New College, Oxford: The 650-year story of the college that dreamt it was a palace

New College, Oxford, is now almost 650 years old. In this extensive article, John Goodall looks at the most widely copied university college in England, a building inspired by a great 14th-century palace, while Geoffrey Tyack examines the development of one of Oxford’s most imposing medieval colleges from the Reformation to the present day. Photographs by Will Pryce.

Part 1: The story of the creation of New College

On October 10, 1356, Edward III responded to astonishing news from France. At Poitiers, on September 19, his son, Edward of Woodstock — posthumously familiar as the Black Prince — had utterly vanquished a much larger French army and captured its leader, John II. Edward III’s claim to the Capetian throne assumed a new authority and he instructed his bishops to offer thanksgiving for the capture of his rival ‘John de Valois, usurper of the kingdom of France’.

Confident in victory, Edward III embarked on a new initiative to remodel his seat at Windsor. He had been engaged in building works in the castle since his Arthurian celebrations there in 1346, from which emerged the royal chivalric brotherhood of the Order of the Garter. His new initiative, however, was to create a palace in the upper ward on a scale to match anything in contemporary Europe. This palace can claim to be the single greatest building project initiated by an English medieval king, costing the stupendous sum of about £44,000, much of it paid for by the ransom of King John.

It must have been at the inception of this undertaking, October 30, 1356, that a previously obscure figure, one William, a clerk from Wickham (or Wykeham) in Hampshire was put in charge of the Windsor operations. William had evidently caught the king’s eye, because he now advanced with extraordinary speed through the ranks of the royal administration until, as the chronicler Froissart expressed it ‘he stood so high in the King’s favour that… everything was done by his consent, and nothing was done without it’. Just over a decade later, in 1367, he was consecrated Bishop of Winchester, one of the richest sees in Christendom.

New College, Oxford. ©Will Pryce/Country Life Picture Library

New College, Oxford. ©Will Pryce/Country Life Picture Library

Not merely content with the perquisites of office, he traded in church appointments, speculated on the wool market and purchased discounted government loans. In the process, he grew astonishingly rich and developed an array of political enemies to match, including the king’s brother, John of Gaunt. During the last days of Edward III’s reign he suffered a spectacular fall from grace, but survived and, on July 31, 1377, received a pardon from the young Richard II.

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This crisis in William’s career brought about a change in his patronage; perhaps it focused his mind. In 1377–78, he began rebuilding a palace at Bishop’s Waltham close to his birthplace and also turned his attention to the formal establishment of two colleges, one at Winchester (for which he received a papal approval on June 1, 1378) and another at Oxford (which was licensed by royal charter on June 30, 1379).

Crucially, both these foundations had a pre-history dating back to 1369. In that year, William had established a residence for poor boys at Winchester (and, four years later, employed a teacher of grammar). He also constituted a community of scholars, accommodated at his expense, under a warden in Oxford, the university city nearest Winchester.

In both cases, the new college assumed the purpose of its predecessor body. No less important, in the process of formal reorganisation, they also came to resemble each other and also to be linked together: the fellows of the Oxford college were to be chosen from the 70 poor boys who were educated in grammar and the liberal arts at Winchester.

The informal passage of students between particular schools and university colleges must have been a long-standing reality, but the formalisation of this arrangement — spelt out in the statutes issued from 1389 — was revolutionary. It henceforth became a characteristic feature of the grandest acts of English educational patronage.

New College, Oxford. ©Will Pryce/Country Life Picture Library

New College, Oxford. ©Will Pryce/Country Life Picture Library

Despite being linked together, William evidently regarded his Oxford college as the senior of the two institutions and the business of establishing it took precedence over its Winchester counterpart.

According to its foundation charter, dated November 26, 1379, William’s new university college was to be known as ‘St Mary’s College commonly Seynte Marie College of Wynchestre’ and to comprise a warden, and 70 scholar-clerks; 10 priests were added a few years later. It soon became known, however, as ‘New’ College to distinguish it from what is now Oriel, also dedicated to the Virgin.

