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Full History of the Hall

Although a college in the strict sense only since 1957, the history of St Edmund Hall goes back to the thirteenth century, and it can claim to be the oldest surviving academic society to house and educate undergraduates in any university.

Medieval halls were established to house and educate undergraduates, many of them predating Oxford’s colleges. St Edmund Hall was the last of these many medieval halls to survive, becoming a fully incorporated college in the twentieth century. The first documented reference to St Edmund Hall is in 1317, but it may be considerably older. Although Oxford’s oldest colleges date to the mid-thirteenth century, it was not until the sixteenth century that the colleges commonly admitted undergraduates.

The Hall takes its name from St Edmund of Abingdon, Archbishop of Canterbury (1234–40), who traditionally resided and taught in a house at the western end of the present front quadrangle when he was a Regent Master in the Arts, probably in the 1190s.

Medieval halls were not incorporated and had no initial endowment or individual statutes: the Hall has, therefore, no date of foundation. But early in the thirteenth century the site of the front quadrangle was owned by John de Bermingham, rector of Iffley, whose relatives in 1262 sold part of it to Thomas of Malmesbury, perpetual vicar of Cowley: the Berminghams and Malmesbury are likely to have kept a student Hall.

In 1272 Thomas granted his part of the site to Oseney Abbey, which owned it until the Dissolution in 1539. The name Aula Sancti Edmundi first survives by chance in an Oseney rent role for 1317-18: it may be considerably older. The list of sixty known Principals begins with William Boys (c. 1315). The front quadrangle reached its present extent c. 1469 when Oseney purchased from Magdalen College some land that the Principals had been renting.

The Dissolution brought the Hall into danger of extinction. In the early decades of the sixteenth century it had come into a close relationship with its neighbour The Queen's College of which a number of its Principals were also Fellows, and c. 1531 Queen's had obtained a lease of the Hall from Oseney Abbey. Nevertheless in 1546 the Crown sold the Hall to property speculators - ultimately to the Londoner William Burnell, and the Principalship came into the hands of Ralph Rudde who had been recently expelled from his fellowship at Queen's. Rudde used his office as a base for vexing the Provost of Queen's, William Denysson. Fortunately in 1553 Denysson managed to buy the freehold of the Hall from Burnell; when Rudde died in 1557 he transferred the freehold to his College. In 1559 Denysson himself received from Convocation of the University authority to name the Principal, but soon afterwards the right to elect was vested in Queen's College, which was placed under the obligation that "henceforth for ever (it) will preserve the Hall and will preserve it to literary uses". Not until 1564 was a new Principal appointed, but the future and separate identity of the Hall were assured under the aegis of Queen's College.

There was no considerable development as regards to its position until the period of University reform in the later nineteenth century. As a Hall, St Edmund Hall both before and after the Reformation had no fellows. Subject to the Aularian Statutes of the University which prevailed from the late fifteenth century until 1937, the Principals exercised full control: they commonly held an ecclesiastical benefice at a distance from Oxford as well as the Principalship. From the late sixteenth century they were usually assisted by Vice-Principals. The academic teaching of undergraduates was provided by graduates who served as Tutors, and after the Hall acquired a Chapel in 1680–82 there were sometimes Chaplains. The buying of provisions was a responsibility of a Manciple. Undergraduate numbers fluctuated but were small. The year 1552 saw them as low as six, but early in the seventeenth century they were up to nearly forty and after the Restoration of 1660 they reached about sixty-five. In 1850 they were down to twenty-five, and in 1913 they were about forty.

In academic respects, before its twentieth-century transformation, the Hall had three high points.

The first was in the mid-fifteenth century after the appointment as Principal of John Thamys (1438). There were additions to the site, notably by the annexing of White Hall and then St Hugh's Hall. The latter was used as a dependent grammar hall until the 1480s when the school that William of Waynflete attached to Magdalen College appears to have ended its raison d'être.

