The History of New College

The Foundation

New College was founded in 1379 by William of Wykeham (1324-1404), bishop of Winchester, as 'the college of St Mary of Winchester in Oxford', and it was the largest college in Oxford at that time. It very soon became known as New College to distinguish it from an earlier Oxford college (Oriel, founded 1326) also dedicated to the Virgin Mary, but its full title remains in use today for formal transactions. 

Wykeham had risen from modest beginnings in Hampshire to become Lord Chancellor twice, under both Edward III and Richard II. He allowed New College to adopt his private coat of arms and personal motto 'Manners makyth Man' as emblematic of its collegiate identity. 

His statutes provided for a college comprising a Warden and 70 Fellows, both graduates and, a novelty at the time, undergraduates. Senior Fellows taught the juniors - the beginning of a formal tutorial system. Every Fellow had to have been a scholar of Wykeham's other foundation, Winchester College (1382). The provision of religious services, chaplains and choristers were central to Wykeham's scheme; the Choir and Choir School persist to this day. 

William of Wykeham

His statutes provided for a college comprising a warden and 70 fellows, both graduates and, a novelty at the time, undergraduates. Senior Fellows taught the juniors - the beginning of a formal tutorial system. Every Fellow had to have been a scholar of Wykeham’s other foundation, Winchester College (1382). The provision of religious services, chaplains and choristers were central to Wykeham’s scheme; the choir and choir school persist to this day.

Architecturally, New College was innovative in its enclosed quadrangle (finished 1386) - the first of its type, which has since become one of the defining features of colleges across Oxford and Cambridge. It included all the essential elements required by the Fellows in one single quad - accommodation, library, chapel, and dining hall. 

From the Foundation to mid-19th Century

There were two great convulsions in the life of New College in the four hundred years after its Foundation - and then a period of quiet. 

The first was the Reformation, which Warden London embraced, though the College remained divided. With the accession of Mary I in 1553, New College became a centre of the Marian Counter-reformation. After her death, many Fellows fled to the Continent, and became a focus of Catholic missionary work. 

The second was the Civil War. Warden Pinck was a royalist, and after the outbreak of war helped organise the defence of New College. When Oxford was captured, and he was imprisoned by another New College man, the Parliamentarian Lord Saye and Sele. When the Royalists came back, the College became part of the arsenal and the Cloisters a munition store. The Commonwealth brought a period of punishment; but from the Restoration on the College tended towards comfortable quiescence. However, once the College started to accept gentlemen commoners the need for additional accommodation became increasingly urgent, resulting in the building of the Garden Quad (1682-1708). 

Many Fellows lingered after taking their degrees, until appointed to lucrative college parishes at which point they resigned and could get married. Until the 1860s, Fellows could not marry, although Wardens had done so since 1551. 

While not entirely a sybaritic, slothful backwater, New College was prevented by its medieval statutes from adapting to rising demand for university education. Having been the largest college by far in 1379, by 1800 it was one of the smallest, with at most 20 of the 70 fellows being undergraduates - all exclusively Wykehamist and dominated by 'Founder's Kin', real or pretended. 

Mid-19th century to present

By the mid-19th century, Wykeham's statutes were out of step with the needs of higher education, and major reforms under new statutes in 1857 and 1883 started to create a recognisably modern college. 

The Fellowship was opened to non-Wykehamists and the College started to freely admit undergraduates (nearly 300 were in residence by 1900). The new buildings along Holywell were built (1873-96) to house them. Fellows were allowed to marry (1868) and began to have careers as researchers and tutors. New College pioneered intercollegiate lectures with Balliol (1868) and a new academic, intellectual, social and sporting prominence was achieved, especially under Wardens W. A. Spooner (1903-25), or 'spoonerism' notoriety, and H. A. L. Fisher (1925-40). 

A further change in the statutes permitted the College to elect its first woman fellow in 1974 (the first such change in Oxford) and in 1979 the first women undergraduates were admitted. The late-20th century also saw a steady increase in graduate students studying for higher degrees and in the number of Junior Research Fellows appointed to the College. 

What has never changed, however, in the history of New College is its capacity to produce outstanding leaders in, and contributors to, their chosen fields. Prior to the Reformation our fellows numbered two Archbishops of Canterbury in Henry Chichele and William Warham, and humanist scholars such as William Grocyn, the first teacher of Greek at Oxford. By the 1580s our fellows included John Harmar, a future warden of Winchester College and one of the translators of the King James Bible, commemorated in a fine memorial tablet in our Antechapel.

From the 18th century onwards New College has produced such literary figures as the journalist and wit Sydney Smith, the writer and novelist John Galsworthy, poets Craig Raine and Gavin Bantock, and no fewer than five Goldsmith Professors of English Literature in Lord David Cecil, Richard Ellman, Emrys Jones, Hermione Lee and Laura Marcus.

Nor have the sciences faltered and in 2015 three of our Fellows, Marcus du Sautoy, Stephen Balbus and Antony Galione, were elected Fellows of the Royal Society for their eminence in the fields of mathematics, astronomy and pharmacology. The public record also attests that many other members of New College, past and present, senior and junior, have been notable contributors to public service, diplomacy, administration, education, the armed services, law medicine, music, business, arts and entertainment. 

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