Balliol College

Last updated on August 23rd, 2023 at 01:45 pm

Chapel Passage, Old Library, Balliol College, OxfordPeeking 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 a bit about 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.

Balliol, Oxford, Front QuadSt 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's Chapel, Oxford, St Catherine of Alexandria Balliol, Chapel, east window, stained glass, OxfordThe 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 alive 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 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, but you never know.  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 in Dumfries.

Grotesque, Balliol College, OxfordGrotesque, Balliol, oxfordWhere would Balliol College be without this formidable woman?  Is it churlish to ask why they waited until 1979 before admitting female students?  I don’t think so.  But despite Dervorguilla’s aid, the College has had uncertain times, 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, doors damaged, Latimer, RidleyIt 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, the HallBalliol, hall interiorBalliol College has produced no fewer than four British Prime Ministers (at the last count): Herbert Asquith, Harold Macmillan, Edward Heath and Boris Johnson.  Dennis Healey and Roy Jenkins – both mentioned as potential premiers in their day – also studied at Balliol.  Perhaps it’s something in the water.

It has also been pointed out to me that a particularly extinguished alumnus was Lord Peter Wimsey, the fictional gentleman detective created by Dorothy L Sayers.

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; she isn’t, she is buried in Sweetheart Abbey.  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 their website.

Not, Dervorguilla's tomb, Balliol


19 thoughts on “Balliol College”

  1. Good to see that the mother of King John Balilol of Scotland financed the buidling of Balliol college.

  2. A belated comment but I’ve just found this one – a marvellous piece. Oxford is a favourite, place of mine being in my old Reading home patch. I would like to refer to this post in a blog post I plan on the ‘City of Dreaming Spires’ sometime. I hope you don’t mind. Have you ever written about the lost Reading Abbey? (See my comment on ‘summer is icumen in’ in my May post about the Cuckoo.

    1. Thank you – and delighted to be referenced in your writings. I have other articles about places in Oxford planned, but feel the need to jump about the country and keep people guessing 🙂 I shall go and look at you cuckoo post immediately!

  3. Next trip over there I must make a point to see this college. Stunning photos and of course the historical accounting is fabulous to read.

  4. artandarchitecturemainly

    How extraordinary, and tragic, that the sons of both the British Prime Minister and German Chancellor at the outbreak of war were killed in WW1.

    Bethmann-Hollweg’s father must have:
    a] loved the UK’s university system and
    b] valued good relations with Britain.

  5. artandarchitecturemainly

    How extraordinary that the sons of the British Prime Minister and German Chancellor at the outbreak of war in 1914 were killed in WW1. Bethmann-Hollweg’s father must have a] loved the UK’s university system and b] valued good relations with Britain.

  6. Oh, I enjoyed this! After reading about Balliol for so many years, it is wonderful to see what it actually looks like. It screams privilege and beauty. Almost seems a shame to have to spend time studying while there. Nevil Shute is a personal favorite of mine too.

  7. We’ve been to Oxford, but have never visited the University, thanks for the history and photos.

  8. David Taylor

    Well, I didn’t know all that, very interesting indeed. However, I will have to stand up for my old college, also the oldest in Oxford! No doubt there are others as well. However, I will be biased and make the claim for Merton College, 1264. It’s probably a matter of definition.

  9. Hi Mike – oh for some sunshine! Love seeing Balliol and always put my head in if I happen to be in Oxford – having a day visit on Thursday for a tour of the Bodleian … so will do so again. I remember your Sweetheart Abbey post – and Dervorguilla of Dumfries …

    Gorgeous photos, interesting succinct history and generally making me want to visit and stay for longer – the architecture is just delightful … cheers Hilary

  10. lowcarbdiabeticJan

    So good to see your photographs and learn more about this centuries old college.

    All the best Jan

  11. So, they were siding with the Pope against Henry, were they? 😀 These places were so well thought-out, architecturally speaking; they always have lovely views from doorways and such.

  12. Very informative and nicely illustrated with beautiful photos. How wonderful to be able to belong to such an ancient and elegant college. I love those grotesques!

A Bit About Britain welcomes visitors. What do you think?

Scroll to Top