Today (April 4, 2014) is the 700th anniversary of Exeter College, as the college was founded by the Bishop of Exeter, Walter de Stapeldon, on April 4, 1314. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity (I suppose I may still be around for the 750th anniversary though I would be an octogenarian by that time)! And I think 750 would be even more significant than 700—but I’m not willing to bet on the fact that I’ll still be around, so I’m seizing this opportunity while I still have the chance. It’s nice to revisit Oxford University, where I did my D.Phil. degree in theology from 2002-2008.
Oxford University and Cambridge University (collectively known as “Oxbridge”) operate on a federal system which is fairly unique among universities in this world. But it shouldn’t be hard for Americans to understand. Think of it like this: every American is both a citizen of the U.S. and a resident of one of the 50 states. Same with Oxford: every student is enrolled in the University and a member of one of the 38 constituent colleges (in Cambridge they have 31 colleges). Think of a college as a micro community within the larger university—it gives you an identity and an allegiance and a family, kind of like a small group at a church, so you really get to know certain people well instead of just being lost in the large crowd. Harvard and Yale patterned themselves after Oxbridge and also operate on a federal system (though at Harvard, they call them houses instead of colleges).
I was a member of Exeter College, the fourth-oldest of the 38 colleges at Oxford University, founded 1314. The funny thing is, nobody quite knows the order of the three oldest colleges at Oxford. It is either University College, Balliol College, or Merton College, depending on what criterion you use: University was the first to be conceived via money given for that purpose, Balliol was the first to enroll students and possess buildings on a continuously-occupied site, and Merton was the first to receive a charter of statutes establishing it as one of the colleges of Oxford University. We at Exeter College don’t care: those three can duke it out amongst themselves, but we can rise above the fray and just sit confident as undisputed fourth place! (Though maybe being #2 is best—but I digress.)
Think about it: 700 years! That is three times as old as the United States! That should boggle your mind. In fact, this eye-opening article highlights six things that Oxford University predates, just to help put things in perspective.
I find it deliciously ironic that the sixth-oldest college at Oxford is called New College—because it was new when it was founded in 1379! I just don’t know how anybody can call something founded in the 14th century as new, but I guess
it was new compared to the ancient five (the fifth-oldest is Oriel College).
How does one choose a college at Oxford? I think they may do the selection process slightly differently now, but back in 2001 when I was applying, you first had to get accepted to the University. Once that was complete, then you have to be assigned to a college. You could list your top four, but everyone told me there’s a trick to this: you shouldn’t put one of the highly-sought-after colleges as anything but #1 on your list otherwise it’s just a wasted vote. What are the highly-sought-after ones? Probably the #1 would be Christ Church (the biggest and grandest college at Oxford with the Harry Potter dining hall). Another would be St. John’s College (the richest college at Oxford—they are said to own so much land in England that you can walk from Oxford to London and never leave St. John’s-owned land). And yet another would be Magdalen College (the college of C.S. Lewis, and often considered the most beautiful college at Oxford, with a deer park—yes, they own a herd of deer)! Merton College and New College would probably make the list too. Well, this is what I listed as my top four: 1) Magdalen; 2) Merton; 3) Exeter; 4) Trinity. Considering how hard it is to get into Magdalen College, it’s no wonder that I didn’t get in. But had I known the “trick” above, I never would’ve put Merton as my second choice, because it really was just a wasted vote. So I got assigned to Exeter College. At first I was disappointed, but then I realized it could’ve been worse: I could’ve been passed over by all four of my college selections and then they would randomly assign me to some college which was ugly, or far away, or non-historic. And Exeter actually has much to commend it: it has, in my opinion, the most stunning chapel in Oxford (built in Victorian style), the prettiest dining hall (built in Jacobean style), and the best view in the whole university from the back of the Fellow’s Garden overlooking Radcliffe Square. It’s also the most centrally-located of all the Oxford colleges, literally adjacent to the Bodleian Library. You can’t get much closer to the heart of Oxford than Exeter.
I chose those four colleges above because I did my research: I wanted a beautiful, centrally-located, ancient college. I’m sorry but I just didn’t want to be in, say, Wolfson College which is extremely far from the geographic core of Oxford with its beautiful cobblestone strets. Instead, Wolfson has hideous 1970s-style architecture and does not carry all the ancient traditions of the University. Basically, if I were assigned there, I wouldn’t feel like I was at Oxford, and I wanted to experience the place in all its robust antiquity.
