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  • Writer's pictureWill von Behr, MA

A Brief History of University College Oxford

What is University College Oxford?

University College is Oxford University’s oldest college, established in the mid-13th century.

University College Oxford High Street

Steve Cadman, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

University College History

Founded in 1249 by William of Durham, Univ (as it’s known to members of the university) was originally a small and poor college, with funds to support just four fellows reading theology. Thanks to various benefactors, the college’s wealth gradually increased, and by the 18th century many of Univ’s old medieval buildings had been replaced.

Since its foundation nearly 800 years ago, the college has produced many famous politicians, writers and scientists. Some of the most notable ‘Univites’ include theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and former US president Bill Clinton.

A legend arose in the 14th century that the college was founded by King Alfred in 872, which explains why the college arms are those attributed to King Alfred, why the Visitor is always the reigning monarch, and why the college celebrated its millennium in 1872. However, most agree that the college was indeed founded in 1249 by William of Durham. He bequeathed money to support ten or twelve masters of arts studying divinity, and a property which became known as Aula Universitatis (University Hall) was bought in 1253. This later date still allows the claim that Univ is the oldest of the Oxford colleges, although this is contested by Balliol College and Merton College.

The college acquired four properties on its current site south of the High Street in 1332 and 1336 and built a quadrangle in the 15th century. As it grew in size and wealth, its medieval buildings were replaced with the current Main Quadrangle in the 17th century. Although the foundation stone was placed on 17 April 1634, the disruption of the English Civil War meant it was not completed until sometime in 1676. Radcliffe Quad followed more rapidly by 1719, and the library was built in 1861.

Like many of Oxford's colleges, University College accepted its first mixed-sex cohort in 1979, having previously been an institution for men only. The college is divided by Logic Lane, which is owned by the college and runs through the centre. The western side of the college is occupied by the library, the hall, the chapel and the two quadrangles which house both student accommodation and college offices. The eastern side of the college is mainly devoted to student accommodation in rooms above the High Street shops, on Merton Street or in the separate Goodhart Building. This building is named after former master of the college, Arthur Lehman Goodhart.

University College Chapel

Diliff, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

A specially constructed building in the college, the Shelley Memorial, houses a statue by Edward Onslow Ford of the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley – a former member of the college, who was sent down for writing The Necessity of Atheism (1811), along with his friend T. J. Hogg. Shelley is depicted lying dead on the Italian seashore.

The college annexe on Staverton Road in North Oxford houses undergraduate students during their second year and some graduate students. The college also owns the University College Boathouse and a sports ground, which is located nearby on Abingdon Road.

The college is associated with a number of influential people, including Clement Attlee, Harold Wilson, Bill Clinton, Neil Gorsuch, Stephen Hawking, C. S. Lewis, V. S. Naipaul, Robert Reich, William Beveridge, Bob Hawke, Robert Cecil, and Percy Bysshe Shelley.

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


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