The second came with the Restoration of 1660 and the Principalships of Thomas Tullie (1658–76), Stephen Penton (1676–84), and John Mill (1685–1707); a well-known Vice Principal of the period was White Kennet (1691–5), later Bishop of Peterborough. From Tullie's time the Hall was particularly favoured by Wiltshire and other west-country families, for example John Methuen (matric. 1665), who in 1703 negotiated the Methuen treaty with Portugal after which Port superseded Burgundy as a favourite wine in England. Two of Tullie's undergraduates Sir Thomas Littleton and Sir Richard (later Baron) Onslow, became speakers of the House of Commons. The antiquary Thomas Hearne (matric. 1696) remains the most distinguished scholar to have been an undergraduate of the Hall.

During the period of Evangelical ascendancy in the early nineteenth century, and so before the academic revival of the Colleges that Balliol and Oriel inaugurated took general effect, the Hall for the third time achieved academic prominence: Isaac Crouch (Vice-Principal, 1783–1807) in particular, was recognised to have impressed upon it 'a novel character for erudition no less than seriousness' - a character to which its holding of Evangelical scholarly literature still testifies.

Amongst the Principals of the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries, there stand out as scholars and writers John Aglionby (1601–10), who took part in the preparation of the Authorised Version of the Bible, the New Testament textual scholar John Mill, Thomas Shaw (1740–51), whose travels in Barbary and the Levant won him European fame, Edward Moore (1864–1913), the authority on Dante.

From the fifteenth until the nineteenth century a feature of the Hall's history was its connection with current religious movements of one sort or another.

In the early fifteenth century it was a stronghold of Lollardy. One Principal, Williams Taylor (c. 1405) became a Lollard preacher and in 1423 was burnt at the stake at Smithfield as a relapsed heretic. Another, Peter Payne (c. 1411), in 1413 fled to Prague where he died in 1455 after an active sojourn with the Hussites; in 1432 he represented the moderate Taborites at the Council of Basle.

The late seventeenth century found the Hall a nursery of two well-known Non-Jurors - men who, from loyalty to the Stuarts, refused to take oaths to their successors after 1688: John Knettlewell (matric. 1670) the devotional writer, and Thomas Hearne who would not take an oath to the Hanoverians. The year 1768 saw the Vice Principal, John Hingson, expressing alarm at the presence in the hall of young men 'who talked of regeneration, inspiration and drawing nigh unto God'. When the tolerant Principal, George Dixon (1760–87) declined to take action, Hingson delated them to the Vice-Chancellor of the University who, with four assessors, held an enquiry in the Dining Hall and expelled six students. This occasioned a celebrated exchange between Boswell and Dr. Johnson.

    "I talked [Boswell wrote] of the recent expulsion of six students from the University of Oxford, who were methodists, and would not desist from publicly praying and exhorting.

    JOHNSON. "Sir, that expulsion was extremely just and proper. What have they to do at University, who are not willing to be taught, but will presume to teach? Where is religion to be learnt, but at an University? Sir, they were examined, and found to be mighty arrogant fellows."

    BOSWELL. "But was it not hard, Sir, to expel them, for I am told they were good beings?"

    JOHNSON. " I believe they might be good beings; but they were not fit to be in the University of Oxford. A cow is a very good animal to be in a field; but we turn her out of the garden".

There ensued a vehement pamphlet warfare that lasted into the nineteenth century. Despite the expulsion, the Hall was soon to become for more than a century a fervent centre of Oxford Evangelicalism. At a time when the Principals were content to leave the running of the Hall pretty much to the Vice-Principals, three successive Vice-Principals - Isaac Crouch who was Dixon's last appointee to the office, Daniel Wilson (1807–12) later Bishop of Calcutta, and John Hill (1812–51) kept the Evangelical tradition alive. But thereafter, with the Principalships of John Burrow (1854–61) and John Branthwaite (1861–64), the Hall became Tractarian, especially with the advent of the theologian and preacher H.P. Liddon to be Vice-Principal (1859–62) after Evangelical attacks had forced him to leave Cuddesdon Theological College.

