Colleges of Oxford University, Oxford

Colleges of Oxford University (Self Guided), Oxford

The University of Oxford is the oldest educational institution in England and one of the best in the world. The university represents a "federation" incorporating 38 self-governing colleges and six permanent private halls. Alma mater for thousands of the most influential people on the planet, the university is also a major attraction for architecture and history buffs. To acquaint yourself with the most prominent, beautiful and worth-seeing colleges in Oxford, take this self-guided walk!
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Colleges of Oxford University Map

Guide Name: Colleges of Oxford University
Guide Location: England » Oxford (See other walking tours in Oxford)
Guide Type: Self-guided Walking Tour (Sightseeing)
# of Attractions: 8
Tour Duration: 1 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 1.5 Km or 0.9 Miles
Author: Linda
Sight(s) Featured in This Guide:
  • Trinity College
  • Balliol College
  • Exeter College
  • Lincoln College
  • Corpus Christi College
  • Merton College
  • University College
  • Magdalen College
Trinity College

1) Trinity College (must see)

Oxford University started out as academic houses and monastery halls where theology was taught, but none of these survived the Reformation. Trinity College on Broad Street stands on the site of Durham College Monastery which was founded in 1268.

The only surviving part of the monastery is the east range of Durham Quad where the college library is housed. Sir Thomas Pope bought the buildings and the land in 1555 to create a college where, he hoped, future generations would pray for him, as he was childless and had no-one to remember him after he died. His remains are enshrined in the chapel beside the altar.

On top of the college’s West Tower stand four female statues representing Astronomy, Geometry, Medicine and Music. In 1688, a two-storey building, designed by Sir Christopher Wren, was built on the Garden Quad to lodge students. The neoclassical chapel was designed by Henry Aldrich in 1694.

In 1883, the college was expanded and the Front Quad was built by Sir Thomas Jackson. In 1928, the Memorial Library was built in honor of the members who died in World War I. Further expansion took place in the 1960s when several cottages and 17th century houses were bought and the Cumberbatch Building was put up in 1966.

Despite its large physical size, the college is relatively small in terms of student numbers, at approximately 400. It was founded as a men's college and has been coeducational since 1979. Trinity has produced three British prime ministers - Spencer Compton (1742–1743), William Pitt the Elder (1766–1768) and Frederick North (1770–1782), placing it third after Christ Church and Balliol in terms of former students who have held the office.
Sight description based on Wikipedia.
Balliol College

2) Balliol College

Balliol College stands on Broad Street and was founded in 1263, making it the second oldest of Oxford University’s colleges. It was established by John de Balliol who was once the Sheriff of Nottinghamshire – but not at the time when Robin Hood and his Merry Men hung around Sherwood Forest!

Nothing of the original building has remained these days; the oldest parts date back to 1431 and are the north and west ranges of the Front Quad, although the Masters’ Dining Hall, the libraries, and the Senior Common Room are perhaps a little older. The buildings around the Garden Quad are newer: the south-west side was built in 1720, the Fisher Building in 1759, the west side in 1826, the Masters’ Lodgings in 1860 and the Junior Common Room in 1912. The chapel, which was designed by William Butterfield, was built in 1857.

Most of the colleges have deeply-rooted traditions, but Balliol’s favorite one dates back to the 1960s, when a student introduced a tortoise, named Rosa, to the college. Rosa lived here for 43 years; the person looking after her well-being at any given time was called the Comrade Tortoise, and it was a coveted position. Rosa disappeared in 2004 but another tortoise has taken her place.

Every June, Corpus Christi College organizes a tortoise race and students bring tortoises from home to participate. With Rosa, Balliol College won the race three or four times and they have high hopes for her replacement.

Another traditional and rather fierce rivalry, lasting for many years, is that between the students of Balliol and those of its immediate neighbour to the East, Trinity College. It has manifested itself on the sports field and the river; in the form of songs (of greater or less offensiveness) sung over the dividing walls; and in the form of "raids" on the other college.

Balliol's alumni include the incumbent (2020) Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Boris Johnson, as well as three former prime ministers (H. H. Asquith, Harold Macmillan and Edward Heath), Harald V of Norway, Empress Masako of Japan, five Nobel laureates, and numerous literary and philosophical figures, including Shoghi Effendi, Adam Smith, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Aldous Huxley. John Wycliffe, who translated the Bible into English, was Master of the college in the 1360s.
Sight description based on Wikipedia.
Exeter College

3) Exeter College

The main entrance to Exeter College is on Turl Street. This college is the fourth oldest of Oxford University, having been founded in 1314. Its founder, Walter de Stapleton, was the Bishop of Exeter and he wanted a small college that only taught future clergymen. Until the 15th century, there had been room for only 15 students at a time.

