The early history of the ancient University of Oxford is shrouded in uncertainty. It came into existence about eight hundred years ago, but in its early days it lacked organisation and facilities. Students had to fend for themselves in small groups based on inns and lodging houses. It was from these small groups that the modern University, consisting of an association of autonomous Colleges, evolved.
John Balliol, one of King Henry III of England’s most loyal Lords during the Barons’ War of 1258–1265, was married to a Scottish Princess, Dervorguilla of Galloway. Their son, also named John Balliol, was King of Scots 1292–1296. He was a wealthy man with extensive estates in England and France; his family had its roots in and took its name from Bailleul-en-Vimeu in Picardy. About 1260, with guidance from the Bishop of Durham, he decided to carry out a substantial act of charity. This he did by renting a house in the suburbs of Oxford, and maintaining in it some poor students.
The foundation date of the College which grew from this is traditionally reckoned as 1263. There is actually no evidence for such precision, but we do know that the little society John Balliol initiated was in existence by June 1266, when its dependence on him is mentioned in a royal writ. Whatever the exact date, if the age of a College is to be computed from the date when its members first lived communally where they do today, then Balliol is the oldest College in the University.
When John Balliol died in 1269, his widow Dervorguilla put his arrangements on a permanent basis, and she is honoured as co-Founder with him. She provided a capital endowment, formulated Statutes (1282), and gave the College its first seal, which it still has.
You can view digital facsimiles of the college’s medieval foundation documents here.
There were at first sixteen students, each receiving an allowance of eightpence a week. The College remained small for the first two hundred and fifty years of its history, but in that time had several notable alumni, including John Wyclif the translator of the Bible, who was Master for several years around 1360. William Gray, the bibliophile Bishop of Ely, was also a member: during his mid-fifteenth century European travels, he accumulated a substantial collection of manuscript books which he gave or bequeathed to the College, and which the College still treasures: it is the largest single mediaeval manuscript collection to survive in England.
During the turmoil of the sixteenth century, the College was staunch in its allegiance to Rome. It tried to resist when Henry VIII made his demand for acknowledgement of his supremacy over the Pope in 1534, the Master and five Fellows signing and sealing their submission only after adding that they intended ‘nothing to prejudice the divine law, the rule of the orthodox faith, or the doctrine of the Holy Mother Catholic Church’. All other known corporate submissions were made without any qualification at all. Streaks of Catholicism remained strong in the Balliol Fellowship until well into the reign of Elizabeth I: Saint Alexander Briant was a member. He was executed at Tyburn in 1581.
The Civil War
Balliol grew prosperous in the period 1585–1635, during which Laurence Kemis (one of Sir Walter Raleigh’s captains), John Evelyn the diarist, and Nathanael Konopios, who is supposed to have introduced coffee-drinking to England, were members.
The Civil War, however, caused an abrupt drop in student numbers, and a consequent reduction in revenue. To make matters worse, the College was forced to support the King’s army, and had to ‘lend’ him not only most of its ready cash (£210) but also all its domestic silver (worth £334) in 1642–3. No repayment of this debt — the College still has documentary proof of it — has ever been offered. The College’s finances were in a parlous state by 1665. It was in debt to tradesmen for basic supplies, and was itself owed large sums by defaulting members. The coffers were empty, admissions were erratic, and the loss of rents from London property after the great fire of 1666 was almost the last straw. A Fellowship was suppressed — in modern jargon ‘’a post was frozen’ — but this economy was not enough, and in 1670 an appeal was launched. This was partially successful, but the College was not financially secure again until the end of the Mastership of Roger Mander (1687−1704).
The torpor for which eighteenth-century Oxford is notorious began to set in soon after Theophilus Leigh was elected Master in 1726. His principal qualification for the position, which he held for nearly sixty years, was that he was the Visitor’s nephew. His election was a bizarre and scandalously conducted affair, including such delights as an attempt to have the holder of a critical vote declared insane.
It is a curious paradox that Balliol nurtured one of its greatest sons in Leigh’s reign. Adam Smith, of The Wealth of Nations fame, resided as an Exhibitioner supported by the benefaction of John Snell 1740–1746.