It fell to the next Principal, Edward Moore, to ensure the survival of the Hall as the repercussions of the later nineteenth-century reform of the University became apparent. The appointment of the Oxford University Commissioners of 1850 had already led to the canvassing of the suggestion that "the appointment of the Principalship may be adjusted with a view of hereafter throwing the post open to the University, and also securing to the Hall its independence", in 1855 the suggestion was, however, strenuously rebutted by William Thompson, the Bursar of Queen's College. By 1870 the introduction of an "unattached students" system deprived the remaining Halls of a main justification - their cheapness as places of University education; and Moore, viewed the future with pessimism when in 1872 a new Royal Commission was set up. The Statutory Commissioners of 1887 confirmed his fears by providing for the suppression of the other Halls and, with the agreement of Queen's College, for the reduction of St. Edmund Hall when its Principalship next became vacant, to be a dependency of Queen's College with only twenty-four Exhibitioners. In 1903 Moore announced that he intended to resign. Queen's sought to persuade the University to enact an amending statute effecting not now a partial but a total absorption of the Hall. University opinion rallied in its defence as the last surviving Hall which, under Moore, had shown vigorous life. Moore postponed his resignation for ten years, and from 1907 the Hall found a champion in Lord Curzon who, as Chancellor of the University, was ex officio its Visitor. In 1912 a University Statute, approved in 1913 by a Royal Order in Council, provided "for the continuance of the Hall as a place of education, religion and learning separate from The Queen's College, while preserving the right of the College to appoint the Principal of the Hall". Moore could safely resign.

Between the First World War and 1957 the Hall underwent gradual transformation from its circumstances as a Hall to its present status as a College. A small beginning was made in 1926, when a body of six Trustees, including the Principal was empowered to hold property on its behalf. More thorough changes came through the vision, skill, and determination of A. B. Emden (Principal 1929–51). A distinguished medievalist and historian of Universities, he was resolved that the Hall's by now unique character should be preserved. It should expand and be reconstituted to meet modern needs, but remain the oldest surviving Hall, rather than becoming the youngest of the Colleges.

In 1934 Queen's College expressed a willingness to relax the control that it had exercised since 1557. In due course the freehold of the site and buildings was vested in Official Trustee of Charity Lands, as Custodian Trustee. The Statute of University, approved by the King in Council on 21 Dec 1937, by which the Hall's new constitution was laid down, vested all real and personal property belonging to the Hall, with the exception of site and buildings, in the University as Custodian Trustee. It raised to ten the Trustees as established in 1926 and gave them, in conjunction with the Principal, enlarged powers as managing trustees. They also became the body of electors to the Principalship. The Hall received status of its own. On the academic side of its life, the Vice-Principal and Tutors were accorded the title of Fellows, and in matters of internal administration and educational policy they had a claim to be consulted and to consent. Nevertheless, in accordance with Emden's vision for the Hall, the Principal retained his prerogatives and authority; as the statute expressed it, "The Principal shall have charge of the Hall subject to the superintendence of the Trustees and the collaboration of the Fellows". Emden was without doubt one of the outstanding Heads of House in twentieth-century Oxford. But his very success in building up undergraduate numbers, in expanding the buildings, in providing for quality, made it inevitable that the Hall would transcend his vision for it and become a fully collegiate institution that could satisfy the aspirations of all who taught and studied there.

His successor as Principal, the patristics scholar, J. N. D. Kelly (1951–79), speedily and successfully brought about the necessary change. In 1957 Queen Elizabeth II approved the grant to the Hall of its charter of incorporation as a College, which H.R.H. the Duke of Edinburgh presented to it on 6 June 1958. A wholly new body of Statutes, further revised in 1974 came into force. Thus, since 1957, the Hall as a corporate body has stood in possession of its own site, buildings and other property, and has begun the task of accumulating endowments. Subject to its statutes it has control of its affairs through a Governing Body in which, as other Colleges, the Principal is primus inter pares with the Fellows. But from respect for a history extending over eight centuries it has kept the name St Edmund Hall.

Its buildings are best approached in the light of history. Apart from the Church of St Peter-in-the-East which it has used since 1970 as an undergraduate library and from a small portion of medieval city wall, the old buildings are all in the Front Quadrangle, which is among the most attractive in Oxford. The only visible remains of the medieval Hall are a large mid-fifteenth-century fireplace in the middle of the north range which was part of the reconstruction in John Thamy's day. (The shaft, though not the head, of the well in the middle of the Quadrangle is also medieval.) The part of the north range to the east of the sundial was built during the Principalship of Thomas Bowsfield (1581–1601); that to the west was built by Thomas Shaw. Shaw intended to replace the ruinous medieval buildings there in correct but dull Palladian style. Fortunately funds did not allow, and he faithfully copied Bowsfield's work. The Old Dining Hall and the rooms above represent Thomas Tullie's first step towards his improvement of the hall; begun in 1659 they are one of the few Oxford buildings from the Interregnum. His predecessor Adam Airey (1631–58), had already, c. 1635, built the adjacent quarters that are now the Porter's Lodge and part of the Principal's Lodgings. The cottage in the south-east corner of the Quadrangle is a little earlier still.