The college grew further in the 16th century when a former graduate, Sir William Petre, left funds for it in his will. The Front Quad, finished in 1710, was built on the site of the medieval buildings; only the 1432 Palmer’s Tower remains of the original college now. At the base of the tower you will see a memorial to the members killed in the Second World War.

The quad also houses the Great Hall, which was built in 1618 and has a beautiful vaulted ceiling. The quad is somewhat overshadowed by the chapel, designed by Sir George Scott in 1860, and modeled on the Sainte Chapelle in Paris.

The Library in Fellows Garden was also designed by Sir George in the 13th century style. The Divinity School, Convocation House are on the left of the Garden, with Brasenose Lane on the right and the Mound at the end, from where you can enjoy views of Radcliffe Camera and All Souls College.

The Rector’s Lodging in Margary Quad was another work by Sir George, but the rest of the quad was finished in 1964, with the Thomas Wood Building constructed for the college’s 650th anniversary.

At its foundation, Exeter was popular with the sons of the Devonshire gentry, though has since become associated with a much broader range of notable alumni, including J. R. R. Tolkien, Richard Burton, Alan Bennett, and Philip Pullman.
Sight description based on Wikipedia.
Lincoln College

4) Lincoln College

One of the constituent colleges of the University of Oxford, Lincoln College (formally, The College of the Blessed Mary and All Saints, Lincoln) on Turl Street is perhaps one of its most intriguing. Founded in 1427 by the Bishop of Lincoln, Richard Fleming, it consists of three quadrangles – the Front Quad built in the 15th century, the Chapel Quad built in 1608–1631, and the Grove Quad in the 19th century – and is therefore said to preserve "more of the character of a 15th century college than any other in Oxford".

The Chapel, which was built in the Early Gothic style, has enameled rather than stained glass windows, which is a difficult technique, and were created by Abraham Van Linge, who was a master at this craft.

The east end window depicts twelve Biblical scenes: the top six are from the New Testament, and the bottom six from the Old. The north window shows the twelve Prophets, while the south window features the twelve Apostles.

The rood screen, that separates the ante chapel and the main chapel, is made of cedar. The ceiling is beautifully carved and on the front pews you can see the figurines of Moses, Aaron and the saints Peter and Paul.

The Library is in the converted All Saints Church, whose spire is one of the “dreaming spires” of Oxford. In the bell tower, the full peal of eight bells are still regularly rung.

The college has a bar beneath the Great Hall. It is called Deep Hall and is one of the oldest parts of the college. The bar gives on to the Master Common Room and Junior Common Room wine cellars, which stretch far under the Grove Quad. Lincoln College also has one of the oldest working medieval kitchens in the UK.

Notable alumni include John Radcliffe, John le Carré and Rachel Maddow, among many others.
Sight description based on Wikipedia.
Corpus Christi College

5) Corpus Christi College

Corpus Christi College on Merton Street is one of Oxford University’s smaller colleges, but it also one of the most renowned. The college was founded by Richard Foxe, the Bishop of Winchester, in 1517. Its library was built at the same time and was the best and most extensive for the epoch, with over 80,000 books in English, Latin, Greek and Hebrew.

Corpus Christi College is, of course, best known for the role its scholars played in the translation of the King James Bible. Commissioned by the Crown, they formed two of the six companies who translated the Scriptures from Hebrew and Greek into English.

At Corpus Christi, theologians were in charge of translating eleven books of the Prophets – from Isaiah to Malachi, and the four Gospels, Acts and Revelation in the New Testament. The project took eleven years and the Bible was finally printed in 1611.

On the Main Quad you will find the tower, the dining hall and the Chapel. The sundial topped by a pelican was placed in the center of the quad in 1581 by Charles Turnbull. The pelican is part of the college’s coat of arms and is said to be an allegory of Christ, in that according to a legend, pelican tears at its own breast to feed its young, while Christ offered up his body to save humanity.

A second quad was built in the 18th century, with the Fellows Building being a fine example of the Neo-classical style. This quad overlooks Christ Church Meadow.
Sight description based on Wikipedia.
Merton College

6) Merton College (must see)

Merton College was founded in 1264 by Walter de Merton, Lord Chancellor to King Henry III and later to King Edward I.

Of the Front Quad, the Hall and the Chapel were finished in 1297, but today only the chapel remains of the original buildings. It was built in early English Gothic style, with an enormous east window. The South Transept was finished in the 14th century, and the North Transept and the Tower were finished in the mid 15th century.

Following the dissolution of monasteries in 1548, the college bought Saint Alban Hall from the Littlemore Convent, although it remained a separate institution until 1881.

