Magdalen College was founded in 1458 by William Waynflete, a farmer’s son who became the bishop of Winchester and chancellor of England, and so endowed the college as to make it the richest in Oxford or Cambridge until the foundation of Cardinal College (renamed Christ Church after Wolsey’s fall). It did no harm to Magdalen that Wolsey, who was one of its fellows, himself became Henry VIII’s chancellor. When I was senior bursar of the college in the early 1980s I had the pleasure of presiding over the topping out ceremony when we completed the restoration of Magdalen’s Great Tower, sharing that distinction only with Wolsey, my bursarial predecessor.

Like all Oxbridge colleges Magdalen began as essentially a seminary, first for Catholics and then for Anglicans. Although the fellowship included John Foxe, whose Actes and Monuments (1563) was, for several centuries, the bestselling English book after the Bible, there were few scholars of note. But then the purpose of Oxbridge colleges in the 16th and 17th centuries ‘was to impart knowledge, not to create it’, as Laurence Brockliss and his colleagues put it in their uniquely detailed and reasonably candid history of Magdalen.* However, even these years were enlivened by a good deal of delinquent behaviour, with many of the fellows summoned in 1520 to answer charges of gambling, hunting, frequenting taverns, misbehaving in chapel and the like. It was reported in 1584 that all these vices were still common, that the president and bursars were corrupt and that discipline had broken down, forcing the visitor, the bishop of Winchester, to intervene to insist that the founder’s statutes be upheld.

Far more serious were the continuous doctrinal disputes, mirroring the great disputes of state. The college remained staunchly royalist but for hundreds of years was a site of bitter disagreements between varieties of Protestantism. Even in my day low churchmen continued to complain that the college chapel had gone Roman – was all bells and smells. Every one of these twists and turns is minutely chronicled by Brockliss, as are the college’s management of its landholdings and the treatment of its servants.

‘You are nowe in an Earthly Paradise, if you have the grace to knowe it,’ William Trumbull said to his son on sending him up in 1622. He was talking about the physical surroundings. Intellectually, the college remained sunk in backwardness and Tory reaction. Brockliss attempts the usual throat-clearing defence against the damning verdict of Edward Gibbon, who went up in 1752. He said he spent an ‘idle and unprofitable’ time there, and spoke of the fellows as ‘decent easy men, who supinely enjoyed the gifts of the founder: their days were filled by a series of uniform employments; the chapel and hall, the coffee-house and the common room, till they retired, weary and well satisfied, to a long slumber. From the toil of reading, or thinking, or writing, they had absolved their conscience.’

A great deal of Magdalen’s history is frankly disgraceful. (A.J.P. Taylor, a longtime fellow of the college, liked to say that examination of its principal benefactors served merely to prove that, far from crime never paying, it almost invariably did pay.) The college’s ‘long 18th century’ was made even longer by the 63-year presidency of Martin Routh, who signalled his attachment to the past by wearing an 18th-century wig and knee-breeches until his death in 1854. He insisted on taking a coach and horses to London and when told by undergraduates that the train was far quicker, angrily retorted that he did not wish to know that. Under Routh the college didn’t merely vegetate; it almost died. By the 1830s there were no more than a dozen or so undergraduates and even during term two-thirds of the fellows were absent. The government eventually lost patience with the university and legislated reform. At last more modern subjects were introduced, and two more government commissions followed; Oxford has ever since lived in fear of another.

In the new era Magdalen was headed by Herbert Warren, a man bursting with all the energy, self-belief and ambition of the imperialist Victorian. He was also a hearty and a snob, who did all he could to recruit aristocrats and muscular Christians. Among his prize captures were Prince Chichibu of Japan and later the Prince of Wales (known as ‘the Pragger Wagger’). Warren asked Chichibu what his name meant and when told it meant ‘the son of god’ replied: ‘We are accustomed to receiving the sons of distinguished people’ – though Brockliss suggests that the story really relates to the son of the Indian guru Krishnamurti. For all that, the college remained idle and undistinguished. In 1872, Magdalen’s dons were noted for their ‘sovereign immobility’. One Harrovian was described in 1899 as ‘doing nothing with the utmost steadiness’. The young Betjeman, who was sent down from Magdalen, wrote that ‘life was luncheons, luncheons all the way’. P.G. Wodehouse naturally decided that Bertie Wooster had been to Magdalen.

In the late 19th century Magdalen began to have a few international scholars of note, but real change came only in the 1920s and 1930s, when a phalanx of powerful intellectuals demanded higher standards and greater meritocracy. The movement for reform was led by Harry Weldon, a PPE fellow; the opposition by C.S. Lewis, who depicted Weldon as the devil incarnate, but Weldon generally got his way. The college began to produce more Firsts and now has nine Nobel Prize winners. The reform movement strengthened after 1945. Most fellows were on the left and determined to eliminate all trace of Magdalen’s Brideshead image. By the 1950s the college was quite commonly near or at the top of the results table and students blithely assumed that it had been a pillar of academic excellence for centuries past. Although it continued to attract an unusual variety of people, from Wilfred Thesiger to Dudley Moore, it was as likely to be known for the radicalism of its fellows as anything else: A.J.P. Taylor liked to argue that the college chapel should be turned into a swimming-pool.

Meanwhile the college was badly run, the buildings were not maintained and Magdalen sank down the wealth table as it greedily consumed its assets. These tendencies reached their apogee under the presidency of James Griffiths. It was a desperate period: after each college meeting younger fellows would examine the statutes to see how to get rid of a president. On one public occasion when Griffiths had to introduce the fellows he forgot all our names. Another time I recall seeing him start up from high table plainly drunk, stagger down the hall and into the college chapel, where he disrupted the service then in progress. It was only with the election of Keith Griffin in 1979 that the too long delayed process of reform could begin.

In the book’s description of what happened then there is a good deal about me. Indeed, I am described as having been both Thatcherite and Robespierrean. I object to this. When I took over as senior bursar in the middle of the recession in January 1980 my first move was to reassure the college staff that despite the dire economic conditions both domestic and external, there would be no compulsory redundancies. We were massively in debt and running ever larger deficits. Our buildings were falling down and we couldn’t afford to restore them. Corruption and maladministration were ubiquitous. We had lost control of our grounds, which were overrun by outsiders, resulting in huge losses of plants and trees and attacks by dogs on our herd of deer. Loans had been made which were not on the books and it turned out that several senior employees had luxury company cars that the college knew nothing about. Almost everything had been hidden from the authorities, including a whole investment portfolio kept in the accountant’s top drawer. I was not allowed to see this any more than I was allowed to know the accountant’s salary, for he openly defied my authority. So much was stolen from the kitchen that when we cracked down food costs fell by more than half. Cleaning this Augean stable didn’t make me popular. After three years, with the turnaround complete, I stepped down. Meanwhile, the president had revved up our appeal and we were able to restore and modernise the buildings.

The story since then has been one of extraordinary progress. The college now sits permanently near the top of the results table and is richer than it’s ever been. It subsidises poorer students, has built several new buildings, including a whole new quad, and the fellowship is not only distinguished but cosmopolitan. And the spirit of radical irreverence is clearly alive and well: Brockliss tells us that the younger fellows now feel that the college should abandon its historic site, allowing it to become a sort of theme park, while the college itself transfers to the science park it has built on the Oxford ring road.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences