Catherine of Alexandria was an extremely popular saint throughout the Middle Ages, and has long been the patron saint of scholars. According to legend, Catherine, a young noblewoman of the early Christian centuries, confounded the scholars of Emperor Maximinus with her learning and eloquence in defence of Christianity. After a period of imprisonment and torture during which she experienced mystical marriage with Christ and brought about many conversions (and consequent martyrdoms), including that of Maximinus’ empress, she was to be put to death on a wheel, but it miraculously burst into pieces. Catherine’s death, however, was unusual even for a virgin martyr. After her eventual demise by beheading, angels removed her body to Mt Sinai, where the Monastery of the Transfiguration, which became associated with the cult of Catherine much later, still houses her shrine. Her usual symbols are a wheel and a book, and may also include the more general symbols of the virgin martyr, a crown and a sword.
St Catherine has been associated with Balliol since its beginnings in the 13th century; even before the College had a chapel, Dervorguilla had the north aisle of St Mary Magdalen repaired and ‘fitted up as an oratory dedicated to St. Catherine.’1 Oliver Sutton, Bishop of Lincoln, writing in 1284, noted the dedication of the College to St Catherine in his approval of Dervorguilla’s foundation. In 1293 he went on to permit the College to have its own chapel, which was dedicated to St Catherine and probably finished by about 1330. On a more secular note, Balliol still holds 16th-18th century documents pertaining to an inn called the Catherine Wheel, which was situated in St Giles, near the present-day back gate of the College.
Iconography of St Catherine can be seen in the Old Common Room, Library, Hall and Chapel. The St Catherine window, the surviving parts of which are now in the Chapel, dates from the 16th century and used to be in the window between the Old Library and the Chapel. This section portrays the removal of Catherine’s body by angels to Mt Sinai. The glass roundel in the OCR shows Catherine’s triumph over Emperor Maximinus and dates from the 17th century.
Henry Savage’s Balliofergus (1668), the first written history of the College, discourses at length on the etymology and proper pronunciation of the name Catherine, and more helpfully notes that in 1588 ‘…a new Seal was Fabricated, with the Image of St. Catherine in it, having her Sword in one hand, her Wheel in the other, and her Crown upon her head, with the several Coats of Arms placed, as in Dervorgilles [sic] Seal…’ The new seal’s legend reads SIGILLVM * MAGISTRI * ET * SCHOLARIVM * COLLEGII * BAYLIOLENSIS [Seal of the Master and Scholars of Balliol College]. Within this Catherine is surrounded by the four shields also present on the College’s first seal, clockwise from top left as viewed: a lion rampant for Galloway; three garbs (wheatsheaves), the arms of the Earl of Chester; two piles meeting toward the base (the arms of the Earl of Huntingdon); an orle for Balliol. Dervorguilla was descended from the Earls of Chester and Huntingdon.2
The wooden sculpture of St Catherine which, with its attendant angels, now adorns the east wall of the Old Library was originally part of the Chapel screen, erected in the 1630s as part of a major Chapel refurbishment scheme. The screen was paid for by a very large donation by John Popham (1603−1637), grandson of Lord Chief Justice John Popham (1531−1607). Popham was instrumental in establishing the Blundell Foundation which sent pupils from Blundell’s School in Tiverton, Devon, to Balliol College, Oxford, and Emmanuel College and Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge. It is not entirely clear from the surviving iconography that it is an effigy of Catherine, as her wheel and most of the sword except the hilt are missing, but the crown and sword mark her as a virgin martyr, and even with only a book Catherine is certainly the most likely candidate.
The stained glass wheel shown here is from a window in the College Hall; most of the Hall glass features heraldic shields.
The St Catherine’s Day Dinner, which takes place on the patronal feast of 25 November, is a long-standing Balliol tradition; it was certainly well-established by 1549. It used to be restricted to Senior Members but has included undergraduates for at least the last hundred years. Invitations are restricted by the size of the Hall; normally undergraduate and graduate finalists attend, so that every Junior Member should have the opportunity to celebrate the feast once in their time at Balliol. A Classicist still recites the College Grace in Latin at the beginning of the meal, but the Grace Cup no longer makes the rounds of the Hall. Accounts from the 1920s give the ingredients of the Grace Cup as claret, cloves (the alcoholic spiced cordial, rather than the spice itself), curaçao, cherry brandy and sherry. The dinner menu no longer includes peacock …
- J. Jones, Balliol College: A History. 2nd ed. rev. OUP 2005, p. 7
- H. Savage, Balliofergus. 1668, pp. 81–2.
Balliol Archive Sources for St Catherine and the St Catherine’s Day Dinner:
- College seals: MISC 24/24*
- Photographs of sculpture & stained glass: PHOT 58.23 , PHOT 59.5, PHOT 62 3b, PHOT 71.22
- Administrative records of St Cat’s Dinners: 1568–1844 Bursars’ Computi (accounts); 1920, 30s and 50s, MBP 70 a & b, MBP 161c
- J. Jones, Balliol College: A History. 2nd ed. rev. OUP 2005.
- Rev H. E. Salter, The Oxford Deeds of Balliol College. 1913.
- S. R. T. O. d’Ardenne and E. J. Dobson in Seinte Katerine, EETS s.s. 7 (Oxford: OUP, 1981), pp. 132–203.
- Katherine J. Lewis. The Cult of St Katherine of Alexandria in Late Medieval England. Boydell & Brewer, 2000.
- S. Nevanlinna & I. Taavitsainen, St Katherine of Alexandria: The Late ME Prose Legend in Southwell Minster MS 7.
- For more about the Monastery of the Transfiguration, Mt Sinai, see its official website.
- John Jones