Principals of Brasenose

From The Brazen Nose volume 36 2002

There have been thirty Principals of Brasenose, men who have inspired descriptions as varied as 'knave', 'unscrupulous, selfish and immoral', 'man of charm' and 'true saint'. They have included a fisherman, a cricketer, a railway timetable enthusiast, two Bishops and several lawyers. Two changed their surnames and more than a few promoted their relatives. One died under military guard, one died insane and two died in unexplained circumstances.

The early Statutes of the College laid down that the Principal was to govern the College, preserve its property, defend its Law Suits and govern the Fellows impartially, correcting and reforming their errors and vices. It seems that John Hawarden, the second Principal, did his best to correct the Fellows as instructed, but apparently with little tact. When he dismissed some of them for misbehaviour the Visitor, the Bishop of Lincoln, had to request help from the Vice Chancellor 'in quyetting that troubleous house of Brasynnose', asking him to exhort the Principal 'to quyetnes and charytye' as well as the Fellows. The Statutes also enjoined the Principal to ensure that the servants and officers were diligent, and for much of the history of the College he was responsible for appointing many of the servants and tradesmen. In the 1770s Ralph Cawley records that 'All the Servants are put in by Mr Principal's Sole Power. & the Goldsmith. ye Plumer. ye Iron-monger. ye Glazier. ye Brazier. ye Chandler. ye Smith. & the Butcher. are put in by him Also.' He also had sole nomination of the College Barber.'

Accounts of the election of Principals show that elections took place in the Chapel, the new Principal elected by the Senior Fellows. In the election of 1822 the Senior Fellows took Communion, and then the College Statute on the election of the Principal and the Statute of the Realm on elections were read. The Electors and scrutineers were sworn and the voting followed, each elector 'being asked in a whisper, as he approached the Table ... quemnam nominas in Principalem to which when he had replied in a whisper, and written his vote in view of the Scrutators, he returned to his seat, and the Scrutators folded the paper over'. The Scrutators then administered their oath to two others before registering their own votes 'as the rest had done in their presence and hearing'. The scroll was opened and inspected by both sets of scrutineers and the new Principal declared; the scroll was then burnt. The rest of the Fellows were summoned and all knelt at the Altar for prayers. The following day one of the Fellows was sent to the Bishop of Lincoln to have the election approved formally.

The Statutes also laid down the conditions under which a Principal could be dismissed, although this has not happened yet at Brasenose. The Fellows could remove the Principal if he alienated College property, was guilty of 'great Incontinence or intolerable negligence, voluntary Murder, or any such thing as my cause him to be deem'd irregular' and if he was 'afflicted with a contagious incurable Distemper.' Unfortunately for the Fellows in 1709 this last did not include insanity, and they were faced with the problem of Principal John Meare, who was not compos mentis. As the Statutes usually specified the presence or assent of the Principal for decisions to be made College administration was grinding to a halt. On 8th January 1708/9 the Vice-Principal and Senior Fellows wrote to Bishop Wake of Lincoln, informing him that the Principal could not participate in the annual audit and choice of officers because he had 'fallen under an utter Incapacity to Act in any Buisines'. However, in his reply of 18th January the Bishop ordered them to continue with the present officers 'till Wee may further see what will be the effect of Mr Principal's Indisposition, which there is good reason to believe a little time will shew.' In a private letter elsewhere the Bishop said that he would not remove the Principal solely on account of the infirmities of age. 'He expressed himself very strongly that he was not going to be over persuaded in any way.'

To complicate matters the Vice Principal died in March. Unable to elect a successor without the Principal the Fellows asked for the Visitor's advice again. He suggested a meeting of the Senior Fellows 'to consider, whether it might not be proper ... to devise such an Explication of your Statutes of Election of a Vice:Principall & other Officers, as may enable you ... to proceed to ye Choice of a Vice:Principall'. He suggested that they then present a petition to him so that he could enable them to act. However, in the event the Senior Fellows were divided on this; three supported the idea of a petition, but the remaining four simply proceeded to the election of a Vice Principal without further ceremony.