Its name was appropriate in other ways. The size of the community, for example, was enormous relative to Oxford’s existing colleges and there was no precedent for fixing the number of scholars. In his statutes, William emphasised that he was motivated to educate the clergy and placed an unusual emphasis on the teaching of theology. Twenty fellows were permitted to study law and two astronomy. No less remarkable was the scale and opulence of the new buildings. The foundation stone was laid on March 5, 1380.

In planning his new college, William had a remarkably free hand. Oxford was still depopulated after the Black Death and, with royal help, he took control of a coherent block of land in the north-east corner of the walled city — a place described by a jury in 1379 as ‘full of filth, dirt and stinking carcases…[a] concourse of malefactors, murderers, whores and thieves’. William cleared the area and, through papal licence, exempted the college from Oxford’s parochial structure.

Within this carefully constituted enclosure was laid out the largest single coherent building complex ever seen in Oxford. It was dominated by a single, massive range comprising the two principal communal interiors of the college set end to end — the hall and the chapel. Their façades are punctuated by deep buttresses and pinnacles. Closing in this range to the south, and forming a quadrangle with it, were three much lower lodging ranges for the community and the warden who governed it.

New College, Oxford. ©Will Pryce/Country Life Picture Library

New College, Oxford. ©Will Pryce/Country Life Picture Library

Entrance to the complex was through a gatehouse that forms part of the warden’s lodging. Its façade is decorated towards the street with sculptures of the Annunciation and the kneeling figure of the founder. Visitors who walk through this into the quadrangle are confronted by a second gatehouse tower with an identical sculptural display, actually an unusually tall porch to the hall. It accommodates a grand vaulted entrance stair, as well as several strong rooms for the college’s treasure and muniments, a conventional use for such spaces.

This whole composition of the main college court is directly derived from the example of the Upper Ward of Windsor Castle. It likewise combines the principal apartments of the palace — the hall, chapel and chamber — into a single dominating composition enclosed on three sides by lodging ranges. Also apparent here is the monumentality of Windsor, its coherence and simplicity, all hallmarks of the Perpendicular style.

One striking contrast, however, is in the treatment of windows in the two buildings. At Windsor, all those of the main façade were identical. This treatment ran contrary to long English precedent, in which different rooms were commonly lit by distinct types of window. At New College, in implicit rejection of Windsor’s uniformity, the hall and chapel windows are different.

Internally, both the hall and chapel were grandly conceived. The former is raised up to first-floor level above a vaulted undercroft and is approached from the main quadrangle up a broad stair spanned by an extremely sophisticated decorative vault. Next to the entrance, and now screened off from the body of the hall by a partition installed in 1533–35, are doors to the magnificent medieval kitchens (which still operate) and services. At the opposite end to the entrance is a dais for the high table. The hall was first designed with a central hearth, the smoke escaping through a louvre in the roof.

By far the largest and most architecturally impressive interior within the college, however, was the chapel. Rising the full height of the building from the ground, it was built to be much loftier than the hall. The huge windows were filled with stained glass and many of the original panels, commissioned from the glazier Thomas of Oxford, survive. So, too, do the stalls, now much reworked.

New College, Oxford. ©Will Pryce/Country Life Picture Library

New College, Oxford. ©Will Pryce/Country Life Picture Library

It is usual in a chapel to create a large window in the gable wall behind the high altar. At New College, however, the gable wall was shared with the dais of the hall and was necessarily blind. To decorate it, therefore, a huge reredos was erected, comprising tiers of sculpted saints set in niches. The arrangement was probably inspired by the form of its lost counterpart at Windsor.

To date, the grandest collegiate foundation associated with the university was Merton College. Its spectacular chapel, begun in 1289, had been conceived on an unusual cruciform plan — an aisled nave and aisle-less chancel separated by a crossing tower and transepts — that was probably derived from the architecture of Oxford’s lost friary churches.

The friars were a formative influence on the university’s 13th-century life and the preaching naves of their churches, screened off from the choir, were used for university disputations. It was probably intended that the Merton chapel should function likewise, but work never progressed further than the lowest level of the transepts, leaving the chapel as a T-shaped structure.

