1972 and the first women undergraduates arrived in 1974. Between 1970 and 2010, further building work was completed to provide more student accommodation. This included an extension at Frewin, and two buildings for graduate students (the St Cross Building and Hollybush Row). In 2009 the College celebrated its 500th anniversary with a visit from Queen Elizabeth, who had last visited the College in 1948, as Princess Elizabeth. 

For more information about College life today please read the prospectus.

The principal published sources of information on the history of Brasenose are:

Brasenose Quatercentenary Monographs [Blackwells 1909 and Oxford Historical Society volumes LII-LV 1909-1910]

Victoria History of the Counties of England: Oxfordshire [volume III pp. 207-219]

Brasenose: The Biography of an Oxford College [J. Mordaunt-Crook, OUP, 2008]




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