Founded in 1448, Magdalen College (pronounced "Maudlin") has some of the most beautiful buildings in Oxford, many of which are adorned with an array of interesting stone-carved characters. The college is situated amid 100 acres of woodlands, riverside walks, gardens and the tranquil Deer Park.
History of Magdalen College
Magdalen College was founded in 1458 by William Waynflete, a high-ranking churchman who went on to become Bishop of Winchester and Chancellor of England.
The site granted for the foundation was a spacious one on the banks of the River Cherwell, and included the Hospital of St John. Waynflete demolished all the hospital's buildings except for the chapel and part of the hall, alongside the river, which eventually became the college kitchen.
Funding for Magdalen College was enhanced by a lavish endowment: 55 manors contributed to its funding (compared with 31 for Merton, 24 for All Soul's and only 3 for Exeter). Construction finally began in 1467, when the charter was confirmed by King Edward IV.
The battlemented wall, which can still be seen along Longwall Street, went up first; most of the college buildings followed in 1474-80. The works were overseen by William Orchard, Waynflete's master mason.
Magdalen's bell tower, the tallest medieval tower in Oxford, was constructed in 1492, six years after Waynflete's death. The resulting ensemble was as impressive then as it is today; King James I (r.1603-25) pronounced Magdalen College "the most absolute building in Oxford."
Magdalen was at the forefront of the revival of Classical learning from its early days and in the early 17th century it was strongly Puritan for a time. Nevertheless, it supported Charles I and the Royalistcause in the Civil War, donating nearly all its silver.
This sacrifice was not very well rewarded by James II, who attempted to force a president who was unacceptable in morals and qualifications (Anthony Farmer) upon Magdalen's fellows; when they strongly resisted both Farmer and a subsequent nominee, they were expelled. But thanks to the force of public opinion, the king had to reinstate them; October 5, 1688 has been celebrated as Restoration Day ever since.
Famous members of Magdalen College over the centuries have included:
What to See at Magdalen College
Magdalen's Perpendicular Gothic Great Tower (1492), perhaps the most beautiful in Oxford, dominates the east entrance to the city from the direction of London. As well as an important university landmark, it serves as Magdalen's chapel bell tower.
Bring binoculars or a zoom lens to see the amusing stone characters that decorate the top of the tower. All are modern and many are clearly caricatures of real persons.
Entrance to the college is through an inconspicuous porter's lodge on the High Street, which leads into the irregularly-shaped St. John's Quadrangle. On the right/east is the great west window of the chapel (1480); on the left/west is a gate leading to St. Swithun's Quadrangle (by Bodley and Garner 1881-85) and the early 17th-century Grammar Hall.
Straight ahead (north) is the attractive, neo-Tudor President's Lodgings (1881-85). In the southeast corner of St. John's Quad is an outdoor pulpit, from which a university sermon is preached on the Sunday nearest St. John the Baptist's Day (June 24). The small Chaplain's Quad runs from here past the chapel and hall to the Great Tower.
Entrance to the Great Quadrangle, the original and still the main center of the college, is through the impressive Founder's Tower on the east side of St. John's Quad. This Perpendicular Gothic gatehouse is richly decorated with buttresses, pinnacles, carvings and moldings, demonstrating the luxurious architectural tastes of Edward IV's reign (1461-83). The vault underneath features splendid carved bosses.
Unlike any other Oxford college, the Great Quad (1474-80) in Magdalen is encompassed entirely by a cloister, giving the college a strong sense of monastic seclusion. The north range and roofs were largely rebuilt in the 1820s and the stonework has been replaced on several occasions, but the quad remains predominantly medieval and highly atmospheric.
The buttresses of the cloister are adorned with large grotesque figures called "hieroglyphs," whose symbolic significance, if any, is a mystery. Among them are a dog with one paw raised and a dinosaur-like creature who holds a human head in one hand and an owl in another.
The beautiful chapel (1474-80) has the traditional Oxford T-plan, with just a chancel (or choir) and an antechapel. It has been much changed since it was first built; the present interior mainly reflects the restoration by L.N. Cottingham in 1830-35.
The antechapel has many items of interest. Arranged around the walls are some of the original medieval choir stalls, with carved misericords depicting the usual odd beasts and medieval scenes. The many memorials include one (on the northeast wall) to Waynflete's father (15th cent.) and one to the Lyttleton brothers (1635).
Hanging over the entrance is a near contemporary copy of Leonardo da Vinci's The Last Supper (c.1510-14), on loan from the Royal Academy. Its rich coloring provides a good sense of what the faded masterpiece in Milan originally looked like.