The Bishop was not at all pleased. In a letter to the Fellows of 19th March he wrote that 'it was a matter of just Concern, & even of Astonishment' that some of them had proceeded to an election without his sanction. He described it as 'Presumptuous and Unwarrantable ... And because such Publick Attempts as these, ought not to pass unregarded' he declared his intention of taking action against the offenders 'unless by a timely Submission & Acknowledgement of their fault, together with some good Assurance of their more dutiful & quiet Behaviour for ye time to come they shall prevent ye same'. What action was taken is not recorded, but in June a contemporary expressed himself as 'heartily glad that the Bp of Linc has hit on those measures at B.N.C. which are thought right by the wise and good part of the University'.

Whatever their personal feelings about the Principal, it is likely that the Fellows experienced some relief in May 1710 when Meare died and the problem was solved. But the unexpected deaths of other Principals occasioned very different feelings. There was considerable shock in 1948 when W.T.S. Stallybrass died during his term as Vice-Chancellor. Travelling alone on the midnight train from Paddington to Oxford he seems to have mistaken the outer door of his compartment for that leading into the corridor and fell from the train. He was partially sighted and had made the mistake before, but on the previous occasion others were able to warn him in time. Equally unexpected was the death of William Gwyn three months after his election. A contemporary account says: 'He had arrived at Brighton on Friday morning, 17 Aug. 1770, and after ordering dinner by two o'clock went to take a walk, but, never returning alive, on Sunday, 19 Aug., his body was discovered by some boys lying flat on his face by the edge of a pathway west of the town close to Brighton churchyard among standing barley ... The body was taken to the New Ship and examined by the principal physician of Brighton ... who gave it as his opinion that Mr. G. fell in a fit and was suffocated for want of timely assistance.'

When Frodsham Hodson died on 18th January 1822 at the age of 51 it was recorded that 'for some months past, there is every reason to believe that he had been impressed with a conviction that his end was near.' However, his final illness lasted only twelve days, and his death was clearly unexpected by everyone else. A measure of the surprise can be gauged by the level of detail recorded in the College minutes: 'The best medical assistance was immediately obtained but his complaint, which was constipation of the bowels, resisted all the efforts of art, until Thursday Jan­y 10 when relief was at length obtained, and all his friends, as well as his medical attendants, were now, and for some days in hopes that the danger was past. During this time, however, he gained no strength, but gradually lost what he before had, until, at 25 min: past 8 ... the animal functions ceased, and the Spirit was loosened from it's clay.'

Samuel Radcliffe, Head of the College during the Civil Wars of 1642-1648, died something of a local hero. With the other heads of colleges he had refused to recognize the authority of the Parliamentary Visitors appointed to reform the University. In January 1648 he ignored an order expelling him from his position. On 29th February the Visitors appointed as Principal Daniel Greenwood, who had been a Fellow for twenty years, and on 13th April the Chancellor came to Brasenose to invest him with the office. By this time Radcliffe was in his last illness and either would not or could not give up the Lodgings. On 1st June the Visitors ordered him to give up his keys and books to Greenwood on pain of being placed under a guard of soldiers, for which Radcliffe himself was to pay. Within the month he was dead. On the day after Radcliffe's death the Visitors forbade this practice for the future. On the following day the Fellows of the College decided to continue the fight.

A College Meeting resolved to elect its own Principal, and a notice was put on the Chapel door to say that the election would take place on 10th July. They enlisted the support of John Danvers, a Brasenose man who was a Parliamentarian and M.P. for the University. But the Visitors thwarted the Fellows' intentions by direct intervention. 'The day appointed for the Election a Guard of Souldiers was sent to the Colledge & early yt morneing, they tooke prisoners ... three of the seaven senior Fellowes that were by the Statute to Elect and kept them in hold and under that force all that day, untill about 10: of the Clock at night.'.

