04 September 2023

Balliol College Oxford,
Butterfield’s chapel,
and George Berkeley’s
trees in the Quad

Balliol College was founded in 1263 and claims to be the oldest college in Oxford and in the English-speaking world (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

In recent weeks, in my visits to Oxford, I have visited many churches, colleges and chapels, including Saint Barnabas, the church in Jericho designed by William Butterfield, and Saint Mary Magdalene Church, which has close links with neighbouring Balliol College.

It seemed, important, therefore, to visit Balliol College, where the chapel was also designed by Butterfield, where many of the chaplaincy team have close links with both Saint Barnabas Church and where there are some early 17th-century links with the Comberford family.

Balliol has a reputation for innovation, and is also known as the birthplace of PPE in the 1920s when AD Lindsay, later master, played a key role in establishing the degree.

The stone feature in the Fellows’ Garden is not – as some people say – Dervorguilla’s tomb (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Balliol College was founded in 1263 and claims to be the oldest college in Oxford and in the English-speaking world, although this is disputed by both University College and Merton. Balliol was founded by John I de Balliol under the guidance of Walter of Kirkham, the Bishop of Durham. According to legend, de Balliol abducted the bishop as part of a land dispute. As a penance, he was publicly beaten by the bishop and had to support a group of scholars at Oxford.

After John de Balliol’s death in 1268, his wealthy widow, Dervorguilla of Galloway, continued his work. She established a permanent endowment for the college in 1282, as well as its first formal statutes, and is considered the co-founder of the college. Their son and grandson each became Kings of Scotland.

John Wycliffe, who oversaw the first complete translation of the Bible into English, was the Master of Balliol in the 1360s.

The chapel in Balliol College Oxford was designed by William Butterfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The oldest parts of the college are the north and west ranges of the front quadrangle, dated to 1431, respectively the mediaeval hall, west side, now the ‘new library’ and the ‘old library’ first floor north side. Balliol’s second library pre-dates the publication of printed books in Europe. William Grey, Bishop of Ely, was a benefactor of the college in the 15th century, with the desire of making his collection the nucleus of a library for Balliol College.

Eminent figures like Sir Thomas More have been suggested as potential students. In the 17th century, two members of the Comberford family matriculated at Balliol College, but dthey ied as undergraduates before they ever received degrees.

Philip Comberford (Quamerforde or Comerforde) from Waterford matriculated at Oxford at the age of 15 in 1581, and later studied law at the Inner Temple (1586) and Clifford’s Inn. His near contemporary, Henry Comberford (1588-ca 1600/1616) of Comberford and Wednesbury, matriculated at Balliol College in 1600 at 12. Henry never graduated and died young, and his father had another son also named Henry who was born in 1616.

Thomas Comberford (1621-1639), son of Francis Comberford, of Oxley, Staffordshire, matriculated at Balliol in 1639 at 18. He too never graduated – he died within a month and was buried at Saint Peter in the East, Oxford, on 13 December 1639. This is a 12th-century church on Queen’s Lane, north of the High Street in central Oxford. It now forms part of Saint Edmund Hall, an Oxford colleges.

The college dining hall was designed by Alfred Waterhouse (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Alfred Waterhouse designed the main Broad Street frontage of the college (1867-1868), along with gateway and tower.

The college dining hall was built in 1877, replacing an older hall in the front quadrangle that became part of the library. The hall too was designed by Waterhouse, and includes a Willis organ, introduced by Benjamin Jowett. The ground floor contains the college bar and shop, the Buttery.

Trees in the Garden Quad in Balliol (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The Garden Quad in Balliol is the scene of the well-known limerick that parodies the immaterialist philosophy of Bishop George Berkeley:

There was a young man who said, God
Must think it exceedingly odd
If he finds that this tree
Still continues to be
When there’s no one about in the Quad.

The response, by the Balliol-educated theologian and Bible translator Ronald Knox, more accurately reflects Berkeley’s own beliefs:

Dear Sir, your astonishment’s odd:
I am always about in the Quad.
And that’s why the tree
Will continue to be,
Since observed by, Yours faithfully, GOD.

‘About Time’ in the Garden Quad commemorates the thirtieth anniversary of the admission of women to Balliol College (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

For many years, there has been a traditional rivalry between the students of Balliol and neighbouring Trinity College. Dorothy L Sayers refers to this rivalry in Five Red Herrings (1931), a Lord Peter Wimsey novel, and in Murder Must Advertise (1933).

Balliol became known for its radicalism and political activism in the 20th century, with a wide range of figures who were prominent in, for example, the Workers’ Educational Association, the welfare state, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) and Amnesty International.