During the English Civil War, the college was used as Royalist headquarters with much of Charles I’s court lodging here. Foreign guests were also lodged, including Queen Henrietta Maria of France. She stayed in a room above the arch between the Fellows and the Front Quads, in what is now called the Queen’s Room.

The college continued to buy up other properties on Merton Street, as and when possible. It acquired the former Parish Church of St John and three adjoining houses that now form the north range of the Front Quad.

Merton College once owned all the land from where Christ Church now stands on the south-east part of the city to the land to the east of the college, which is now a garden. Corpus Christi stands on the land at the west end, which they lease from Merton.

Merton's notable alumni and academics of past and present include four Nobel laureates and writer J. R. R. Tolkien who was Merton Professor of English Language and Literature from 1945 to 1959. Merton is one of the wealthiest colleges in Oxford and has a strong reputation for academic success, having regularly ranked first in the Norrington Table in recent years.
Sight description based on Wikipedia.
University College

7) University College (must see)

Many of Oxford University’s colleges like to claim to be the oldest, but in truth the prize goes to University College, whose main entrance is on the High Street. According to legend, King Alfred (of the burnt cakes fame) founded the college in 872. In reality, however, the first foundations were laid in 1249, funded with the money left for this purpose by William of Durham.

Sadly, very little of the medieval buildings remains today, replaced in the 17th century with the foundations of the Main Quad, laid in 1634. The English Civil War interrupted work and the quad was finished only in 1676. The Radcliffe Quad was built in 1719, the New Building in 1842, and the Library in 1861.

The college is separated by the cobble-stoned Logic Lane, which has a short covered bridge over the High Street entrance. On the eastern side of the lane you will find the students’ lodgings, and on the western side – the Library, the Hall, the Chapel and the college’s two quads.

University College is associated with a number of influential people. Among its notable alumni there are: Clement Attlee – British Prime Minister (1945-1951); Harold Wilson – British Prime Minister (1964-1970, 1974-1976); Bill Clinton – 42nd President of the United States (1993-2001); Stephen Hawking – English theoretical physicist, cosmologist, and author; C. S. Lewis – British writer and lay theologian, best known as the author of “The Chronicles of Narnia”; and Percy Bysshe Shelley – one of the major English Romantic poets, widely regarded as one of the greatest lyric and philosophical poets in the English language.

In 1892, a small domed room was built by Basil Chambers to house the Shelley Memorial. The statue of the great poet lying dead on an Italian beach was commissioned by Lady Shelley and sculpted by Edward Ford. The room was once filled with water and goldfish for a joke, and the Rector had to have railings put around the statue to stop students from painting Shelley’s private parts in bright colors. The solution for removing the paint was causing the marble to dissolve...
Sight description based on Wikipedia.
Magdalen College

8) Magdalen College (must see)

The most beautiful of all Oxford University’s colleges is undeniably Magdalen College. Founded in 1458 by William of Waynflete, the Bishop of Winchester, it stands next to the River Cherwell and the Oxford botanic garden, surrounded by picturesque grounds, such as the Meadow, Fellows Garden and the Grove where deer graze during winter and spring. The famous Addison’s Walk links the Meadow to Fellows Garden, which in turn is linked to the college by a bridge.

The college is built on the site of St John the Baptist Hospital, which was dissolved in 1457. Some of the hospital buildings were reused by the college, and the kitchens survive today as the college bar, the Old Kitchen Bar. New construction began in 1470 with the erection of a wall around the site by mason William Orchard. He also worked on the Chapel, the Hall, and the Cloister, including the Muniment and Founder's Towers, with work completed around 1480.

Magdalen Tower is a well-known landmark; since the reign of King Henry VII, the college choir sings at the top of the tower at 6am every May Day. The Great Quad was built in 1474, but the north side is relatively new, having been rebuilt in 1822. The New Building dates back to 1733. The newest part of the college, the Grove Buildings were put up in 1990.

Today, Magdalen is one of Oxford's wealthiest colleges and one of the strongest academically. The college has taught members of several royal families, including King Edward VIII of England, in 1912–1914; Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, the King of Bhutan, in 2000; and Crown Prince Haji Al-Muhtadee Billah, first in line to the throne of Brunei, in 1995. More recent Magdalen alumni included Malcolm Fraser, the former Prime Minister of Australia, and John Turner, the former Prime Minister of Canada.

The 19th century poet and playwright Oscar Wilde read "Greats" (undergraduate course in literature) at Magdalen, from 1874 to 1878, and graduated with a double first. C. S. Lewis, writer and alumnus of University College, was a Fellow and English tutor at Magdalen for 29 years, from 1925 to 1954. He was one of the Inklings, an informal writing society that also included J. R. R. Tolkien and would meet in Lewis' rooms at Magdalen.
Sight description based on Wikipedia.

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