The History of New College

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 at Oxford’. Almost immediately it became known as ‘New College’ to distinguish it from the other Oxford dedicated to the Virgin Mary, Oriel (1326).

New College was founded to praise God; support the Faith, pray for the souls of the Founder, his relatives and other benefactors; and to provide higher education for the clergy. Wykeham had risen from modest beginnings in rural Hampshire to become the chief minister of Edward III, his parvenu status being reflected in his self-confident personal motto adopted by his college: ‘Manners Makyth Man’.

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.

Architecturally New College was innovative in its enclosed quadrangle (finished 1386). The cloisters were completed in 1400. 

From foundation to 19th century

Wykeham’s meticulously detailed statutes remained in force with only minor accretions until the 19th century. The college however changed markedly.

In its first medieval heyday, it produced leaders of church and state such as Archbishops of Canterbury Henry Chichele and William Warham and humanist scholars such as William Grocyn, the first teacher of Greek at Oxford.

The Reformation stripped the college of its intellectual leadership, late sixteenth and seventeenth century fellows tending to introspective learning. After the Civil War, during which the college supported the king, the college expanded in wealth and luxury. An additional storey was added to the Front Quad in the 1670s. Between 1682 and 1707 the Garden Quad was built to accommodate a handful of fee-paying Gentlemen Commoners.

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

While not entirely a sybaritic, slothful backwater, New College was prevented by its medieval statutes from adapting to rising demand for university education. The largest college by far in 1379, by 1800, it was one of the smallest, with at most 20 of the 70 Fellows undergraduates, all exclusively Wykehamist and dominated by Founders’ Kin.

19th century to present

19th century reform swept these things away, creating the essence of the modern college under new statutes of 1857 and 1883 (which, with a few significant changes lasted until 2006).

The fellowship was opened to non-Wykehamists. The college freely admitted undergraduates (nearly 300 were in residence by 1900). The New Buildings along Holywell 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). 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).

The later 20th century saw the steady increase in graduates studying for higher degrees, prompting the construction of the Sacher Building (1963). Today graduates constitute over a third of the student body. Further changes in the statutes permitted the college to elect its first woman fellow in 1974 and in 1979 the first women undergraduates were admitted. While not to date producing a Prime Minister, since the 19th century, members of New College have been notable in public service, diplomacy, academia, the law, business, literature and the arts.