Taking the precedent of Merton’s chapel, this T-shaped plan was reworked in rather different form, replacing the transepts and crossing tower with an aisled nave of two narrow bays across the mouth of the choir. The two spaces were separated by a screen to create what is usually called an ante-chapel, with huge windows.

In the 19th century, some historians attributed the design of New College to its patron, but the figure definitely responsible was, in fact, the master mason William Wynford. He is first documented as a warden mason at Windsor in 1360 and was rapidly promoted in the royal works, presumably by the future bishop. He was taken into Bishop William’s service and in 1377–78, when working on alterations to the episcopal palace of Bishop’s Waltham, is described as ‘the mason and master of all the lord’s masonry works’. They were of a staggering quantity.

New College, Oxford. ©Will Pryce/Country Life Picture Library

New College, Oxford. ©Will Pryce/Country Life Picture Library

The main collegiate buildings were sufficiently complete for the community to enter into its new home on April 14, 1386. At this point, the focus of William’s attention passed to the construction of Winchester College, a building that shows many close architectural affinities with New College. Winchester College, incidentally, certainly was designed by Wynford, whose portrait first appeared next to that of the master carpenter, Hugh Herland, in the chapel’s east window.

Work did, nevertheless, continue at New College to complete the buildings. Following the purchase of another parcel of land in 1388–89, a new cloister was laid out to the west of the chapel and with it a bell tower that projected over the city wall. It’s not clear if this was an afterthought or part of the plan that was realised late. Edward III had created something similar for the canons of St Stephen’s College, Westminster.

Bishop William lived until 1404, when he was buried in a magnificent surviving chantry in Winchester Cathedral. He left many of his heirlooms to his Oxford college, including his astonishing crozier and a treasure trove of £2,000. Even more remarkable, however, was the legacy of the college itself.

If imitation is evidence of admiration, New College was unquestionably the most admired college in medieval Oxford, partly because so many influential clergy passed through it and then chose to model their own foundations upon it. Its influence also extended to Cambridge, through the example of Henry VI’s collegiate foundations at Eton and King’s College, linked together in the manner of Bishop William’s projects in 1443. Even after the Reformation, its direct influence is seen in the design of Wadham, begun in 1610. By this date, New College was itself changing — as Geoffrey Tyack explains below.

Part 2: Modernising a medieval seat of learning, by Geoffrey Tyack

The 14th-century buildings of New College — described above by John Goodall — may have formed the tradition of collegiate architecture in Oxford, but they have not been left unchanged for the past 500 years. Nor has the institution itself. After the Reformation, the Chapel was purged of ‘Popish’ aberrations. Subsidiary altars were removed in 1560, followed in 1566 by the destruction of the statues in the reredos, which was plastered over, and of the rood loft in 1571–72.

There were also changes to the residential parts of the college. The warden’s lodgings were enlarged to allow for the presence of a wife and family; some late-16th-century carved chimneypieces survive there. By the late 1600s, the senior fellows, tiring of sharing their rooms with junior members of the college, were beginning to construct ‘cocklofts’ in the attics of the quadrangle, in which they could enjoy some privacy.

New College, Oxford. ©Will Pryce/Country Life Picture Library

New College, Oxford. ©Will Pryce/Country Life Picture Library

These piecemeal changes had relatively little impact on the college’s external appearance, but, in 1674–75, the attic gables were hidden behind walls of Headington ashlar stone, with a fringe of battlements as seen from the quadrangle side, their smooth exterior contrasting with the coarse rubble of the 14th-century lower floors.

However conducive these changes may have been to the comfort of the occupants, they had the unfortunate effect of destroying the original proportions of the quadrangle, especially on the western side, where the top floor of the gate tower is squeezed between the newly heightened walls. The original appearance was further compromised in 1718–21, when sash windows were introduced throughout the quadrangle, save for one on the eastern side, which was restored in 1949.

The top floor on that side was allotted to an Upper Library, freeing the room over the medieval Exchequer — formerly used to house law books — to be turned, in 1678, into a Senior Common Room, one of Oxford’s first. Lined with wood panelling and largely intact, it epitomises the Oxford of the post-Restoration era, the diarist and antiquary Anthony Wood caustically remarking, in 1682, that the fellows of New College were ‘much given to drinking and gaming and vain brutish pleasure. They degenerate in learning’.

