All Soul's College, Oxford. Left: Main entrance with the Chapel behind. Right: Sir Christopher Wren’s Vertical sundial. Click on images to enlarge them.

By Bishop Henry Chichele’s eighteenth year (1442) he had seen large parts of the the buildings of his new college, including a magnificent chapel complete. He had taken several steps to protect the future of his college. He obtained a bull from the Pope granting it special privileges in 1439, and he handed “over the foundation to his young god-son Henry VI., and of receiving it back from the King's hands as co-founder.”

Despite his plans All Souls experienced a long series of crises and bad times, some caused by Chichele’s poor planning for Warden and Fellows, others by events of the times through which it passed. First of all, the college saw a rapid turnover of both Masters and Fellows. “Altogether in the first century of its existence 1437—1587 the College knew no less than eleven Wardens, of whom seven resigned and only four died in harness. The Fellows were as rapid in their succession; not unfrequently seven or eight — a full fifth of the whole number — vacated their Fellowships in a single year; the average annual election was about five.” As C.W.C. Oman explains,

The shortness of their tenure of office is easily explained ; a Fellowship was not a very valuable possession, for beyond food and lodging it only supplied its holder with the "livery" decreed by the founder, an actual provision of cloth for his raiment. A Fellow's commons were fixed on the modest scale of " one shil- ling a week when wheat is cheap, and sixteenpence when it is dear." The annual surplus from the estates was not divided up, but placed in the College strong-box within the entrance-tower, against the day of need. Moreover, as the Fellows were lodged two, or even in some cases three, in each room, the accommoda- tion can hardly have been such as to tempt to long residence. The acceptance of preferment outside Oxford, or even an absence of more than six months without the express leave of the College, sufficed to vacate the Fellowship; and since every member of the foundation was in orders, it naturally resulted that the"jurists " drifted up to London to practice, while the "artists" accepted country livings. Only those Fellows who were actually studying or teaching in the University held their places for any length of time.

During the reign of Henry VII, two other sources of trouble arose, “which were not to cease for many generations. The first was the interference of the Archbishop as Visitor, to determine the conditions of the tenure of Fellow-ships. . . . The other interference with the College from without, was an attempt made by Arthur Prince of Wales to influence the annual elections of Fellows.” Although unlike some other Oxford colleges, “All Souls seems to have passed through the storms of the Reformation with singularly little friction from within or with- out,” it encountered major problems, the first created by so-called “corrupt resignations” by which someone resigning his fellowship could designate a specific individual to replace him.

This right of nomination being once grown customary, soon grew into a monstrous abuse, for unscrupulous Fellows, when about to vacate their places, began to hawk their nominations about Oxford. Actual payments in hard cash were made by equally unscrupulous Bachelors of Arts or Scholars of Civil Law, to secure one of these all-powerful recommendations. Hence there began to appear in the College not the poor but promising scholars for whom Chichele had designed the foundation, but men of some means, who had practically bought their places. Cranmer was the first Visitor who discovered and endeavoured to crush this noxious system.

Other problems and disasters included the destruction of much of the chapel’s finest decoration, the death of 600 people in the plaque of 1570-71, a similar death toll six years later, and, worst of all, the Civil War. “Few Colleges suffered more from the Civil Wars than All Souls. Its head, Sheldon, was one of the King's chaplains, and all, save a very small minority of the Fellows, were enthusiastic Royalists.” Furthermore,

its treasury was swept clean of the founder's gifts, of Warden Keyes’s great cupp double gilt with the image of St. Michael on its cover," of all the church-plate that had escaped Parker, of tankards, flagons, and goblets innumerable. Worse was to follow: the bulk of the College estates lay in Kent and Middlesex, counties in the hands of the Parliament, and their rents could not be raised. . . . Altogether it would seem that the finances of the College went to pieces, and that the greater part of the Fellows dispersed. When the Parliamentary Visitors got to work on the University, as much as two years after the fall of Oxford, they found only eleven members of the College in residence.

From 1682 onwards, the type of Fellow improved, and some of the most distinguished members of the College date from the years 1680—1700. At the same time, wealth and class rather than learning become the criteria for new fellows. "They generally," says Hearne — a great enemy of the College — "pick out those that have no need of a Fellowship, persons of great fortunes and good birth, and often of no morals and less learning."

All Souls in the Eighteenth Century

Although the quality of Fellows began to improve in the 1680s, during period, says Oman, two changes “destroyed the original purpose of the foundation, and ended by making it an abuse and a byword. First, the notion that fellows did not have to live and work in College, reduced the number of those living there. According to Oman, “Gradually Fellows began to devise ingenious excuses for prolonged non-residence ; the favourite ones were that they were about to study physic, and must therefore travel; or that they were in the service of the Crown, and must be excused on public grounds. From about 1720 the number of residents goes down gradually from twenty or thirty to six or seven.”

Second, a notion that “Founder's-kin candidates had an absolute preference over all others,” though it only prevailed between 1757-87, filled All Souls with wealthy upper-class idlers:

It brought the Fellowships within a charmed circle of county families, outside of which the College rarely looked when the morrow of All Souls Day came round. The effect of this was to create a society of an abnormal sort in the midst of a group of Colleges which, whatever their short- comings may have been, continued to make a profession of study and teaching. The Fellows were men of good birth, and usually of good private means. Hence came the well-known joke that they were required to be "bene nati, bene vestiti, et moderate docti," . . .

The Fellows had no educational duties or emoluments, and consequently no inducement to reside except for purposes of study: and for the most part they were not studious, nor resident. The Fellowships were poor, and so were only attractive to men of means. Hence the manageement of the College- property was a matter of indifference, and it was neglected. Other Colleges no doubt neglected their duties and mismanaged their properties, but All Souls men took a pride in having no duties and in being indifferent to the income arising from their estates. Gradually the College drew more and more apart from its neighbours, until the Fellows made it a point to know nothing and to care nothing about the teaching, the study, or the business that was going on just outside their walls.

Some Scholarship and Learning did take place

Despite the many troubles All Souls experienced. it did produce major scholars and leaders. As Oman points out, “during the reign of Henry VII., when the Renaissance began to make itself felt in Oxford, All Souls had the good fortune to produce two of the first English Greek scholars, Linacre and Latimer.” More recently, he reminds us,

a period during which Blackstone, Heber, and the present Prime Minister were numbered among the Fellows, cannot be said to be undistinguished in the history of the College ; and this system, indefensible in itself, has handed down some things which the present generation would not be willing to lose. This College, which had become somewhat of a family party, was animated by a peculiarly strong feeling of corporate loyalty.

Photographs (2012), formatting, and text by George P. Landow. [You may use these images without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the photographer and (2) link your document to this URL in a web document or cite the Victorian Web in a print one.]


Artistic Colored Views of Oxford Being Proof Sheets of the Postcards of Oxford. Oxford: E. Cross, nd. Internet Archive version of a copy in St. Michael's College Toronto. 3 October 2012.

The Colleges of Oxford: Their Histories and Traditions. Ed. Andrew Clarke, M.A. London: Metheuen, 1891. HathiTrust online version of a copy in the University of Michigan Library. Web. 30 November 2022.

Wells, J. The Charm of Oxford. Illustrated by W. G. Blackall. 2nd ed. London: Simpkin, Marshall, Hamilton Kent & Co., [c.1920]. Internet Archive version of a copy in St. Michael's College Toronto. 3 October 2012.

Last modified 30 November 2022