I later found out that Exeter College is alma mater to some of my heroes! I guess I hadn’t done enough research on the place (all I knew was that it was the college of my favorite fantasy author, J.R.R. Tolkien), but by happy coincidence other alumni/ae include:
-fantasy author Philip Pullman, famous for the His Dark Materials trilogy of which the first was The Golden Compass; the fictional Jordan College in the book/movie is actually Exeter College
-missiologist Andrew Walls
-biblical theologian and former Bishop of Durham, N.T. Wright
-athlete Roger Bannister, the first runner in history to break the four-minute mile
-Qian Zhongshu, author of the greatest Chinese novel of the twentieth century, Fortress Besieged
-C. Hubert H. Parry, who wrote the music to the quintessential British hymn “Jerusalem” (used during the Opening Ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics, watch this video from 13:30 to 14:33). Though poet William Blake wrote the words, it was Parry who wrote the haunting melody.
-pre-Raphaelite artists William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones
-authors Martin Amis and Will Self
-playwright and screenwriter Alan Bennett
-stage actress Imogen Stubbs
-Thomas Bodley, founder of the Bodleian Library, was born in the city of Exeter. I suppose it’s fitting, then, that the Bodleian Library and Exeter College are adjacent to one another.
-Queen Sofía of Spain is not an alum, but she is an honorary fellow of Exeter College and gives her name to the Queen Sofía Research Fellow in Modern Peninsular Spanish Literature, held by Dr Daniela Omlor.
A painting of Queen Sofia of Spain, in the Rector’s Lodge of Exeter College
-The current head of Oxford University Press, Nigel Portwood, is also an Exeter College fellow.
-Chris Fletcher, keeper of Special Collections at the Bodleian Library, is also an Exeter College fellow.
-Katrina Hancock is the first female undergraduate in the history of the College to be raised to become a fellow of Exeter. She was also the mastermind behind the entire 700th anniversary celebrations!
I was especially happy about the first seven on this list, because I love fantasy literature; I’m a missiologist; I’m a theologian; I’m a runner; I’m ethnically Chinese; and I used to teach in the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University which had as its theme song “Jerusalem.” I don’t deserve to be in such illustrious company with Tolkien, Pullman, Walls, Wright, Bannister, Qian, and Parry! In fact, I have had the privilege of meeting all of them except Qian, Parry, and J.R.R. Tolkien himself—though I did meet his daughter, Priscilla Tolkien, when she visited Exeter College once. And I actually met Roger Bannister on the 50th anniversary of his breaking the four-minute mile.
with Roger Bannister on the 50th anniversary of his breaking the four-minute mile
Some might say, “Wait a minute—isn’t J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series, also an alum of Exeter College?” Close, but not quite: she is an alum of Exeter University, which is located in the county of Devon in the southwestern part of England. There is a connection, however! The bishop of the city of Exeter (in Devon) was the one who came up to Oxford University in 1314 and founded the College, naming it Exeter College in honor of his city. And one of our special guest speakers for our 700th anniversary celebration is J.K. Rowling herself, as seen in this program of events.
I did my Master of Theology (M.Th.) degree at Edinburgh University right before I came to Oxford, and there is a link to J.K. Rowling there too: in her post-university life, she moved to Edinburgh, Scotland, and lived there for a while (in fact she still lives there). She wrote her Harry Potter novels in Edinburgh (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle also wrote his Sherlock Holmes novels in Edinburgh) and the place to visit for any Harry Potter fan is a café called The Elephant House on George IV Bridge which is where Rowling wrote her first Harry Potter book!
When I was doing my M.Th. degree at Edinburgh University, I was writing my thesis on Latin American theology. I took a class with Prof. Edwin Williamson, author of The Penguin History of Latin America. The next year I moved from Edinburgh University to Exeter College, Oxford—and so did Prof. Williamson! It was great to see a scholar of my subject walking around the environs of my college (though ironically, despite his proximity, I never took a class with him at Oxford).
It wasn’t just famous alums that preceded me; there were some famous alums that matriculated with me at Exeter College in 2002. Two people worth mentioning, who lived in the same dorm (Exeter House) as me:
-Lucy Southworth, who did a one-year Masters degree but entered the same year as me when I did my D.Phil. degree. After completing her Masters, Lucy moved to California to do her Ph.D. at Stanford University. The next thing I heard, she had married Larry Page, the co-founder and CEO of Google! I didn’t quite believe it, so I had to verify—so I googled her! Haha, no joke. And sure enough, it’s true.
-Amy Sackville, who also entered Exeter College with me in 2002. The next thing I heard, she had written a critically-acclaimed novel called The Still Point which won the 2010 John Llewellyn Rhys Prize which, according to Wikipedia, “is awarded annually for the best work of literature (fiction, non-fiction, poetry, drama) by an author from the Commonwealth aged 35 or under, written in English and published in the United Kingdom. It is the second oldest literary award in the UK. Since 2011 the award has been suspended due to funding problems. The last award was in 2010.” I read her novel and it is gorgeously written, like poetry even though it is prose. Similar to Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass (in the UK the title is Northern Lights), The Still Point is a novel about an expedition to the North Pole.
