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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.