Opinion

How Queen Elizabeth I took credit for founding Oxford college away from a Welshman

01 Apr 2021 6 minutes Read
Jesus College, Oxford. By Simononly

Meurig W Williams, MA, DPhil, Jesus College, Oxford

This year marks the 450th anniversary of Jesus College, Oxford University.

Even though the initiative for its foundation was originally taken by Welshman Hugh Price, it was the machinations of the religious and political turmoil associated with the spread of the Protestant Reformation into England that resulted in its emergence as the first Protestant college in Oxford.

After Henry VIII’s death, Britain remained deeply divided between Protestants and Catholics.

When a group of Welsh civil lawyers led by Hugh Price (c.1495 – 1574), an Oxford educated lawyer and clergyman from Brecon, Wales, took the initiative to petition Elizabeth I to formally establish a college at Oxford to educate Welsh clerics, Elizabeth, ever alert to opportunities, saw its potential to further her Protestant cause.

She seized Hugh Price’s initiative and baldly declared herself founder of “Jesus College in the University of Oxford of Queen Elizabeth’s Foundation” in its Charter issued on June 27, 1571.

This pronouncement miffed Price, who saw himself ousted from his primary role. Price’s will, dating from three years after the foundation, makes it clear that he saw himself, rather than Elizabeth, as its originator.

He saw himself as helping other men of modest backgrounds to successful careers like his own. Elizabeth’s need was more pressing. The religious battle was intense. Generally speaking, most Welshmen were willing enough to return to the Catholic fold under Mary.

Celtic Christianity, to which the Welsh were devoted, was rooted in ideas and symbols inherited from older religions than that introduced by St Augustine into pagan England. It is remarkable that, even though Elizabeth successfully proclaimed herself founder of the College, it fell to Price’s relatively meager means to finance the early building work.

Price was allowed almost dictatorial control over the college in exchange for a mere promise of an endowment of land and money. He paid for the purchase of the first site, but the promise of a small income made in his will came from Brecon land that was mortgaged, not in freehold, and was of little use.

The college had no other donors at this time, and for many years it had buildings but no revenue. The first benefactions of land came from Welshman Griffith Lloyd who was the second Principal from 1572-1586.

Financial difficulties and poor religious leadership resulted in the college’s first half century being termed disappointing with intermittent failure.

‘Welsh Principals’

But it flourished in the 17th century under three prominent Welsh Principals. Sir Eubule Thelwall, wealthy lawyer, academic and Member of Parliament from Denbighshire. He was a major benefactor and is considered to have been the ‘second founder’ for his expenditure on the buildings and for obtaining a new charter from James I.

Francis Mansell from a wealthy family in Carmarthenshire was Principal in three periods between 1620 and 1661.

Half of the residential second quadrangle built by him provided great comfort to the sons of Welsh gentry. His successor as Principal from 1661-1673 was his former pupil Sir Leoline Jenkins from Glamorganshire who went on to serve as Secretary of State to Charles II.

It was the great endowment of the landed estate left by Jenkins that changed the financial fortunes of Jesus. It included a large number of farms, money, his library and law manuscripts.

He also purchased, and bequeathed to the college in his will, his old school, Cowbridge Grammar, where Jenkins showed commitment to the education of Welsh youth by providing remedial reading to help ‘raw youths that come out the country schools in Wales’.

There was no mention of restriction to Welsh students or Fellows in the initial charter. Yet, two thirds of the names on the very first list of College members, from 1572/1573 are Welsh. Jesus was to become a home for the Welsh at Oxford, though only one of several homes since plenty of men of Welsh origin continued to study at the other colleges.

As a consequence of the partly Welsh origin of the Tudor dynasty, the story of Jesus College parallels that of Wales. The Welsh gentry abandoned Wales in favor of a wealthier existence in England, and their sons abandoned the college in favor of Oxford colleges of higher social rank.

Consider the closely related Vaughan and Meyrick families. The Vaughans of Golden Grove, Carmarthenshire were ambitious anglicizers. They changed their family name from the original Fechan to Vaughan, and the name of their estate from Gelli Aur to Golden Grove.

Sir William Vaughan matriculated at Jesus in 1592. William’s brother John Vaughan married Margaret Meyrick, daughter of wealthy Sir Gelli Meyrick, and became the First Earl of Carbery.

Having become enobled, the Vaughan family set its sights higher than Jesus. John Vaughan’s grandson, also John, the Third Earl of Carbery, matriculated at Christ Church, the grandest college in Oxford, in 1656. Again, the Meyrick name is derived from the Welsh Meyric and the earlier Meurig. Several other prominent Welsh families followed that pattern.

Many other Welsh students were from poor families and they turned to their countrymen for support, a process that did not always meet with parental approval. In approximately 1600, Sir William Maurice did not send his son Cadwallader to Jesus because he wanted him to escape from his countrymen.

He advised the boy to befriend ‘studious honest Englishmen’, to avoid the Welsh who were riotous and quarrelsome, and to use the English language wherever possible. When the Welsh were not identified as aggressive, they were labelled as poor and cheese-eaters.

 ‘Today’   

Today, around 15% of Jesus undergraduates come from Wales and it has students from 33 countries. The Welsh roots of the college come to the fore most prominently on St David’s Day.

The feast is marked by a choral Evensong in the chapel, decorated for the occasion with daffodils. The service, including music, is conducted entirely in Welsh. The St David’s Day dinner traditionally culminates with the serving of a pudding named after Sir Watkin Williams-Wynn, 3rd Baronet (1692-1749) of the family of prominent politicians which became the pre-eminent landowner in north Wales.

The University Chair of Celtic studies is a Jesus professorship. It has been held by several Welshmen: Sir John Rhys, 1877–1915, Sir Idris Foster, 1947–1978, D. Ellis Evans, 1978–1996, Thomas Charles-Edwards, 1997–2011. The Cymdeithas Dafydd ap Gwilym at Jesus celebrates the distinguished 14th century Welsh poet.

Perhaps on account of a series of outstanding recent Principals, the college claims one of the top positions in Oxford for student satisfaction while at the same time performing exceptionally well academically.

The attempt to attract Welsh students continues. Each year the college invites 75 children from Welsh schools from the Welsh Government’s Seren program to participate in a fully-funded residential school for 5 days. Attendees will experience what it could be like to study as an undergraduate student at Oxford.

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