The History of New College

Despite our name, New College is one of the oldest of the many colleges that form part of Oxford University, with almost 650 years of history.

William of Wykeham

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 the 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 transaction.


The Founder

William of Wykeham rose 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 portrait hangs in the Dining Hall to this day. 

The Statutes

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.


New College Statutes

Drawing of New College from Loggan's Oxonia Illustrata, showing the original buidlings

Original Buildings

Architecturally, New College was innovative in its design, in that it was all planned around an enclosed quadrangle (finished 1386). This was the first quadrangle of its type, though it has since become one of the defining features of colleges across Oxford and Cambridge.

The quadrangle included all the essential elements required by the Fellows - accommodation, library, chapel, and dining hall.

In addition, there were lodgings for the Founder (now for the Warden), cloisters as a place for quiet reflection, and a Bell Tower. 

These buildings remain essential parts of College to this day. 

The original Oxford quadrangle

The Reformation

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, however, New College became a centre of the Marian Counter-reformation, removing a number of Protestant Fellows and counting a number of prolific and effective authors of pro-Catholic tracts and polemics among the Fellowship – such as Nicholas Saunders, Thomas Harding, and Nicholas and John Harpsfield.

After Mary’s death, many Fellows fled to the Continent, and became a focus of Catholic missionary work. 

The English Civil War

The second was the Civil War. Oxford was the headquarters of the Royalist forces and Warden Pinck, himself a Royalist, helped to organise the defence of New College and Oxford after the outbreak of war.

When Oxford was captured, 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. 

New College Civil War armour and helmet

New College Civil War armour and helmet

Garden Quad, with people on the striped lawn

A Quiet Period

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). Its 3-sided, open design is said to have been modelled on the Palace of Versailles. 

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

The 19th century New Buildings, forming Holywell Quad

Further College Expansion

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. 

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 Street 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), of 'spoonerism' notoriety, and H. A. L. Fisher (1925-40).