The grisaille glass in the antechapel is by Richard Greenbury (1632) and the west window is filled with a lovely 18th-century painted glass version of Michelangelo's Last Judgment, in gentle sepia tones.
The chapel's chancel has five bays with projecting buttresses surmounted by pinnacles and a finely carved parapet string. The stained glass is Victorian, placed here at the expense of the Earl of Selborne, once a Fellow and later Lord Chancellor. As throughout much of England, the original glass was destroyed during the Reformation and the Civil War.
The organ screen and choir stalls are by Cottingham (1830-35); the organ itself is by Noel Mander and the case by Julian Bicknell (1986). The sculptures on the altar screen (reredos) are all from 1864 by Earp. The altar painting of Christ Carrying the Cross is by the 17th-century Spanish artist Valdes Leal.
A broad flight of stairs in the southeast corner of the Great Quad leads to the Hall (not usually accessible to visitors), which has early 16th-century linenfold panelling and a set of ornate early Renaissance carvings, five of which depict the life of Mary Magadalene.
The Old Library (no admittance to visitors), in the west range of the Great Quad, contains illuminated manuscripts, Cardinal Wolsey's copy of the Gospels, and Waynflete's stockings, buskins and cope.
A passage in the north side of the Great Quad leads across a wide lawn to the New Building (1733), which resembles a country house. It was originally intended to be part of a vast Classical quadrangle, but was never completed. Three windows near the center mark the rooms where C.S. Lewis lived and taught for many years. Unfortunately they are now occupied by others and not open to viewing.
Northwest of the New Building is Magdalen's famous Deer Park, also known as Magalen Grove, where the college's herd of deer have grazed since 1700.
Magdalen's extensive grounds include one of the best walks in Oxford, Addison's Walk. It is named after the great essayist Joseph Addison, who was a Fellow of Magdalen for 22 years, and takes about 20 minutes to walk its mile-long circuit.
The path passes along the River Cherwell and follows the edge of a great meadow in which, in April, features a massive display of snakeshead fritillaries. This walk was a favorite of C.S. Lewis when he was a professor here. About halfway around the meadow is a plaque inscribed with a poem written by Lewis called What the Bird Said Early in the Year:
I heard in Addison's Walk a bird sing clear
This year the summer will come true this year, this year
Winds will not strip the blossom from the apple trees
this year, nor want of rain destroy the peas
This year time's nature will no more defeat you
nor all its promised moments in their passing cheat you
This time they will not lead you round and back
to Autumn one year older by the well worn track
This year, this year, as all these flowers foretell
we shall escape the circle and undo the spell
Often deceived yet open once again your heart
quick, quick, quick, quick, the gates are drawn apart.
Festivals and Events
Choral services are held in Magdalen Chapel at 6pm daily (except Tuesdays) during term. The public is welcome and the musical standard is very high.
At sunrise on May Morning (May 1), the Magdalen Choir welcomes the spring from the Great Tower in a magnificent ceremony. They sing the college grance, composed in the late 18th century by a former fellow. This tradition was made even more famous by its inclusion in the film "Shadowlands" about the life of C.S. Lewis. Up to 12,000 people congregate at the base, most of them still drunk from all-night revelries, to welcome the choir.
Restoration Day, commemorating the restoration of Magdalen fellows expelled by King James II, is on October 5.
Quick Facts on Magdalen College
|Categories:||academic buildings; colleges|
|Dedication:||St. Mary Magdalene|
|Visitor and Contact Information|
|Coordinates:||51.752101° N, 1.246798° W|
|Phone:||+44 (0)1865 276000|
|Hours:||Daily 1pm-6pm or dusk (whichever is earlier)|
Opens at noon during the summer vacation
Closed Dec 23-Jan 3
|Lodging:||View hotels near Magdalen College|
- Personal visits (2005-07).
- Geoffrey Tyack, Oxford: An Architectural Guide, 60-64.
- Geoffrey Tyack, Blue Guide Oxford and Cambridge, 6th ed. (2004), 97-99.
- Ronald K. Brind, A Guide to the C.S. Lewis Tour in Oxford, 73-75.
- Magdalen: A general introduction - official website
- Magdalen: The buildings - official website
- Photos of Magdalen College - here on Sacred Destinations
Map of Magdalen College, Oxford
Below is a location map and aerial view of Magdalen College. Using the buttons on the left (or the wheel on your mouse), you can zoom in for a closer look, or zoom out to get your bearings. To move around, click and drag the map with your mouse.