– notes, frequently asked questions and useful links from the archivist and curator of manuscripts at Balliol College, University of Oxford. Opinions expressed are the author's own.

Q & A : oldest established

Q: Is Balliol the oldest college in Oxford?

A: We think so, of course, but it depends on the criteria you use to define ‘oldest’. Merton, University (known as ‘Univ’) and Balliol Colleges are certainly the three oldest colleges in Oxford; each has a different claim to being ‘the oldest.’ Balliol’s is that the college was founded on the front part of its present Broad Street site ca 1263 as a house of scholars living on land owned by the founder, and has been on this site ever since without interruption, except for several general decampments in the 16th and 17th centuries to avoid outbreaks of plague in the city.

Merton has the oldest statutes (1274) constituting it as a college. Walter de Merton originally founded a house of priests and probably scholars as well at Malden in Surrey in 1264. The manors attached to this house also helped to support scholars in Oxford. Over the next 10 years, Walter de Merton systematically acquired properties which are still part of the college’s present site in Merton Street (then St John’s Street) in Oxford. In 1274 these became Merton College under the new statutes and the Malden community moved to Oxford.

In Univ’s case, the University of Oxford was left money in 1249 in the will of William of Durham to support postgraduate students in theology – this was, in effect, the earliest endowment for a ‘house of scholars.’ However, the University did not use the money to formally found the college William had intended until ca 1280.

So: Univ has the oldest endowment or intent of founding a college, Balliol has existed longest in Oxford as a named house of scholars on land given by the founder, and Merton has been formally a college the longest. Which is really the oldest? Take your pick!

St Edmund Hall deserves a special mention on this question of ‘the oldest’, as it has a good claim to be ‘the oldest [surviving] academical society for the education of undergraduates’. Read more about its history here: http://www.seh.ox.ac.uk/index.php?section=26

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