05 September 2023

Saint Edmund Hall is
the oldest hall and
the newest college in
Oxford University

The chapel and the Old Library facing onto the Front Quad in Saint Edmund Hall, Oxford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

Balliol College was founded in 1263 and, as I was recalling yesterday, claims to be the oldest college in Oxford and in the English-speaking world. But St Edmund Hall says it dates from 1236 and claims it is ‘the oldest surviving academic society to house and educate undergraduates in any university’.

Today, Saint Edmund Hall – known as the Hall and affectionately as Teddy Hall – is a constituent college of the University of Oxford, but also the last surviving mediaeval academic hall in the university. This unique combination makes it one of the oldest institutions and one of the newest colleges in Oxford.

The college is on Queen’s Lane and the High Street in central Oxford, bordering New College and Queen’s College. It has about 400 undergraduate, 300 graduate students, 75 Fellows and over 90 non-academic staff. The alumni include the Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer and the journalist Anna Botting.

The former Church of Saint Peter-in-the-East now serves as the library of Saint Edmund Hall (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The precise date St Edmund Hall was established is not certain. The date is usually given as 1236, before any other college was formally established. But the founder from whom the Hall takes its name, Saint Edmund of Abingdon, lived and taught on the college site as early as the 1190s. He was born Edmund Rich in Abingdon ca 1175 and was the first known Master of Arts in Oxford and the first Oxford-educated Archbishop of Canterbury.

He is said to have been the first person to teach Aristotle in Oxford. He became Archbishop of Canterbury in 1234 and died in Pontigny, France, on 16 November 1240, on a journey to Rome. He was canonised in 1247.

St Edmund Hall began as one of Oxford’s ancient ‘Aularian’ houses, the mediaeval halls that laid the university’s foundation before the creation of the first colleges. As the only surviving mediaeval hall, its members are known as ‘Aularians.’

In the early 13th century, the site of the front quadrangle was owned by John de Bermingham, Rector of Iffley. His family sold part of it to Thomas de Malmesbury, Vicar of Cowley, in 1262, and St Edmund Hall first appears as the ‘House of Cowley’ in rental agreements with Osney Abbey. Thomas of Malmesbury later sold the site to Osney Abbey in stages between 1270 and 1290.

Saint Edmund Hall, Oxford, takes its name from Saint Edmund of Abingdon, the first Oxford-educated Archbishop of Canterbury (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The name St Edmund Hall (Aula Sancti Edmundi) first appears in a rental agreement in 1317. In the early 14th century, John de Cornuba leased the Hall from Osney Abbey, and the agreements show the hall had access to the well that now forms the centrepiece of the quadrangle.

In the late 14th and early 15th centuries, the hall was a bastion of John Wycliffe’s supporters or Lollards. When Archbishop Thomas Arundel heard a sermon by the Principal, William Taylor, at Saint Paul’s Cross in 1406 or 1407, he summoned him. Taylor failed to appear, was excommunicated, and became a Lollard preacher.

Archbishop Henry Chichele absolved Taylor in 1420, but he was arrested soon again, was declared a relapsed heretic, and was burnt at the stake in Smithfield on 2 March 1423.

Taylor’s successor Peter Payne was also a Lollard who supported Wycliffe’s opinions. Payne wrote to the reformer Jan Hus in Prague, claiming Oxford and all of England shared the views of Hus and his supporters. Payne was forced to flee Oxford in 1412, and died a Hussite in Prague in 1455.

The sundial in the front quad in St Edmund Hall (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

St Edmund Hall fostered two prominent Non-Jurors after 1688: John Knettlewell the devotional writer, and Thomas Hearne, Assistant Librarian of the Bodleian. Later, the Hall was a fervent centre of Evangelicalism in Oxford for more than a century. However, when the Principals were John Burrow (1854-1861) and John Branthwaite (1861-1864), the Hall became Tractarian, especially when the theologian Henry Parry Liddon was the Vice-Principal (1859-1862).

St Edmund Hall faced a partial merger with Queen’s College under university reforms proposed in 1877 by the Disraeli government, including the future of the four remaining mediaeval halls in Oxford. By 1903, only St Edmund Hall remained and legislation in 1912 preserved its independence.

St Edmund Hall received a charter of incorporation as a full college of the University of Oxford in 1957, but it deliberately retained its ancient title of Hall. The Hall’s sister college in Cambridge is Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge.

The achievements of St Edmund Hall Boat Club celebrated in the front quad (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The St Edmund Hall Boat Club held the men’s headship in Summer Eights five times between 1959 and 1965 and women’s headship from 2006 to 2009. SEHBC had success at Henley during its era of dominance in Oxford rowing in the 1960s.

Women were first admitted as members of the Hall in 1978, with the first matriculations of women in 1979.

The college runs an annual journalism competition for Oxford University students, in memory of alumnus and promising young journalist Philip Geddes (24), who was killed by the IRA in the bombing of Harrods on 17 December 1983. The college also hosts an annual lecture in his name.

The entrance to St Edmund Hall on Queen’s Lane and the porters’ lodge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

An engraving above the entrance to the college on Queen’s Lane displays the coat of arms and the Latin dedication Sanctus Edmundus huius aulae lux, ‘Saint Edmund, light of this Hall.’

The front quadrangle or quad is at the heart of St Edmund Hall. It houses the porters’ lodge, the Old Dining Hall, built in the 1650s, the college bar, the chapel, the Old Library, offices and accommodation for students and Fellows.

