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Thursday, 28 May 2015

Balliol College

Balliol, Chapel Passage, Old Library, Oxford

Peeking past the porter’s lodge is looking through a window into another world; a world of privilege, beauty, tradition, history and at least a thousand stories.  Here is Balliol College, one of more than thirty academic communities that make up the University of Oxford.

Balliol, Oxford, Front Quad, Common Room, Library, Chapel

Across the quad from the porter’s lodge, cascades of pendulous wisteria hang nonchalantly above a border of cool blue forget-me-nots and fiery wall flowers, framed by a lush lawn and honey-coloured buildings.  In the chapel passage are columns of more than 300 inscribed names - the Balliol men who died during the two World Wars.  More than 200 of these perished in the First World War, including Raymond Asquith and Friedrich von Bethman Hollweg, sons of the British Prime Minister and German Chancellor at the outbreak of war in 1914.  Amongst those remembered from the Second World War is Adam von Trott, executed in 1944 for his part in the July Plot to assassinate Hitler.  The Victorian chapel, dedicated to St Catherine of Alexandria (also known as Catherine of the Wheel), seems to resonate with the spirits of departed scholars; I am reminded of Mr Chips, reciting the names of the pupils he taught as their faces pass into, and out of, his reflective, mournful, memory.

Balliol, Chapel, St Catherine of Alexandria, patron saint of the College

St Catherine’s association with the college dates back to the 13th century and her feast day, 25th November, has been the occasion of a formal dinner since at least 1549, when peacock was on the menu.  College buildings along Magdalen Street stand on the site of a pub called the Catherine Wheel – where, it is said, some of the Gunpowder Plot conspirators met in 1605.

Balliol, Chapel, east window, stained glass

The wisteria hangs from the 15th century old library, which joins the 15th century old hall at right angles by means of the 19th century Salvin Tower, forming the north-west corner of the quad, accessed via the library passage.  Here are the gates that were the main gates for the college for 300 years, and which allegedly bear scorch marks from the flames that consumed the Protestant martyrs, Latimer and Ridley, burned on Oxford’s Broad Street for their beliefs in 1555.

Balliol, grotesques, Old Hall

Balliol claims to be the oldest of the Oxford colleges and to have occupied the same site for longer than any other college in the English-speaking world.  Though most of its buildings are, in fact, Victorian, its founders were at the core of medieval Britain, parents of a king of Scotland (King John Balliol reigned from 1292-96) and the subjects of an old, if somewhat gruesome, romantic tale.  John de Balliol was a powerful landowner in England and France, with English estates principally based at Barnard Castle in County Durham.  The family originated from Bailleul-en-Vimeu in Picardy.  John himself was a loyal supporter of the English King, Henry III and married Dervorguilla, Princess of Galloway, a descendent of King David of Scotland.  John became embroiled in a land dispute with the Bishop of Durham, which he lost, and was consequently ordered to rent a house just outside Oxford’s town walls (approximately where the Master’s Lodgings are now) and to pay for 16 scholars to live there.  The traditional date for this is 1263.  One account even says that the Bishop of Durham had him whipped – which seems a little unlikely.  In any event, after John’s death in 1268, his widow provided the college with the means to continue by way of a capital endowment, formal statutes, a seal and a property for the students.  Back in Scotland, the devoted Dervorguilla had her husband’s heart embalmed and placed in an ivory casket, which she carried with her until her own death; she was buried with it in the abbey she founded in memory of her late husband, Sweetheart Abbey in Dumfries.

Balliol, Library Passage, doors on Broad Street, Latimer, Ridley, burned

Where would Balliol College be without this formidable woman?  Is it churlish to ask why they waited until 1979 before admitting female students?  Even so, the College had an uncertain time, trying to resist Henry VIII’s supremacy over the Pope in 1534 and often being short of cash.  During the Civil War, Balliol was allegedly forced to lend the King most of its money to help support the Royalist Army – a debt which its website makes clear has never been repaid.  For a time, it seems the College really struggled financially, security finally being derived in the 19th century from coal-rich estates in North East England.

Balliol, hall steps

It is easy to feel a sense of continuity with the past when wandering through the grounds, or gazing up at the portraits in the Hall.  It is also easy to feel rather impressed when you realise who some of Balliol’s ex-students were.  In no particular order, they include: John Wycliffe, 14th century translator of the Bible into English; 17th century diarist John Evelyn; author of ‘The Wealth of Nations’ and father of modern economics, Adam Smith; writers Hilaire Belloc, Graham Greene, Aldous Huxley and Nevil Shute (a personal favourite); poets Gerard Manley Hopkins, Algernon Swinburne and Robert Browning; Nobel prize winning scientists Cyril Hinshelwood, Baruch Blumberg, Anthony Legget and Oliver Smithies; philosopher Richard Dawkins; military historian John Keegan; TV presenters Peter and Dan Snow; the BBC’s economic expert, Robert Peston; creator of the welfare state, William Beveridge - and more politicians, heads of state and prime ministers than you can shake a stick at.

Balliol, Oxford, hall interior

In fact, Balliol has produced no fewer than three British Prime Ministers (at the last count): Herbert Asquith, Harold Macmillan and Edward Heath.  Dennis Healey and Roy Jenkins – both mentioned as potential premiers in their day – also studied at Balliol; as did two possible future contenders, Boris Johnson and Yvette Cooper.  Perhaps it’s something in the water.

