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  • Writer's pictureMimi Goodall, PhD

A Brief History of Magdalen College in Oxford

What is Magdalen College?

Magdalen College is an idyllic Oxford University college with picturesque grounds that was founded in 1458.


The lawn at Magdalen College's courtyard.


Magdalen College History

One of Oxford’s oldest colleges, Magdalen was founded by William Waynflete, Bishop of Winchester, in the mid-15th century. He built it on the site of the old hospital of St John. Waynflete desired the college to be one of the grandest in Oxford, in both size and reputation. He endowed it with a large income, a sizable library and impressive buildings. Since then, it has grown even more imposing. Magdalen’s famous alumni are numerous and range from King Henry VIII’s Chief Minister Cardinal Wolsey to physicist Erwin Schrödinger and literary giants Oscar Wilde and C. S. Lewis. It has also increased in size; many more buildings have been added to the original foundation over the centuries. It has some of the largest grounds in Oxford and they are well worth exploring.


Magdalen is perhaps best known for its bell tower, one of Oxford’s most famous landmarks. With a height of 44 metres, it’s one of the tallest buildings in the city. It holds a ring of ten bells, with a combined weight of four tonnes, which chime every quarter of an hour and are one of Oxford’s most distinctive features. The tower’s architect, William Orchard, also designed the Vaults in the Divinity School of the Bodleian Library. Every year on the 1st of May the choir of the college climbs the tower at 6am and sings the college hymn, the Hymnus Eucharisticus. They also sing some secular madrigals such as ‘Now is the Month of Maying’. The tradition is centuries old and is the official start to the city’s famed May Morning celebrations. Thousands line the High Street to listen.


the great tower at Magdalen College at dusk

You may also have heard of Magdalen’s deer and beautiful water meadows. The Deer Park is where the college’s herd of fallow deer live in the autumn and winter months. This was also where King Charles I’s artillery was quartered when he lived in Oxford during the British Civil Wars.

Wander across the college grounds, past the impressive New Building (not so new now, but built in the 1730s), and you’ll find Addison’s Walk, named after the essayist and journalist Joseph Addison, who was a fellow here. This circular walk around the Water Meadow is enjoyed by fellows, students and tourists alike. In the springtime, a purple flower, the snake’s head fritillary or Fritillaria meleagris, named for the marking on its petals that was thought to resemble snakeskin, blooms freely in the meadow. These flowers are rare in the wild and Magdalen is one of the few places in the UK where they can be found in quantity.


At the far side of the meadow, you can cross over a bridge to reach Bat Willow Meadow and the Fellows’ Garden. In the meadow you’ll see the sculpture Y by Turner Prize winner Mark Wallinger. It was erected on St Mary Magdalene’s Day 2008 to celebrate the college’s 550th anniversary. The Fellows’ Garden can be found after crossing another bridge and dates from 1866. It’s now open to the public and there’s a delightful pond at the far end, a tranquil setting away from the crowds.


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

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