The mediaeval well in the centre of the quad was rediscovered in 1926 when a new lecture room and accommodation were being built. This is believed to be the original well from which Saint Edmund drew water. A new wellhead was added, with the Latin inscription haurietis aquas in gaudio de fontibus salvatoris, ‘with joy, draw water from the wells of salvation’ (Isaiah 12: 3), said to be the last words spoken by Saint Edmund on his deathbed.

The arms of the Archbishop of Canterbury displayed in the front quad (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The chapel on the east side of the Front Quad was built by Stephen Penton and dedicated in 1682. A stained glass window is one of the earliest works by the Pre-Raphaelites Sir Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris, dating from 1865. A painting of ‘The Supper at Emmaus’ above the altar is by Ceri Richards. The organ was built by Wood of Huddersfield in the 1980s.

The Old Library above the chapel was built in 1680. It was the last among Oxford colleges to chain its valuable books, but the first to have shelves against the walls. The particular prominence of theological works among 4,300 books dating back to the early 15th century reflects the intellectual life of the college in the late 17th and early 18th century. The Old Library is now used for events and for research.

Next to the chapel, the Cottage is a 16th century building that once housed the vice-principals but now serves as the college office. The Canterbury Building, now used as the Bursary, was built in 1934 to celebrate the 700th anniversary of the consecration of Saint Edmund of Abingdon as Archbishop of Canterbury.

A large programme of new building in 1965-1968 included a new dining hall, common rooms, teaching facilities and accommodation. The Wolfson Hall, the 20th-century dining hall, seats about 230 people.

The college library is housed the 12th-century former Church of Saint Peter-in-the-East (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The college library is housed the deconsecrated 12th-century Church of Saint Peter-in-the-East. The church was converted in the 1970s, and includes the 14th century tower that houses a tutor’s room at the top.

A church has been on the site since the late 10th century. It is said to be named after the church of S Pietro in Vincoli in Rome and is named in the Domesday Book (ca 1085) as holding land from Robert d’Oyly.

The church became known as Saint Peter-in-the-East in the early 12th century to distinguish it from the Church of Saint Peter-le-Bailey near Oxford Castle. Its new name reflected its location near the East Gate of the walled city.

The core of the church – the nave, chancel and crypt – was built between 1130 and 1160 by Robert D’Oilly, then the Governor of Oxford.

The West Window and blocked up west door of the former Church of Saint Peter-in-the-East (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The church crypt survives largely unaltered since it was built in the 12th century. It was built in the Romanesque style and featured a confession at the west end, intended for the display of a saint’s relic. The space is divided by two rows of four columns linked by rounded arches, allowing the roof to be split into 15 separate groin vaults. It was once accessible from the chancel by staircases in the north and south walls and from the nave by staircases in the west, but only the south entrance now remains.

The Lady Chapel or North Chapel is said to have been donated by Saint Edmund of Abingdon ca 1220 while he was a lecturer at the university. The North Aisle was added in the 13th century, the tower in the 14th century along with an extension of the nave to the west, and the vestry and a small chapel dedicated to Saint Catharine and Saint Thomas were added at the start of the 16th century.

The church passed to the Crown from D’Oilly’s heirs, and in 1266 Henry III gave it to Walter de Merton. As a result, Merton College held the advowson of the church.

A sundial and carved figures above the south porch of Saint Peter-in-the-East (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Thomas Comberford (1621-1639), son of Francis Comberford, of Oxley, Staffordshire, matriculated at Balliol College in 1639 at the age of 18. But he never graduated – he died unmarried within a month and was buried at Saint Peter in the East on 13 December 1639.

The church was used as the chapel for St Edmund Hall until a separate chapel was built in the college grounds in 1682.

Changes in the demographics of central Oxford, mainly after World War I, led to a significant decline in the size of the congregation in the 20th century. Saint Peter-in-the-East closed in 1965, and was renovated as the college library in 1970. Many of the building’s distinctive architectural features were preserved and the new fixtures were arranged to replicate the layout of a traditional church. The library has 40,000 volumes in its collection.

The graveyard once had 229 headstones and 70 tombs … Thomas Comberford was buried there in 1639 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The graveyard once had 229 headstones and 70 tombs, including the tomb of the Non-Juror Thomas Hearne. The graveyard has been laid out as a garden and modified, the number of gravestones and tombs has been reduced, and many of the graves have been disinterred. But several gravestones remain, including one of James Sadler, the first English aeronaut, and another that states the person died on 31 February.

The garden contains a seated bronze sculpture of Saint Edmund as an impoverished student. This work by the sculptor Rodney Munday, a Teddy Hall alumnus, was commissioned to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of St Edmund Hall receiving its royal charter.

The seated bronze sculpture of Saint Edmund as an impoverished student, by the sculptor Rodney Munday (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The Revd Dr Zachary Giuliano is the college chaplain and a Research Fellow in Early Mediaeval History. He is a tutorial affiliate of the Faculty of History and an associate member of the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies.

Chapel Services take place during term time only. Choral Evensong is on Sundays at 6.15pm, starting in Week 2. Evening Prayer is said Monday to Friday at 6 pm. The services are Anglican in character but people from all faiths, and none, are welcome. After Sunday Evensong drinks are served and all attending are welcome.

The choir sings at evensong every Sunday and on special occasions, including the Feast Day of Saint Edmund and the popular ‘Carols in the Quad’ at Christmas.

The dying words of Saint Edmund of Abingdon are inscribed on the well in the Front Quad (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

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