Balliol, Fellows' Garden

On the way back from the hall, you’ll spot what looks like a tomb in the Fellows’ Garden.  Some, incorrectly, say that Princess Dervorguilla is buried there.  Apparently, it is a collection of fragments from long since demolished buildings; Balliol’s version of a garden ornament?

If you’d like to apply to Balliol College, or know a bit more about it, visit Balliol's website.


  1. Thanks for calling in at my blog.
    Balliol has an impressive list of alumni. Do you think it's something to do with the wisteria? That's impressive too.

  2. An amazing amount of history, and beautiful shots. The mention of Adam von Trott is a surprise.

  3. Ah, the sticky matter of reparations. :-)

  4. I loved this tour of the grand old place! Thanks, Mike!

  5. It's a beautiful campus with an amazing history. The first photo is really beautiful.

  6. Enjoyed this telling and photo array as always. Kudos for taking us for this stroll.

  7. Thank you for the tour of Balliol College steeped in history and tradition. Your photos show an ornate, well kept place. I love the gardens and the stained glass. Could the wisteria really be that old?

  8. We enjoyed a tour about Balliol while we were in Oxford in July of 2014. I enjoyed re-visiting with your post!

  9. It's easy for Lefties like me to come over all "Bah! Humbug!" when presented with an account of Oxbridge's dreamy architecture and famous alumni - but actually your descriptions and even-handed list of former students made me feel quite grateful and proud to be British! Apart from the lack of ladies, of course.

  10. Beautiful photo and history details. I have never eaten peacock. thanks for sharing.

    1. Good with a nice cheese and tomato sauce. Or on toast.

  11. Never made the connection to Balliol the King, nor to Devorgilla.

  12. Ms. Dervorgilla seems to have had a rather odd sense of loyalty. Lots of research involved in this post, Mike. Nice work. My favorite alumnus of Balliol is Lord Peter Wimsey. I had also thought that Bertram Wooster attended, but I guess I was wrong. Very interesting post and great accompanying photos. That's quite an impressive dining hall!

  13. Beautiful grounds, such lovely captures. I always enjoy your telling of history, so interesting. The last photo whatever it is, I think it's very pretty!

  14. A nice insight into the college. I would not have know that the last picture was showing a piece of art.

  15. Great article, as usual. Be assured that I hold such places in very high esteem. In "Let Your Will Be Done," Oxford was one of the universities we had Zeke receiving a doctorate from, but we did not specify which of its colleges he attended.

  16. A lovely good read as always!!!! Great photos and interesting details as well! xx

  17. Impressive list of Allumni.
    I should think quite a few rogues were also educated here, coming from the "Establishment"???

    I knew of Adam von Trott being a former student from the July 20th Plot.
    Pity some people didn't listen to him prior to the outbreak of WW2.
    His wife only died in March 2013 in Berlin, after surviving concentration camps.

    Great report - delightful building indeed.
    Colin (Brisbane. Australia)

    1. Thanks, Colin. I reckon there are more rogues outside the establishment...logically it must be so. I agree about Adam von Trott; someone should have put a bullet in Hitler in the 1930s.

    2. Well if Adam von Trott appealed in 1939 prior to the outbreak of WW2 to Lords
      Lothian and Halifax on the uselessness of appeasment and to the US government,
      why wasn't he listened to?
      One of the above also had the surname of Kerr!!!
      Well we all know here in Australia what a certain Governor General by that name did
      and was a bloody drunkard to boot. A certain Melbourne Cup presentation comes to mind
      after the "Dismissal".
      Ah the twists and turns of intelligence, even the German Abwehr under Admiral Canaris was telling the UK of Bloody Hitlers plans.

  18. Thank you for this tour. The buildings and history are so interesting. I've never heard any of this before, but then our schools don't spend much, if any, time discussing British history. Your photos and text rival any local history book.

  19. It's a beautiful college and I'm pretty sure we learn better in beautiful buildings... No wonder it has "produced" so many famous people!

  20. Mike, late getting here to comment as we were in Europe and Internet was so slow on the riverboat cruise! The scenery was exceptional though and we had a good time. I have been reading your always wonderful posts though, and thank you for bringing more exceptional British history facts, and beautiful historic places, to the forefront. This story, and the impressive tour of Balliol is wonderful.

    Meanwhile, I'm heading back to my much-loved England again soon - will be in Devon (home) and London, catching up with family and friends and giving the youngest granddaughter what I hope will be a memorable high school graduation trip! Bring on the British sunshine - I hear the SW should be quite warm in June which will be lovely!

    Happy travels,
    Mary -

  21. I clicked on the website and did a virtual tour of the Chapel and Gardens.
    Wish I could see it one day.

  22. I feel like I've just been taken on a wonderful visual and informative tour from the comfort of my couch :)

  23. Lovely, interesting post! Pics are gorgeous, it must be a beautiful place. I've read many English mysteries set, at least partially, at Balliol college. Not sure if that's why it seems so familiar to me, or the fact the dining hall looks remarkably like the one at Hogwarts. 😉

  24. Awesome post you really make me what to visit, place is only 15 miles away. Might be wishful thinking about the scorch marks from the fire that burned the martyrs. There is a plaque in the high street and it does not look near any doors.


Hi - thanks for dropping into A Bit About Britain. New material is now being posted to and most of the material here will gradually be updated and moved over to that new site. Please drop in there, click on the blog page, and take a look round. TTFN - Mike.