Early 19th century: reform
Under Leigh, the College slid seriously into debt once more, to the tune of more than £2000 by 1780. But financial salvation came in the form of increased income from ancient estates in Northumberland, which turned out to be nicely sited on top of coal-seams; and the College’s scholarly soul was saved by the election of John Parsons as Master in 1798. Parsons was an academic disciplinarian who turned the fortunes of the College around by insisting that Fellowships should be awarded after open competition, and in 1827 his equally zealous successor Richard Jenkyns extended the same principle to Scholarships.
This led quickly to a regular succession of the cleverest young men in the country coming to Balliol as Scholars. Among the earliest elections were A.C. Tait (another Snell Exhibitioner) and Benjamin Jowett, both of whom went on to win Balliol Fellowships and become leading Tutors. Jowett was later to be Master, Tait Archbishop of Canterbury. Success bred success; success attracted benefactions and fostered growth, so that within a very few years Balliol came to dominate the University.
Late 19th century: Benjamin Jowett
Under Jowett, Master 1870–1893 but effective leader from much earlier, academic brilliance was encouraged, but so was originality, and there was a heavy emphasis on character, leadership, duty and public service. The strict approach of the previous generation was relaxed, and more informal intimate relations between teachers and taught — at vacation reading parties, for example — became a vital component of the Balliol ethos.
Several Fellows, like Jowett, were prominent in the debates of 1850–1870 on University Reform, which the College itself anticipated in several respects. Some (notably T. H. Green) were also to the front in the campaign somewhat later to make higher education and degrees available to women. Ladies were allowed to attend College classes from 1884, provided that they were ‘attended by some elder person’.
At the height of the British Empire, Balliol men were its leaders: three successive Viceroys of India 1888–1905, for example. And it is perhaps appropriate that the winding-up of the British Empire was supervised by a Balliol man (the Rt Hon Christopher Patten, last Governor of Hong Kong).
Early 20th century
A.L. Smith and A.D. Lindsay were successive Masters 1916–1924 and 1924–1949. Both were supporters of working-class adult education, and Balliol became a regular venue for summer schools in vacations. Previous traditions were continued in the College itself, academic achievement reaching a high point in 1928, when over 40 per cent of the College’s candidates in the Final Honour Schools took Firsts, but there were many changes. There was a great need to provide more accommodation, but the College site was already fully built up, and was completely hemmed in by other colleges and roads. The only additional rooms which could be built in the twenties had to be perched on top of existing staircases. This was done with the help of a then unknown undergraduate Benefactor who is now known to have been the late W.A. Coolidge. He was subsequently a great Benefactor in other ways, especially through his Pathfinder scheme, which has enabled well over two hundred student members of the College to spend a long vacation travelling in the United States.
The most far-reaching development between the two World Wars was the acquisition and extension of Holywell Manor for use as a residential annexe. The necessary funds for the original extension, and also for the Martin and Dellal Buildings, which were added to the Holywell complex in the sixties and eighties respectively, were all raised by very successful Appeals. ‘The Manor’ has evolved into a Graduate Institution with a vibrant character of its own, whilst remaining an integral part of the College. The increase in the number and proportion of graduate admissions (now running at around a third of all admissions) in recent times is a fundamental change equalled only by the admission of women.
Balliol was in 1973 the first of the traditional all-male colleges to elect a woman as a Fellow and Tutor, and the College has admitted women as students since 1979: one of them, Masako Owada (Balliol 1988–90, resident in Holywell Manor 1988–9), was married to HIH The Crown Prince of Japan in June 1993.
For the most recent full-length history of the College, see J. Jones, Balliol College: A History, Oxford University Press, 2nd edition 1997. A revised 2nd edition appeared in 2005, about which further information. Its Appendix G lists sources of information about the College, its past members, its estates, and its treasures (such as its portrait collection).
Davies, HCW. Balliol College. London: 1899.
Paravicini, Frances de. Early History of Balliol College. London: 1891.
Savage, Henry, Balliofergus, was the first history of the College (1668) and is available here through EEBO (Early English Books Online). This is a subscription service, available via most academic library computing systems.
Several lists of distinguished graduates are available here.