For over 700 years, Balliol admitted men only. Women were first admitted as students in 1979, but six years earlier Balliol became the first ancient all-male college to appoint a female fellow with the appointment of Carol Clark to a Tutorial Fellowship in Modern Languages in 1973.

A sundial unveiled in the Garden Quad in 2010 commemorates the thirtieth anniversary of the admission of women to the college and is inscribed with the words ‘About Time.’

Dame Helen Ghosh became the first female Master of Balliol in 2018. In the same year, Dame Frances Kirwan became the twentieth Savilian Professor of Geometry and the first woman to hold that post.

Balliol has produced 12 Nobel Laureates with 13 prizes, including Linus Pauling, the only person to have been awarded two unshared Nobel Prizes. Balliol has also produced four British Prime Ministers, the second highest of any Oxford college, many heads of state, seven Archbishops of Canterbury and two cardinals.

The height of Baliol’s literary influence was in the Victorian era, when many major poets had connections with Balliol, including Matthew Arnold, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and AC Swinburne, who was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature every year from 1903 to 1909. Through his friendship with the master Benjamin Jowett, the poet Robert Browning became the college’s first honorary fellow.

The 20th century writers include Ronald Knox, Catholic Priest, crime writer and translator of the Knox Bible, Graham Greene, Nevil Shute, Aldous Huxley, and Hilaire Belloc.

William Butterfield, the architect of the 19th century chapel, also enclosed the Fellows’ Garden. The stone feature in the middle of the garden is a fragment from the old Broad Street buildings and lodge and is not – as some people say – Dervorguilla’s tomb. br />
William Butterfield was the architect for the chapel in Balliol College built in 1857 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The Chapel in Balliol College is the third on the site. The first was built in 1309-1328, when the Abbot of Reading assisted with gifts of money, tools, and materials. The second chapel was built in 1521-1529, and was pulled down in 1856.

William Butterfield was the architect for the present building (1857). His design has been much attacked, and there was an offer to pay for demolition and rebuilding in 1912, though the College rejected this.

Inside, most of Butterfield’s furnishings and decorations have been replaced, and the most interesting features are either later or survivals from the chapel he demolished. They include the crowned brazen eagle lectern (ca 1630), the Jacobean pulpit, the stained glass, the Jowett memorial (ca 1894), and the silver gilt altar (1927). The altar cloth was hand embroidered by Mary Addison to commemorate Balliol’s 750th anniversary in 2013.

The East Window commemorates Richard Stubbs, Master of Balliol College in the early 16th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The stained glass, mostly from the 16th and 17th centuries, was reset in 1912. The east window was provided by Laurence Stubbs, President of Magdalen College (1518-1525) in 1529, shortly after the death of his brother Richard Stubbs, Master of Balliol College (1518-1525).

The main panel, which is a Victorian replacement, depicts scenes from the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Christ. The bottom row includes portraits of Lawrence Stubbs (second from left) and Richard Stubbs (second from the right).

The second window from the east on the south side and the fourth window from the east on the north side contain glass from 1529-1530, depicting various saints, some of them incomplete or made up with alien fragments.

The first two windows from the east on the north side show the sickness and recovery of Hezekiah. They were made by Abraham van Linge in 1637. The third window from the east on the north side contains panels from 1431, 1529 and 1637. The principal kneeling tonsured figure is Thomas Chace (Master ca 1410-1425).

The first window from the east on the south side tells the story of Saint Catherine of Alexandria, the patron saint of the college and to whom the first Chapel was dedicated. Her festival on 25 November is celebrated each year with a traditional dinner for all final year students in Balliol, and her Catherine wheel symbol is found in many places in Balliol.

The facing windows in the Ante-Chapel were also made by Abraham van Linge in 1637. They show the story of Saint Philip preaching to the Ethiopia Eunuch, and were originally intended to be seen side by side.

The war memorials in the entrance passage to the chapel list Balliol members who died in World War I and II.

The window on the south side telling the story of Saint Catherine of Alexandria, the patron saint of the college (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The Chaplain, the Revd Canon Bruce Kinsey, is on leave and is retiring at the end of his sabbatical this month (September 2023). The acting chaplain, the Revd Dr Melanie Marshall, is an associate priest at neighbouring Saint Mary Magdalene’s Church. Earlier this year (14 May 2023), she was the first woman to preside at the Parish Mass in Saint Barnabas Church, Jericho, after the parish voted to welcome the ministry of women priests and bishops.

The pastoral associates are the Revd Professor Judith Brown and the Revd Dr Alex Popescu.

The main service on Sundays during term time is at 5:30 pm. Members of the public are welcome to attend.

Inside the chapel in Balliol College, facing west (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

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