The warden’s lodgings were modernised in the 1670s, with a handsome staircase constructed by local joiner Richard Frogley in 1675. They were linked, in 1675–76, by an attractive, round-arched stone bridge to his private garden behind the barn and stables on the south side of New College Lane, one of Oxford’s most attractive secret spaces.

The designer of the bridge was William Byrd, a local mason-architect who had carved some of the embellishments of Sir Christopher Wren’s Sheldonian Theatre, in 1666–69, and whose yard was in Holywell Street, just to the north of New College.

New College, Oxford. ©Will Pryce/Country Life Picture Library

New College, Oxford. ©Will Pryce/Country Life Picture Library

A decision to admit gentleman commoners (fee-paying boarders) led to the first major extension of the original buildings in 1682–84. A garden had already been created in 1529–30 in the open space to the east of the quadrangle, with a viewing mound of 1594, to which steps were added in 1642. Bounded to the north and east by the crenellated city wall — now a backdrop to magnificent floral borders — the garden was ‘new making’, Celia Fiennes wrote in 1694, with ‘a large basin of water’ and ‘little walkes and round mounts for the schollars to divert themselves in’.

The new buildings, three-storeyed and crenellated, flank a courtyard that opens out from the quadrangle towards the garden; two more sash-windowed blocks (Oxford’s first) were added at the far end in 1700–07, stepped back like stage scenery and linked by a splendid iron screen, with the college’s coat-of-arms and motto over the gateway.

An open-ended ‘quadrangle’ of this kind was a novelty in Oxford, owing something to contemporary Baroque planning, as at Wren’s never-completed palace for Charles II at Winchester (where Byrd was a mason). It marked a major departure from the introverted character of the existing architecture.

With the college membership stable, or even decreasing, no new buildings were needed in the 18th century, but there were major changes to the interiors of the chapel, hall and library.

Following concern — probably misplaced — about the state of the chapel windows, glass-painter William Price was employed in 1736–40 to replace the 14th-century glass on the south side of the chancel with new windows to his own design. Those on the north side were entrusted to William Peckitt of York, whose garishly coloured figures of bearded saints and prophets were a poor substitute for their predecessors; one of the fellows took Peckitt to task in 1774 for the design of the canopies, which, in his view, bore ‘too much resemblance to those grotesque designs wch should never be admitted into any serious compositions’.

The glass in the upper tracery lights was allowed to survive, however, as was most of the 14th-century glass in the ante-chapel, save for the Tree of Jesse in the west window (now in York Minster). In 1778–85, this fell victim to a new window of painted glass, executed by Thomas Jervais to a design by Sir Joshua Reynolds, president of the newly founded Royal Academy. It features a Nativity scene at the top, modelled on Correggio’s La Notte in Dresden, with ‘twisted emblematical figures’ of the Virtues in the lower lights, waspishly compared by the Hon John Byng in 1781 to ‘half dress’d, languishing harlots’.

These changes were a prelude to a thorough remodelling of the chancel by James Wyatt in 1789–94. It involved the replacement of the 17th-century stalls with ones of medieval appearance, the restoration of the reredos at the east end with stucco simulating the decayed stone carving, and the insertion of a plaster vault under the wooden roof.

New College, Oxford. ©Will Pryce/Country Life Picture Library

New College, Oxford. ©Will Pryce/Country Life Picture Library

Wyatt also replaced the screen to the ante-chapel, placing the organ in a pinnacled Gothic case above it, its centre left open to reveal the new west window framed within a pointed arch. A dramatic gesture, this was described by a contemporary commentator as ‘a most superb piece of Gothic architecture… very fitly corresponding with the richness and beauty of the altarpiece’.

Wyatt’s work was a serious and, in its way, successful attempt to reinstate a medieval interior in accordance with the scenic and antiquarian tastes of its time. But it offended a later generation and, today, little of it is left, apart from the lower portion of the reredos, with reliefs by the elder Richard Westmacott. Wyatt also worked on the hall, where he added a plaster ceiling, and was responsible for the simple, yet elegant, neo-Classical decoration of the upper library carried out by his Oxford assistant James Pears in 1778–80.