The Fellows decided to carry out an election 'in such manner as they were able' and on 13th July the seven senior Fellows present in the College met in the room of one of them, and proceeded to elect another Fellow, Thomas Yates. They sent a message to him in London, and he accepted the position, 'to which hee was soe unanimously and wthout his seeking or knowledge elected'. The Fellows also sent notice of the election to the Visitor, the Bishop of Lincoln, who approved it 'upon Mr Yates and some of the Fellowes attending of his Lordpp'. However, Yates would have to wait twelve years before he could take up the position; with twelve others of the sixteen Fellows he was expelled from his Fellowship, and he spent the intervening years practising as a solicitor.

In 1660 both sides presented their cases for consideration. The case for the restoration of Yates pointed out that on his appointment as Fellow Greenwood swore an oath to uphold the Statutes, and that those Statutes also laid down an oath for the Principal. 'Yet for these 12: yeares last past hee hath exercised the said Office, and never tooke the said Oath untill aboute 2: months agoe.' It also says that the Fellows expelled were mostly expelled 'by Dr Greenwoods information; or by Dr Greenwood himselfe'. For his part Greenwood said that Yates' claimed election was not entered in the College Register and was not according to the Statutes. He stated that he had not sought the preferment and did not 'intermeddle in ye Governmt of ye Coll. till after ye death of ... Dr Radcliffe.' In fact Greenwood had been an excellent Principal, for he was a good businessman and succeeded in restoring the College fortunes. But his appointment was undoubtedly political. In 1637 Laud had written 'And concerning the Puritan, I see plainly, that Brazen-nose hath some ... that Greenwood, who preached on Sunday last, is like to prove a peevish man'. Clearly in favour with the Commonwealth, Greenwood was appointed Vice Chancellor in 1650. This was renewed in 1651 by Oliver Cromwell as Chancellor, recommending Greenwood 'of whose ability and zeale for Reformation I have received abundant testimony.'

National and ecclesiastical politics have always affected Oxford life, and later Brasenose was to be known for its Jacobite opinions. Robert Shippen, whose brother was actually sent to the Tower 'for saying K. George's Speech is calculated for Germany, rather than England', used his position and influence to put forward Jacobite candidates for University offices. And when Frodsham Hodson was attacked in the Anti-Jacobin Review in 1811, the College agreed to bear the expenses of any subsequent law suit. Some years later A.T. Gilbert was a supporter of the early Tracts for the Times, and Newman dined in the Principal's Lodgings regularly in 1835-1836. Gilbert was one of those who declined to support the protestant Martyrs Memorial. However, later he opposed the Tractarians. After a sermon at St. Mary's (in Newman's absence) which appeared to promote the doctrine of the Mass and which was formally reproved on the orders of the Vice Chancellor, Gilbert ceased to attend St. Mary's when Newman was due to preach.

On occasions we find the Principals of Brasenose using the position to advance the interests of family and friends. Matthew Smyth, the first Principal, is thought to have been a relative of co-founder William Smyth. During Thomas Singleton's term of office there are receipts from other Singletons among the College records. For example, in August 1607 the Bursar purchased 'eight yards of venice carpet' and 'one greene rugge' from Thomas Singleton, an upholsterer of London, and in 1609 the Principal commissioned his brother to buy 6 gallons of linseed oil. At various times the Fellows and undergraduates of Brasenose included three nephews and two great nephews of Daniel Greenwood, a nephew of Thomas Yates, two nephews and two sons of John Meare, and a nephew of Robert Shippen. Greenwood, Yates and Shippen also placed connections in posts at the College or in its gift. These included Simpson, the head cook, who 'got his place by the Interest of my Lady Clark, Wife of Dr Shippen'. Thomas Hearne tells us that when Simpson died his position as Head Cook was given to his son, a child of two years old. The child died a year later.

