Oxford History: The High


Magdalen College

Magdalen College

The High Street frontage of Magdalen College is Grade I listed (List Entry No. 1199656)., as is the wall between the main gate and the college bursary (1047284). The gateway west of the range on the High Street is Grade II listed (1369635), as is the wall to the east of the college bursary (1369361) and the wall fronting the High Street between Longwall Street and the entrance (1369636).

The college of St Mary Magdalen (pronounced “Maudlen”) was founded in 1448 for the study of Theology and Philosophy by William of Waynflete, Bishop of Winchester (formerly Master of Winchester College and Provost of Eton). The original site was on the south side of the High Street, between the present Merton Street and Logic Lane, but from 1474, when Waynflete was Chancellor of England, he rebuilt the college on its present site, which until then had been occupied by the Hospital of St John the Baptist. The present hall and chapel date from 1483.

The Universal British Directory of 1791 describes the college thus:

The college of St. Mary Magdalen is situated at the eastern termination of the city, on the borders of the river Cherwell. A Doric portal, decorated with a statue of the founder, introduces us to the west front of the college, which is a striking specimen of the Gothic manner. The gate under the west window of the chapel demands a minute examination. It is adorned with five small, but elegant, figures; that on the right represents the founder; the next is William of Wykeham, in whose college at Winchester the founder was schoolmaster; the third is St. Mary Magdalen, to whom the college is dedicated; the fourth is Henry III, who founded the hospital, since converted into this college; and the last St. John the Baptist, by whose name the said hospital was called….

From this area we pass into a cloister which surrounds a venerable old quadrangle. On the south are the chapel and hall. We enter the chapel on the right hand at entering the cloister. The ante-chapel is spacious, supported with two staff-moulded pillars, extremely light, where a new pulpit of elegant worksmanship, in the Gothic style, together with seats on each side, have lately been erected. In the west window are some fine remains of glass painted in chiaro obscuro. The subject is the Resurrection. The design is after one invented and executed by Schwartz, for the wife of William duke of Bavaria, more than two hundred years since, which was afterwards engraved by Sadler. The choir is solemn and handsomely decorated. The windows, each of which contain six figures, almost as large as life, of primitive fathers, saints, martyrs, and apostles, are finely painted in the taste, and about the time, of that just described. These windows formerly belonged to the ante-chapel, the two near the altar excepted, which were lately done, being all removed hither, A.D. 1741….

The hall is a stately Gothic room, well proportioned and handsomely finished. It has four whole-length portraits, viz. of the founder, Dr. Butler, William Freeman, and Prince Rupert; and two half-lengths, viz. Bishop Warner and Dr. Hammond.

From this court, through a narrow passage on the north, we are led into a beautiful opening, one side of which is bounded by a noble and elegant edifice in the modern taste, consisting of three stories, three hundred feet in length. The front rests on an arcade, whose roof is finely stuccoed. It is intended to add two other sides; but, as the present opening to the meadows and hills on the right produces so charming an effect, we could almost wish the college might never execute their original design. Through the centre of this building we pass into the grove, or paddock, which is formed into many delightful walks and lawns, and flocked with about thirty or forty head of deer.

No college enjoys a more agreeable or extensive environ. Besides the grove just mentioned, there is a meadow, within the college precincts, consisting of about thirteen acres, surrounded by a pleasant walk called the water-walk. The whole circuit of the walk is washed by branches of the Cherwell, and has many pretty rural prospects, one of which, from the east, commands the new bridge. This walk is shaded with hedges and lofty trees, which in one part grow wild, and in the other are cut and disposed regularly. Here is a very venerable oak, which is supposed to have existed in the founder’s time, of uncommon size. A beautiful opening has lately been made on the west side into the college-grove, by demolishing the old embattled wall on the banks of the river.

Magdalen CollegeMagdalen College in c.1900, showing the tramline for the horse-drawn tram from the
Cowley Road splitting into two after crossing Magdalen Bridge

Official website of Magdalen College

©Stephanie Jenkins

Last updated: 19 April, 2018

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