University College owes its origins to William of Durham, who died in 1249. A legend grew up in the 1380s that we were really founded even earlier, by King Alfred in 872, and, understandably enough, 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.
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 about the history of Univ., there is now a full-length history of the College, called A History of University College Oxford, written by our Archivist, Robin Darwall-Smith, and published by OUP. It is available to buy from, amongst other places, amazon.co.uk (website opens in new window.)