Sometimes such nepotism attracted public censure. In May 1667 Thomas Yates was criticized from the pulpit of St. Mary's when he wanted to appoint a kinsman to a Fellowship and 'took all occasions to bring him in but could not because he was a dunce and altogeather uncapable. At length certain of the fellowes being absent or out of towne on preaching, called a meeting, and, making a party, elected him.' In March 1720 the name of Thomas Ball, one of the poorer exhibitioners, was removed from the College books. 'The true reason was that [Principal Shippen] sought to make way for a creature of his own. The reason he pretended was discourse of the young man against the Church'. A complaint was made to the Visitor that Shippen had acted without consulting the Senior Fellows, and the Bishop restored Ball on these grounds.

Although it is easy to condemn this it should be noted that most of the examples are from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when the use of one's position to gain other preferment was generally accepted. The father of an undergraduate at the Queen's College wrote to an acquaintance in 1778: 'I wish him to form ... connections', as 'from ... the connections that may be formed ... much may be expected from a lad of spirit.' Pluralism was also accepted; Radcliffe, Greenwood, Meare and Shippen all held College livings at the same time as the Principalship. But better things were taken for granted as well. Many of the Principals have been generous benefactors to the College, leaving lands to endow scholarships, giving plate and books, and paying for extensions and improvements. During his lifetime Radcliffe was responsible for paying for the building of some, if not all, of the dormer windows in the Old Quadrangle, and on his death it was found that he had left money and land rents for building the Chapel and Cloisters. Francis Yarborough paid for improvements to the Hall, including glazing the windows, and Thomas Barker was responsible for the Wyatt ceiling in the Library. C.B. Heberden, a great lover of music, 'started music in College services, bearing the whole burden himself. He played himself first a harmonium somewhere near the lectern, and then a small organ under the west window.' In due course he paid for a new organ and left money for an organ scholar in his will.

Alexander Nowell described himself as 'a dealer for the college to my utter impoverishing'. Yet as well as his personal benefactions he influenced others to give, foreshadowing one of the modern roles of the Principal, that of fundraiser. Nowell persuaded Elizabeth I to refound the School at Middleton in Lancashire, appointing the Principal and Fellows as Governors, and procured other benefactions to the College from the Queen. And when the wealthy widow Joyce Frankland lost her only child, a young man of twenty three, Nowell lost no time in encouraging her to find solace in giving. In Nowell's own words: 'the mother fell into sorrowes uncomfortable, whereof I, being of her acquaintance, did with all speede ride unto her house ... to comfort her the best I could. And I found her crying, "Oh my sonne! my sonne!" And when I could by no comfortable words stay her from that cry and tearinge of her haire, God, I think, put me in minde at the last to say, "Comfort yourself, good Mrs Frankland, and I will tell you how you shall have twenty good sonnes to comfort you in these sorrowes which you take for this one sonne. You be a widowe, rich and now childlesse, and there be in both universities so many pore toward youth that lack exhibition, for whom, if you would found certain fellowships and scholarships to be bestowed upon studious young men, who should be called Mrs Frankland's schollers, they should be in love towarde you as deare children".'

It is not often that one gets a glimpse of the personal life of the Principal, as inevitably most of the surviving records are concerned with the official work. However, family concerns crept into Richard Harington's official correspondence in November 1842. His correspondence was all addressed from Putney, where he was detained 'by the alarming illness of Mrs Harington. She has been for some days in a very precarious state, but I trust that she may yet be spared to me and to my poor children.' He described her as 'in the last stage of a fever, with but very faint hopes of recovery.' After nearly a fortnight she was still 'extremely ill', having been 'brought to the very brink of the grave by a typhus fever, and though she has by God's mercy escaped the imminent danger in which she was laid for two or three days, and I am able to entertain a considerable hope of her recovery, she is still in a state which gives rise to great anxiety, and renders it impossible that I should leave her for some time to come.' His wife recovered, but he had to divide his time between Putney and Brasenose for two months before he was able to bring her home to the College.

