Magdalen College was founded in 1458 by William Waynflete, Bishop of Winchester, and Lord Chancellor. He wanted a College on the grandest scale, and his foundation was the largest in Oxford, with 40 Fellows, 30 scholars (known at Magdalen as Demies), and a large choir for his Chapel. Waynflete lived to a great age, dying in 1486, by which time Magdalen was equipped with a large income, splendid buildings, and a set of statutes.
Magdalen quickly became one of Oxford’s most prominent Colleges. Kings and Princes visited us, including Edward IV, Richard III and James I. We soon produced alumni who achieved great things in later life, including Thomas Wolsey, Fellow here in the 1490s, and Henry VIII’s chief minister for two decades.
The College survived the troubles of the Reformation in the 16th century. During the English Civil War of the 1640s, we were solidly Royalist, and had to endure a purge of our President and many of our Fellows after the victory of the Parliamentarians.
The most dramatic period in Magdalen’s history came during the reign of James II. In 1687, our President died, and James tried twice to force the Fellows to accept a President of his choosing. The Fellows refused, and James, losing patience, demanded that all the Fellows who opposed him be expelled. This act caused national outrage: the courage of the Fellows was praised, and the King was much criticised. Late in 1688, James reinstated the expelled Fellows, but it was too late to save him: he was deposed a few weeks later.
The 18th century was not Magdalen’s finest hour. The College grew slack and complacent, and Edward Gibbon notoriously hated his time here in the 1750s. For many, the symbol of Georgian Magdalen was Martin Routh, President for 63 years, who died in 1854 at the age of 99, and who wore a wig and knee-britches in the Georgian manner to the end of his days.
Nevertheless, there were important scholars at Magdalen in the early 19th century, including Routh himself, Charles Daubeny, Magdalen’s first modern scientist, who successfully fought for the creation of an honours school in Natural Science at Oxford in 1850, and John Bloxam, the College’s first historian, who reinvented Magdalen’s May Morning in its current form.
The College revived under Routh’s successors, Frederick Bulley and Sir Herbert Warren, especially the latter with the then Prince of Wales (later Edward VIII), coming up in 1912. With the support of Bulley and Warren, the Chapel Choir also improved greatly, attaining the national reputation which it holds today.
The 20th century has seen Magdalen’s academic reputation flourish. Two of our most famous Fellows from this period were the English scholar and theologian C. S. Lewis and the historian A. J. P. Taylor; in addition, nine Nobel Prize winners have been Fellows or students here. Women first came here in 1979, and the College today prides itself on being an inclusive institution, open to all.
English at Magdalen
“Some say life is the thing, but I prefer reading”, Logan Pearsall Smith once suggested – only half-joking – and many readers might agree with him. However, the study of English should not be thought of as an escape from real life; it is, rather, a way of learning how to engage with real life through fresh eyes and fresh ears.
Over the course of a three-year English degree at Magdalen, you will be expected to read widely and deeply in every period from Old English to contemporary writing. From your first term onwards, you will have the opportunity to research authors and topics that particularly interest you, and you will be able to discuss your work with experts who are genuinely interested in what you have to say. And throughout, by engaging with some of the finest writing in the language, you will learn how to read more closely, think more carefully, and write more precisely. As well as being a source of great pleasure, these are skills that support a wide range of careers: recent Magdalen English graduates are currently working as diplomats, actors, teachers, television directors, academics, management consultants, and solicitors.
In addition to a well-stocked library, Magdalen has an active drama society (the Magdalen Players) and a poetry society (the John Florio Society) that meets regularly to discuss the members’ own work. Former students and Fellows of the College include Oscar Wilde, John Betjeman, C. S. Lewis, Seamus Heaney, Alan Hollinghurst, Julian Barnes, James Fenton, Peter Brook, Katie Mitchell, and Ian Hislop.
Magdalen has three Tutorial Fellows in English, together with several Lecturers. The range of their research interests means that most undergraduate teaching is done within the College, particularly in the first two years, although we also use external tutors for certain specialized options in the final year of the course.
We admit up to 8 students each year for the single honours degree in English Language and Literature, and also admit students for joint degrees in Classics and English, and Modern Languages and English.