Wyatt’s alterations to the hall fell victim to another restoration in 1862–65, by George Gilbert Scott, whose commitment to Gothic architecture had been revealed in Oxford in his Martyrs’ Memorial of 1841 and his spectacular chapel at Exeter College of 1856–59. When Scott removed Wyatt’s ceiling, he discovered that the medieval timbers had decayed, but his new tie-beam roof was essentially a copy of the original, down to the glazed lantern marking the place of the louvre over the former central hearth.

Wyatt’s restoration of the chapel was less conservative and anathema to the serious-minded clergy and architectural pundits of the mid-Victorian era. Of the three alternative schemes proposed by Scott, the dons chose the most radical, and most expensive, believing it to have a ‘more ecclesiastical character’ than the others. Scott pointed out that, with its hammer-beam construction, it did not ‘reproduce either the pitch or the design of the ancient roof’, which was also of tie-beam construction. He was never one to turn down a commission, however, and the work was done to this design in 1877–78.

What was left of the medieval fittings was preserved, including the wooden backs to the stalls and the splendid set of misericords, but Wyatt’s stalls were swept away, to be replaced by others carved by Scott’s frequent collaborators Farmer and Brindley. Finally, in 1892, after Scott’s death, the reredos was filled with bland new statuary (by Nathaniel Hitch), and the stucco covering of the niches replaced by crisply carved stone.

New College, Oxford. ©Will Pryce/Country Life Picture Library

New College, Oxford. ©Will Pryce/Country Life Picture Library

Bound by its original statutes and supported by its landed revenues, New College was not one of the intellectual powerhouses of Georgian Oxford, but, in the mid 19th century, it become one of the more progressive colleges. After the adoption of new statutes in 1882, the undergraduate population rose from 90 in 1873 to 253 in 1894, so, to house them, the college expanded onto land along Holywell Street, north of the city wall.

Scott, now firmly entrenched as the college’s architect, rejected the option of a new quadrangle, arguing it was important to preserve the view of the 14th-century buildings rising above the city wall: one of Oxford’s greatest architectural set pieces. Instead, he proposed a long range of three-storey, stone-faced buildings in a ‘collegiate Gothic’ style, which he unconvincingly claimed was ‘generally in accordance with the date of the college’.

His design was enlivened by a crenellated tower at the western end and two polygonal staircase turrets on the gabled south front, but the college insisted on adding an extra storey, increasing its already substantial bulk and making the Holywell Street front overbearing. The buildings were extended eastwards by Basil Champneys, who designed the present gate tower in a more sympathetic neo-Tudor style in 1896–97: this forms the usual entrance to the college today.

New College, Oxford. ©Will Pryce/Country Life Picture Library

New College, Oxford. ©Will Pryce/Country Life Picture Library

The membership of New College has continued to expand over the past 100 years, but, with the exception of a new library to the north of the chapel, designed by Hubert Worthington in a modest Art Deco-influenced style in 1938–39, that growth has not interfered with the integrity of the buildings as they were in 1900. There have been some internal changes, notably in the ante-chapel, where a striking stone figure by Jacob Epstein of Lazarus rising from his tomb was introduced in 1952; Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev said it kept him awake at night after a visit. In 1969, the organ case by John Oldrid Scott made way for the present, Modernist-inspired case designed by G. G. Pace.

Otherwise, modern interventions have been mainly limited to conservation. Decayed 17th- and 18th-century Headington-stone facings were replaced in smooth Clipsham ashlar as part of refacing carried out under Fielding Dodd and Geoffrey Beard in 1957–69. In 2014–15, the firm Freeland Rees Roberts was brought in to renovate the kitchen and its ancillary buildings, including the vaulted beer cellar (now, appropriately, part of the student bar), thus revealing much of the original layout of the lower end of the hall.

Following this successful work, we now have a clearer understanding of the vision of William of Wykeham, his masons and his craftsmen. More importantly, the buildings themselves have been carefully conserved to serve and inspire current and future generations of students, scholars and visitors.

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