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  • Writer's pictureWill von Behr, MA

A Brief History of Balliol College in Oxford

What is Balliol College?

Balliol College is a medieval University of Oxford college that was founded in 1263 by a Scottish nobleman.

Balliol College Chapel

Balliol College History

In the mid-13th century, a quarrel between the Bishop of Durham and John de Balliol – an immensely wealthy Scottish lord and one of the richest landowners in Britain at the time – erupted into violence. As penance for this dispute, Balliol set up and funded a house for poor scholars, the ‘House of the Scholars of Balliol’, which was later given a permanent endowment by his widow, Dervorguilla of Galloway. In 1282, she gave the house a charter, thereby establishing the Balliol College we know today.

Head through Alfred Waterhouse’s handsome mid-19th-century entrance and you’ll find yourself in the idyllic Front Quad, one of the oldest parts of the college. From there you can make your way to the verdant Garden Quad, a green oasis in the centre of the city.

Balliol College has a rich history of academic excellence and has been home to many notable figures. Among its alumni are four former Prime Ministers of the United Kingdom, including H. H. Asquith, Harold Macmillan, Edward Heath, and Boris Johnson. The college also boasts of having educated Harald V of Norway, Empress Masako of Japan, and several Nobel laureates. The renowned philosopher and economist Adam Smith, and the celebrated writer Aldous Huxley, were also students at Balliol.

In the 19th century, Balliol College underwent significant expansion. The college merged with New Inn Hall, one of the remaining medieval halls, in 1881. This merger brought with it New Inn Hall's admissions records, library, and other resources. The site of New Inn Hall was later sold and is now part of St Peter's College, Oxford.

The college has a long-standing tradition of promoting equality and diversity. In 1971, Balliol College voted to admit women, and by 1977, the university had granted permission for this change. The college appointed its first female fellow, Carol Clark, in 1973, making it the first ancient all-male college to do so. In 1979, Balliol accepted its first cohort of female students, marking a significant milestone in the college's history.

Today, Balliol is one of Oxford University’s most prestigious colleges, whose alumni include four British Prime Ministers, philosopher and economist Adam Smith, and writer Aldous Huxley. The college continues to uphold its tradition of academic excellence and inclusivity, fostering a vibrant and diverse community of scholars.

Immerse yourself in the captivating stories of this historical city with Urbs’ audio tours of Oxford.


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