Most of the east range is taken up by the Chapel and Old Library built by Stephen Penton at the culmination of the Hall's late seventeenth-century prosperity. Members of the Hall had hitherto worshipped in St Peter-in-the-East; in 1680 Penton began, in classical style, the Chapel that Bishop Fell of Oxford dedicated in 1682 as "St Edmund's Chapel in the University of Oxford". The mason of the building, which was completed within ten years, was Bartholomew Peisley; the panelling and woodwork are by Oxford joiner Arthur Frogley. The east window was reconstructed in 1865; the glass by Burne-Jones and Morris. The altarpiece, of the Supper at Emmaus, was painted in 1957–8 by Ceri Richards. Over the Antechapel Penton built the Hall's first Library, announced from the outside by the sculpted piles of books supporting the pediment of the Chapel door. It was the first Oxford Library to be built with shelves along the walls, and the last to be furnished with chains. It was extended in 1931.

The south range of the Quadrangle is the latest. This portion of the Principal's Lodgings at the west end was built in 1826, and the adjacent rooms were added a hundred years later. Until 1934 the remainder of the south side was a shrubbery: when, as a tablet commemorates, the range was completed to mark the seven hundredth anniversary of St Edmund's consecration as Archbishop of Canterbury; the architect was R. Fielding Dodd. Architecturally diverse though it is the Quadrangle composes splendidly into a visual whole.

The buildings to the east - a New Dining Hall and extensive residential accommodation - are the result of the Hall's post-1945 development. Emden had the foresight to lease properties on the High Street so that the Hall was no longer constrained by its fifteenth-century dimensions, and in 1948 a share in the Besse Benefaction to the University made possible a large increase in the number of student rooms along the High Street. Under Kelly the Hall purchased further properties there in 1956, the main development, mostly completed in 1968–70, was an achievement of his middle years as Principal. The architect was Gilbert Howes, of Kenneth Stevens and Associates, who planned the highly successful, economical and pleasing use of a somewhat restricted site.

Kelly was succeeded as Principal by the engineer Sir Ieuan Maddock (1979–82), the philosopher J C B Gosling (1982–96), the judge and former Chief Inspector of Prisons Sir Stephen Tumim (1996–98), the inorganic chemist Professor Michael Mingos (1999-2009) and the molecular microbiologist Professor Keith Gull (2009 to present).

Since 1978 the Hall has admitted female students to membership, with the first women undergraduates matriculating in 1979. As a result of its twentieth-century transformation it has become numerically one of the larger Oxford colleges, with (at the time of writing) some 70 Fellows, 300 graduate students and 400 undergraduates.

Unique among the colleges by reason of its history, it combines the maturity and confidence of long, rich and resilient experience as a hall with the modernity and adaptability of its new way of life as a college.


Emden, A.B. An Oxford Hall in Medieval Times (2nd edn. Oxford, 1968)

An Account of the Chapel and Library Building, St Edmund Hall, Oxford (Oxford, 1932)

"St Edmund Hall", in: The Victoria History of the Counties of England, iii (London and Oxford, 1954), pp319-35

Ollard, S.L. The Six Students of St Edmund Hall Expelled from the University of Oxford in 1768 (London and Oxford, 1911)

Royal Commission on Historical Monuments, England: An Inventory of the Historical Monuments in the City of Oxford (London, 1939). Pp. 100-3

Sherwood, J. and Pevsner, N. The Buildings of England: Oxfordshire (Harmondsworth, 1974), pp 191-4


This brief history of the Hall is based on a version originally written by H.E.J. Cowdrey for the Encyclopaedia of Oxford, edited by Christopher Hibbert, and published by Macmillan. We are most grateful to the publishers for their kind permission to circulate a version of it in connection with our endowments campaign.