University College owes its origins to William of Durham, who died in 1249. However a legend grew up in the 1380s that we were actually founded even earlier, by King Alfred in 872, and, understandably enough, this became widely accepted as the truth. Nowadays, however, William of Durham is accepted as Univ’s true founder, but that still gives us a claim to be the oldest college in Oxford or Cambridge.
A Brief History of Univ
Univ began life as a small and poor College, with enough funds to support just four Fellows reading Theology. During the Middle Ages, this number gradually increased thanks to additional benefactions. The College had next to no undergraduate members until the sixteenth century, when most other colleges had begun to accept undergraduates, and Univ decided to follow suit. The earliest undergraduates had to pay their own way, but towards the end of the century the College found benefactors to endow undergraduate scholarships. Such scholarships were important ways of helping boys from middling to poor backgrounds to better themselves.
As Univ slowly grew in size and wealth, work began in 1634 to replace its medieval buildings with a new Front Quad, paid for with gifts from many Old Members. Although half the new Quad was finished by 1640, it took almost thirty years to complete the remainder, because of the Civil War. The College was luckier with its other main quadrangle, Radcliffe Quad, built in only three years, 1716-1719, thanks to a bequest from one Old Member, John Radcliffe, whose statue can be seen there.
In the eighteenth century, Univ became one of the most intellectually active Colleges in Oxford: former students and Fellows could be found in senior positions in the government and the judiciary. One of our greatest members at this time was the philologist, orientalist and polymath, Sir William Jones, who was elected a Fellow in 1766 when still only an undergraduate. The early nineteenth century, however, was a less distinguished period: the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley came here in 1810, but was expelled the following year.
It was only later in the century that Univ began to expand and improve again. In 1842 the so-called New Building was erected to the designs of Charles Barry, and a Library was built in 1861. The nineteenth and twentieth centuries also saw a great rise in organised student activities: the College first produced a rowing team in 1827; and a Music Society was founded in 1930, which gave the first Oxford performance of Faure’s Requiem. The most significant event in recent years, however, came in 1979 when the College admitted its first women students.
For those wanting to find out more, A History of University College Oxford, written by our Archivist Robin Darwall-Smith and published by OUP, is available to buy from, amongst other places, amazon.co.uk
Greater detail on the history of individual Univ buildings can be found on our College Buildings pages.
Univ has what must be the longest grace in regular use of any Oxford or Cambridge college. Every time dinner is held in Hall, it is recited by one of the College’s Scholars in dialogue with the Master, if present, or a senior Fellow. Scholars were originally expected to say their part of the grace from memory, but in 1958 the Fellows relented and allowed them to read it instead.
We don’t know when this grace was first used at Univ; all we know for sure is that by the 1860s it was normally spoken after dinner. However, in October 1868 it was decided that it would be said before, and the tradition has been maintained to this day.
Queen’s College has a very similar grace to ours, but that’s long been reserved only for special occasions, whilst Balliol College also once had a notably long grace, but this was abolished in the 19th century.
Scholar: Benedictus sit Deus in donis suis.
Response: Et sanctus in omnibus operibus suis.
Scholar: Adiutorium nostrum in Nomine Domini.
Response: Qui fecit coelum et terras.
Scholar: Sit Nomen Domini benedictum.
Response: Ab hoc tempore usque in saecula.
Scholar: Domine Deus, Resurrectio et Vita credentium, Qui semper es laudandus tam in viventibus quam in defunctis, gratias Tibi agimus pro omnibus Fundatoribus caeterisque Benefactoribus nostris, quorum beneficiis hic ad pietatem et ad studia literarum alimur: Te rogantes ut nos, hisce Tuis donis ad Tuam gloriam recte utentes, una cum iis ad vitam immortalem perducamur. Per Jesum Christum Dominum nostrum.
Scholar: Deus det vivis gratiam, defunctis requiem: Ecclesiae, Reginae, Regnoque nostro, pacem et concordiam: et nobis peccatoribus vitam aeternam.
Or, in translation:
Scholar: Let God be blessed in his gifts.
Response: And holy in all his works.
Scholar: Our help is in the Name of the Lord.
Response: Who has made heaven and earth.
Scholar: May the Name of the Lord be blessed.
Response: From this time for evermore.
Scholar: Lord God, the resurrection and the life of them that believe, who is always to be praised both among the living and among the dead, we give You thanks for all our founders and other benefactors, by whose gifts we are nourished here for piety and the study of learning; asking You that we, using these Your gifts rightly to Your glory, may be led together with them into eternal life. Through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Scholar: May God grant to the living grace, and to the dead rest ; to the Church, the Queen, and our realm, peace and concord; and to us sinners everlasting life.
Listen below to the College Grace recited by Lord Butler of Brockwell (Master 1998-2008) and George Cawkwell (Fellow in Ancient History 1949-87).