From humble beginnings 450 years ago, Jesus College has always moved with the times – forward-facing yet proud of its rich cultural history.
Jesus College was founded in 1571 by a group of Welshmen led by Hugh Price, Treasurer of St. David’s Cathedral. In approving the new foundation, however, Elizabeth I appointed herself its Foundress (although she never took much interest in it afterwards). It was the first Oxbridge College to be founded after the Queen’s Protestant Settlement.
Jesus was small and poor, and it was not until the 1610s that a succession of energetic Principals attracted donations to endow fellowships and scholarships, and erect buildings. Thanks to their efforts, the First Quadrangle was completed by the mid-1630s, and work on the Second Quadrangle begun in 1639. By now the College’s Welsh links were well established: almost all its fellowships and scholarships were open only to Welsh applicants.
The English Civil War affected Jesus badly: Principal Mansell and several Fellows were expelled, and the College’s finances were left in a bad state. In 1661, however, the College elected a new Principal, Sir Leoline Jenkins. Jenkins was a diplomat and politician, becoming Secretary of State to Charles II. On his death in 1685, Jenkins bequeathed his estate to Jesus College, giving it a financial security never known before. Jenkins is rightly considered the College’s second Founder.
The Second Quadrangle was finally completed in 1713, the same year in which an Old Member, Edmund Meyricke, died, bequeathing estates to fund more Welsh scholarships and exhibitions. During the 18th and early 19th centuries, Jesus was never a famous College, but rather stayed true to its Welsh roots, educating a stream of young Welshmen, many of whom returned there as parish priests. In the later 19th century, the proportion of Welsh fellowships and scholarships was reduced, but the Welsh tradition remained strong. Sir John Rhŷs, Principal from 1895-1915, was one of the most important Celtic scholars of the day.
As the College grew in size, so it erected more buildings. Third Quadrangle was finished in 1908, with a new laboratory (now the Meyricke Library), while the Old Members’ Building was opened in 1971 by HRH The Prince of Wales.
Elsewhere in Oxford, Stevens Close (off the Woodstock Road) was completed in 1976, thanks to a benefaction from an Old Member, Edwin Stevens, while Herbert Close grew up over several years next to the College’s playing fields in East Oxford.
The most important event in the later 20th century was the admission of women as students in 1974. Jesus is proud to be one of the first five Colleges in Oxford to become co-ed.
As the College celebrates its 450th anniversary, an important new architectural development is taking shape on the corner of Cornmarket and Market Street. Our new Northgate building will provide state-of-the-art research and educational facilities, new student accommodation and a fourth quad.
By Dr Robin Darwall-Smith, Jesus College Archivist
There are three book-length histories of Jesus College:
E.G. Hardy, Jesus College (London: F.E. Robinson, 1899). The full text of this book may be found here.
J.N.L. Baker, Jesus College, Oxford, 1571-1971 (Oxford: Jesus College, 1971)
Felicity Heal (ed.), Jesus College Oxford of Queen Elizabethes Foundation: The First 450 Years (London: Profile, 2021). Copies of this book are available to purchase from Blackwells here.
There are two other important articles on the history of the College, both available to read online:
J.N.L. Baker, ‘Jesus College‘, pages 264-279 in H.E. Salter & M.D. Lobel (editors), A History of the County of Oxford, Volume 3: The University of Oxford (London: Oxford University Press for the Institute of Historical Research, 1954)
Brigid Allen, ‘The Early History of Jesus College, Oxford, 1571-1603‘ Oxoniensia LXIII (1998), pages 105-124.
The annual Jesus College Record (add link) (previously entitled the Jesus College Magazine and Dragon) contains many articles on various aspects of college history.
The Jesus Authors collection in the Meyricke Library consists of books by and about Fellows, Old Members, and others associated with Jesus College. It is catalogued on SOLO and available in the Periodicals Room for current College members to borrow from. In particular, the College also possesses a large number of books by and about T. E. Lawrence. For further information about these, and other books in the Jesus Authors collection, please contact our Librarian at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For further information about the history of Oxford University in general, see:
The History of the University of Oxford, general editor Trevor Aston (8 volumes, Oxford: OUP, 1984-2000).
W. B. Brockliss, The University of Oxford: A History (Oxford: OUP, 2016).
Here are some links to other websites about archives which might be useful to your research:
This website contains details of archives held by other Oxford Colleges, and how to contact them, as well as much extra information about the history of Oxford.
Oxford University Archives This is the website of the central archives of the University of Oxford.
If you are interested in Jesus College, Cambridge, then its archive website may be found here.