We have formal portraits of most of the Principals, but physical descriptions are rare. Gilbert was described as 'a very handsome man' and William Cleaver as 'a tall man with good features and a stately gait.' As Cleaver held three bishoprics it is appropriate that the College porter thought he looked 'quite the bishop'. The effect was increased by his habit of walking 'with both his hands upon his chest ... made conspicuous by gloves of bright Bishop's purple'. Harington has come down to us as the Principal with the interesting dress sense. In June 1822 the records of the Phoenix declare that 'The eccentric style of Mr Harington's dress is remarkably lachrimable & it is to be hoped that he will pay more attention to his habitiments in future.' He had turned up at a meeting in 'white Turkish Trowsers & flowered Black velvet waistcoat.' Four months later 'Harington came in striped worsted stockings!!!' It should be noted that Harington was never an undergraduate of Brasenose; at this point he was a newly elected Fellow.

So what were the Principals actually like? Nowell is one of the few early Principals for whom we have some idea of personal interests. Isaak Walton, in his Compleat Angler tells us that Nowell was a keen fisherman, and this is demonstrated by the fishing rod and hooks depicted in his portrait in Hall. He is also credited with the first bottled beer in England, 'having either accidentally, or by design .. left in the grass or buried in the ground, a bottle of ale, he found it again after some time "not a bottle but a gun such the sound of it when opened".' In 1610 we find Singleton taking exceptional care of an overtired student, writing to the boy's father: 'Yor sonne Thomas havinge spent his spirites, and tired his boddy wth sundry conflictes in the heat of disputations especially this hungry tyme of Lent, wee resolved upon mature deliberation, yt for the refreshinge of the man and recoveringe of his decayed strength, a journey [home] would prove his best phisique'. Singleton made arrangements for both outward and return journeys. Obituaries and reminiscences tell us of C.H. Sampson's knowledge of Bradshaw's railway time table, Hugh Last's devotion to ITMA, and Maurice Platnauer's writing of poetry. The enthusiasm of Stallybrass ('Sonners') for cricket and golf is well documented, and there are many stories of the vacation tours he arranged, on which 'he was the hub round which the party revolved.' He joined in almost all the activities, although drawing the line when some of the younger members of the side returned to the hotel late one night with 'ashtrays from various pubs, the 'LADIES' notice from the Clarence at Exeter, and a milk churn from Seaton Junction. The last proved too much even for Sonners, and he told the party responsible that the churn must be returned immediately, though not before he had taken an excellent photo of the trophies arranged around the bar. It was a pity he did not see to the return of the 'LADIES' too, because not long after it adorned the back of his car all the way to Bovey, and it was always turning up in most unexpected places.' The photograph still survives.

To members of the Strollers Cricket Club the presence of Stallybrass' 'was a continual joy.' Stallybrass himself described Heberden as 'the only true saint that I have ever known ... But with all his gentleness and selflessness he was firm and would never through weakness or fear sanction anything which he thought wrong or shut his eyes to what was ugly or unworthy.' Gilbert was generally remembered as a man of charm and Thomas Humphry Ward recalled 'Dear, shy, shrinking, genial, learned Albert Watson! ... People of large competence used sometimes to lay little traps for him, in the hope of getting to the end of his knowledge, and they nearly always failed.'

The conduct of some Principals has resulted in censure from outside the College. Meare made himself so unpopular as Vice Chancellor that the Warden of All Souls prayed aloud that he might be transported to the colonies. When Meare left office, after a blazing quarrel in Convocation, he did not even receive the usual complimentary letter. In 1580 an earlier Principal, Richard Harris, conducted a public quarrel for several years with Toby Mathew, Dean of Christ Church. When Mathew was Vice Chancellor he refused Harris entry to the temporary scaffolds at the east end of St. Mary's Church during the Act, the annual ceremonies of which the remnants survive in Encaenia. The following week, when Mathew surrendered the office of Vice Chancellor, Harris left his seat at the ceremony 'and whispered him in the ear to this effect, "You do remember how you kept me down from the Stage the last day of the Act, wherein you showed your vile despite towards me - and therefore the Devil's *** in thy teeth." ... Harris being of a high spirit, and his Fellows taking part with him, endeavoured to make it a public quarrel so that after nothing but affronts and scuffles passed between them.'


But one Principal has attracted more opprobrium than any other. If sources are to be believed Robert Shippen was sly, lecherous, corrupt, covetous, unscrupulous, selfish, immoral and could be relied upon to give support where he saw his own advantage. Shippen was one of the rebels who elected a new Vice Principal against the Visitor's instructions in 1709. He had been appointed Professor of Music at Gresham College in spite of his lack of qualifications in music, later resigning the position in favour of his brother, a medical doctor. He carried the election as Principal of Brasenose by one vote, 'having wheedled himself into ye Affections of the greatest Part of the College, who exspect to live easy under him, without Prosecution of Studies.' When the College became the patrons of St. Mary, Whitechapel in 1710 Shippen was the first appointment to the living. He seems at the least to have connived at the removal of his predecessor and was publicly attacked for it by an anonymous parishioner in The Spiritual Intruder Unmask'd in a letter from the Orthodox in Whitechapel, printed in 1716, which accused Shippen of 'too fond and Over-weaning Indulgence of your Ambition and Covetousness ... You have Committed a Theft and A Violence'.

The most divided opinions are about a Principal once described as 'of quiet sober & discreet behaviour.' This was part of a testimonial written in 1608-9 for Samuel Radcliffe, the man ultimately left to die in the Lodgings in 1648. He has also been called a knave, an autocrat and a stout defender of College liberties. His will was written 'wthout ye Lawyer his advise for ye most part And therefore I desire ... that illegallity in ye forme or phrase of Words may not defeate my reall and Charitable Intendints. However, his family challenged the will. At the time of the Visitation in 1643 Radcliffe had sold two College leases, over which as a member of the Governing Body he did not have any legal rights, in order to pay off tradesmen to whom the College owed money. The family claimed that the College undertook to repay the proceeds of the sale to Radcliffe and that money was therefore owed to them; the College denied the obligation to repay. There are many papers surviving from the legal battle, which the court eventually decided in favour of the family. The case divided opinion on the character of Samuel Radcliffe, as can be seen from endorsements in two different hands on one of the papers. His critics believed he knew that the money he left would not be sufficient to carry out the College building programme and other benefactions in his will, hence the first endorsement: '... Dr Ratcliffe was a Knave'. However, another adds: 'There does not seem to be sufficient matter ... to justify so harsh a censure. Dr Radcliffe's great benefaction to the College should secure his memory from all dishonorable imputations, which are not founded upon the most direct and positive evidence.'

Yet the most virtuous can attract criticism as well. When Gilbert left the College the Ale Verse of 1842 proclaims: 'Drink to his praise, in whose conduct there shone / An affection for all, a preferring of none, / A regard for the good, for the vicious severity. However, when one of the members of the Phoenix had been sent down in 1822 the Club records describe it as 'unjust', and note that 'Gilbert was the Principal who is one of the greatest brutes that ever existed.' Even the saintly Heberden was not popular with everybody. His (successful) attempts to improve the intellectual standards of Brasenose offended the old members from the great days of the College's nineteenth century sporting glory: 'They could believe no good of the College whilst it remained low on the river. No successes in examinations ... could bring any comfort to their outraged loyalty ... To them a Brasenose that was not amongst the first three boats on the river was necessarily an unhealthy and degenerate place.'

Clearly whether a Principal of Brasenose is knave or saint depends on your point of view.

Traditions and legends

From Ale Verses to a visit from the Devil, browse some of our quirky traditions and legends

College history

A concise history, with detail on our coat of arms and our name

Famous Brasenose Names

More information on historical figures connected to Brasenose

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