One other thing that makes me proud to be an “Old Member” (the British word for alum) of Exeter College is the fact that our former Rector, Prof. Marilyn Butler, made history in 1993 when she became the first woman to become the head of one of the ancient Oxbridge colleges—all of which until the last few decades had been male-only (the last to go co-ed was Oriel College in 1985: see the movie Oxford Blue, starring Rob Lowe, which shows that Oriel was still an all-male college in the 1980s.) Marilyn Butler is also immortalized on the front of Exeter College with the gargoyles (this fact is not even known by most Exonians): the gargoyles to the right of the Lodge are: Marigold, Archer, Roundels, Eye (I), Lion, Yew, Neptune; 1993; Bells, Unicorn, Twins, Lamb, Ear, Roman nose. This acrostic spells out: MARILYN BUTLER. Clever, no?
Prof. Marilyn Butler was Exeter College’s Rector when I first arrived at Exeter, but during my four-year stint in the College she retired in 2004 and was replaced by Frances Cairncross, another woman (and this year Cairncross is stepping down and making way for the new Rector, Sir Rick Trainor—an American, and the former President of King’s College, London. The transition of Rectors on the 700th anniversary year reminds me of the transition of Biola’s President from Clyde Cook to Barry Corey in our centenary year in 2008). Sadly, Prof. Marilyn Butler just died a few weeks ago on March 11, 2014—so she did not live to see the 700th anniversary of Exeter. It would have been great to have her here. Her warmth and kindness was always beloved in our College.
But there is also much to be said about Frances Cairncross. She was altogether a different type of Rector. Whereas Butler was grandmotherly, Cairncross is dynamic. Whereas Butler was a scholar, Cairncross is a businesswoman. Frances Cairncross brought her international sensibilities to the college by appealing to traditions to the three largest “foreign” constituents: having a Thanksgiving dinner each year so the Americans feel at home; celebrating Burns Night annually so the Scots have something to get excited about; and holding a Diwali festival every year so the Indians have something to celebrate too! In fact, the Diwali celebration is so successful (they had to figure out how to set off fireworks without breaking fire codes) since Exeter is the only college in Oxford that celebrates Diwali, that Indian students from all over Oxford University flock to Exeter College to partake in Diwali!
At the end of the day, one of the things that shows how much Exeter College alum love our college is the alumni donation rate: 1/3 of all alumni have donated money to Exeter, which is the highest rate of any college in Oxford University! Loyalty abounds. (Although, a cynic might point out the high effectiveness of Exeter College’s fundraising committee. A joke that is sometimes told is: “If Osama bin Laden had been an alum of Exeter College, he would’ve been found in a matter of hours!”)
All in all, we had a wonderful reunion. It was fortuitous that the 700th anniversary fell on a Friday so that we could actually celebrate it on a weekend. Also it was fortuitous that it happened during vacation—between Hilary (Winter) and Trinity (Spring) terms. And finally, it was fortuitous that the end of the weekend corresponded with the Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race on the Thames in London, where Oxford took the biggest margin of victory since 1973—a full 11 lengths!
Some trivia about Exeter College:
-Exeter College has, as its traditional rival, Jesus College which is immediately across Turl Street from us. However, I personally find it hard to say anything disparaging about Jesus! Plus, Jesus College was the college of Sheldon Vanauken, author of one of my favorite books about Oxford, A Severe Mercy.
-There are three colleges on Turl Street in Oxford: Exeter, Jesus, and Lincoln. Turl Street runs perpendicular to the High Street and Broad Street. There is a joke for anyone familiar with Oxford geography: “In what way is the Church of England’s theology like Turl Street? It’s High on one end, Broad on the other, and it goes straight past Jesus.”
-Every year there is the Turl Street Arts Festival where Exeter, Jesus, and Lincoln colleges collaborate.
-Every college at Oxford has a sister college at Cambridge. For Exeter College, Oxford, our sister college is Emmanuel College, Cambridge. This also happens to be the same college that John Harvard (the founder of Harvard University) was a student in.
-The following movies were filmed in part at Exeter College: The Red Violin; The Golden Compass; Inspector Morse (not a movie, but the final episode of the TV series, “The Remorseful Day,” was filmed in our main quad).
-Exeter Cathedral in the Southwest of England has not only the tomb of Walter de Stapeldon, the bishop of Exeter who founded Exeter College, but it is also architecturally glorious: it has the longest unbroken nave (stone vaulted ceiling) of any church in the world.
in Exeter Cathedral, at the tomb of Walter de Stapeldon, bishop of Exeter who founded Exeter College, Oxford, in 1314
-Glastonbury Abbey is where the Holy Grail reputedly was housed, and it was brought here by Joseph of Arimathea. According to legend, Jesus as a child accompanied Joseph to England, prompting William Blake to write the words to the hymn “Jerusalem”: “And did those feet in ancient time walk upon England’s mountains green?” The music for “Jerusalem” was written by Exeter College alumnus C. Hubert H. Parry.