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Trinity College was founded as a training house for Catholic priests in the sixteenth century, and the site of the college, now very much in the city centre, was originally chosen for its quiet, rural aspect. Trinity became a pillar of the Anglican establishment in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and a centre of educational reform in the nineteenth. The past 100 years have seen great expansion in the numbers of fellows and students, as the college buildings and grounds have steadily changed to meet the evolving needs of the resident community.
Image: The family of Trinity President Henry Woods outside the Lodgings soon after it was completed in 1888.
Trinity’s Founder Sir Thomas Pope was a privy councillor of Queen Mary Tudor. His vision for his new College was of a small community of clerics, diligent in their studies and in teaching undergraduates, and faithful in saying daily prayers for the souls of himself and his wife, Lady Elizabeth. Trinity College was formally opened with a lavish banquet on Trinity Monday 1556, but it had no new buildings: the first President, 12 fellows and 12 scholars simply moved into the vacant quadrangle and extensive wooded grove of Durham College, the Oxford house of the great Benedictine cathedral in the North of England.
Sir Thomas died unexpectedly of fever less than four years after Trinity had opened. The following year Queen Mary also died, and the college struggled to conform suddenly to the Protestant rites imposed by her successor Queen Elizabeth I. There were financial and legal difficulties, and the Durham buildings, built between 1286 and 1417, needed constant repair.
Ralph Kettell lived in Trinity from the age of 15 until his death, aged 80. A visionary leader who devoted his life to the College, he served as President for 44 years. In 1618 his plan to control student drinking by brewing high quality beer in-house backfired when the excavation of a cellar caused the Durham Hall to collapse. Undaunted, the President set about raising funds to construct the spacious Hall and Beer Cellar that are still in daily use today. His Kettell Hall opened in 1615 with the luxury of fireplaces in undergraduates’ rooms; today it provides a comfortable common room for Trinity’s graduate community.
Ralph Bathurst entered Trinity as a scholar just five years before Oxford was devastated by the English Civil Wars of 1642–8. As President for 40 years, he devoted himself to restoring the fortunes of his beloved college. Bathurst enlisted Sir Christopher Wren to design a smart new accommodation block for new members – now part of Garden Quad. But it was Bathurst’s new Chapel, opened in 1694, that that really put Trinity on the map. A masterpiece of baroque design, it is open daily for the use of the college community, and remains a ‘must see’ attraction for visitors to Oxford.
The 18th Century saw the transformation of the wooded grove into a beautiful formal garden where college members could walk and relax. Features included sculpted yews, a maze, and a fountain. Trinity was now a bastion of the Anglican church with many fellows and graduates taking positions as parochial clergy. Numbers were stable but low until the 19th Century, when the administrative needs of Britain’s expanding cities and empire greatly increased career opportunities for graduates. One who developed a lifelong love for his college was Saint John Henry Newman, who came up in 1816. A serious and enthusiastic young man, he made his first communion (as an Anglican) in the Chapel, and threw himself into his academic work. In 1878 Newman was elected as Trinity’s first Honorary Fellow, and he returned to Oxford for the first time in over 30 years. Much moved by Trinity’s gesture of reconciliation, England’s most prominent Catholic theologian asked to visit his fresher’s rooms on Staircase 14, and sought out his old tutor to thank him personally for his wise advise of half a century earlier.
Major reforms of Oxford during the 19th Century included the introduction of Honours degrees and new schools including history, maths, and science. In 1882 Trinity opened its doors to men of all faiths or none. Competitive team sports flourished; a barge was built for the Boat Club, and a sports field and pavilion acquired for cricket and rugby. Under the dynamic educationalist John Percival (President 1878-86) the Jackson Building was opened, complete with the first Junior Library where undergraduates could meet and debate. In 1886 the Millard Engineering laboratory opened in the Dolphin Yard, followed in 1897 by a Chemistry laboratory behind Staircase 12 which ran as a shared facility with our neighbour Balliol College. The Nobel Prize winning chemist Sir Cyril Hinshelwood (tutor in Chemistry 1921-1937) conducted many important experiments in his own research lab in college.
The two World Wars of the 20th Century left an indelible scar on the Trinity community. In 1914–18, 160 students and alumni were lost, and 1939–45, 133. The numbers were equivalent to more than three and two annual cohorts respectively. The War Memorial Library was opened in 1928, a practical War Memorial to honour a lost generation, whose legacy was to be the basis of today’s excellent library provision. In 1946 a second memorial fund was largely directed towards the assistance of needy students.
Oxford’s famous ranking of academic successes takes its name from Sir Arthur Norrington, President 1954–69. The middle years of the 20th Century were exciting times to be up at Trinity, as the college grew rapidly, with tutors in new subjects including modern languages, politics, engineering, physics, and biochemistry. Graduate numbers expanded, and both they and undergraduates were given representation at Governing Body meetings. Trinity invested in modern shared flats for students in the suburbs of Oxford, and in 1977 everyone was entrusted with their own key to the college gate.
The first cohort of 23 Trinity women came up in 1979. A mix of undergraduates and graduates, they were quickly integrated into the life of the college. The first woman on the Governing Body was the biochemist Sue Kingsman, elected fellow in 1984. In 2017 Trinity welcomed its first female President, Dame Hilary Boulding, who is leading the college into the next chapter of our history as she oversees the Levine Building project.
Over more than 450 years, Trinity has gone from strength to strength as a community dedicated to teaching and learning. Trinity Monday remains an important date in our calendar as we celebrate a membership more diverse, and learning more wide-ranging, than could have been imagined even a century ago. The College’s original connection to the Catholic faith was remembered as the President and others attended the canonization mass for John Henry Newman at the Vatican in 2019. Every year the College flies the rainbow flag from the Chapel tower for Pride Weekend and LGBT History Month. In 2020, Trinity launched a project to research whether Trinity had connections to the Atlantic slave trade.