Brasenose College (BNC) exemplifies the rigid class hierarchy of Oxford undergraduates in the years before Queen Victoria ascended the throne. Students took their place in one of five rigid categories (1) gentleman commoner, (2) commoner, (3) scholar, (4) batteler, and (5) servitor. As J. Mordaunt Crook's explains,

The title gentleman commoner carried with it privileges of dress, diet, service, and accommodation. These privileges diminished with each downward step of the social ziggurat. Until 1768—at Brasenose at any rate—the gentleman commoner dined at high table; the commoner and the scholar dined in hall; the batteler fetched his commons from the buttery; and the servitor—almost literally—ate the crumbs from the rich man's table. Commoners took precedence over scholars, at least that was the ruling in 1776. And in hall a system of eight separate tables existed. On the dais. High Mess: one for senior Fellows and noblemen; one for junior Fellows and gendemen commoners. In the body of the hall: masters, bachelors, senior commoners, junior commoners, scholars, and battellers [104-105].

The title “batteller” does not indicate someone who battles or fights but rather indicates someone who obtains his food or batten from the buttery or storeroom; someone. in other words, not of sufficient social status to eat in hall with the gentlemen and who performs some duties of a servant in the college. The title “servitor” applied to the students lowest in the hierarchy who performed so many duties of servants that the college needed a very small staff.

The Brasenose Hall and Chapel [Click on these images to enlarge them.]

Gentleman commoners had many privileges, including the ability receive a degree in three years rather than four, comparatively luxurious accommodations, and special forms of dress that included “silken gowns and flaxen tie-wigs; with their cocked hats, white stockings, ruffled shirts, and thin Spanish leather shoes, each must have cut a striking figure as they strolled about the Old Quad” (99). Nonetheless, “as the eighteenth century progressed, gentlemen commoners at Brasenose began to lose some of their special privileges. In 1768 and again in 1791 they lost their exemptions from various academic exercises, as well as their right to keep private servants in college garrets. In 1786 they lost their right to dine at high table, along with their special places in chapel and their right to use the Senior Common Room” (98).

At the same time that those at the top of the pyramid lost some of their privileges, those at the bottom found their burdens eased. In 1780 battlers no longer had to perform the work of servants, and in 1799 servitors, the lowest of the low, no longer waited tables in hall. The status of scholars, those who received funding on the basis of academic merit, also changed: Crook reports that “when Mark Pattison's father went up to Brasenose in 1805, 'the "scholars" were still not regarded as gentlemen. They did not associate with the commoners but lived among themselves, or with the bible clerks. They were nicknamed "charity boys"... twenty-five years [later] this had quite changed. The scholar's gown, from being the badge of an inferior order, had become a coveted distinction.'” (199).

The long-standing strict hierarchy that we see at Brasenose and other Oxford colleges stemmed not from any attempt to keep down poor young men in search of an education. In fact, rather the opposite: Scholarship funds came from bequests by medieval and renaissance donors who wanted to permit those who could not afford university study to attend Oxford and then become clergy in the Church of England. In the seventeenth century, when Brasenose had little social cachet, poorer students well outnumbered those from prosperous families:

Between 1690 and 1719 as many as 540 battelers were admitted as against only 204 commoners. Many of those who entered as battelers, however, ended as scholars of the college: no fewer than 195 during the period 1690-1719. And many of these in turn became clergymen or schoolmasters. Occasionally they became Fellows too. These trends continued throughout the early Georgian period. In terms of class, therefore, early Georgian Brasenose can be regarded as a kind of primitive escalator of status, at least as regards progress from proletarian to professional rank. [97-98]

BNC at this time has little prestige, but during the early nineteenth century wealthy and very wealthy students began to dominate the student body, poorer ones became increasingly rare, and the college became prestigious at last. According to Crook, the historian of the college, “Brasenose emerged as a major Oxford College thanks to a triumphant accident of topography: the opening of Radcliffe Square and the building of Radcliffe Camera” (95). “In early nineteenth-century Oxford only three colleges managed to combine a fashionable clientele with high academic standing: Brasenose, Christ Church, and Oriel. All three had waiting lists; elsewhere there were places to spare” (170). Alas, that academic brilliance did not last into the Victorian years, for BNC became known chiefly for its great success in newly invented team sports — rowing, cricket, football, and rugby. By 1850 Brasenose, like the rest of Oxford, had become ripe for major reform.

Related Material


Crook, Joseph Mordaunt. Brasenose: The Biography of an Oxford College. Oxford University Press, 2008. [review by George P. Landow]

Last modified 3 October 2012