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History of the College

The 'College of the souls of all the faithful departed', commonly called All Souls College, was planned, built, and endowed in the 1430s by Henry Chichele, long-serving Archbishop of Canterbury. It received its foundation charter in 1438 from King Henry VI, co-opted by the Archbishop as the College's co-founder. Chichele was in his seventies at the time, and this, his third Oxford benefaction, situated right at the University's heart, was the fruit of careful reflection about what was needed in a new college.

All Souls had two functions. The first, common to all colleges, was religious. The Warden and, originally, forty Fellows were to pray in chapel for the souls of the founders, of those who had fallen in the long wars with France (at the time not being prosecuted with much vigour), and of 'all the faithful departed'. The second function was academic, and in this, then as now, the College was distinctive. Chichele envisaged the medieval equivalent of a graduate college, an institute of advanced study of a very practical kind. With minor exceptions, the College never took in undergraduates. Its Fellows were previously to have studied somewhere else for at least three years and most would already have a BA. Once admitted they were to study or teach for the higher degrees of theology, law (civil and 'canon', or Church, law), and medicine - especially theology and law. The Fellows, all in Holy Orders, had to prepare themselves, not for life in the ivory tower, but for service to Church and government. They were, as Chichele himself put it, an 'unarmed militia', trained for the unashamedly patriotic task of restoring national prestige and good order in the face of heresy at home and stalemate abroad.

That was the Founder's original vision for All Souls. Some idea of what happened to it over the next four centuries can be found in the history sections from its Foundation onwards. This is a history of Fellows who were not always as learned, practical, committed, or harmonious as Chichele would have wanted. But it is also a history that includes Christopher Wren, William Blackstone, William Gladstone, Lord Curzon, and Lawrence of Arabia.

The modern College is essentially a product of the various currents of reform that swept over Oxford in the second half of the nineteenth century and the early twentieth. Above all, it was the creation of Sir William Anson, Warden 1881-1914, acclaimed shortly after his death on the eve of World War I as the College's 'second founder'. This was an All Souls that blended academics and non-academics and Prize, Research, and Professorial Fellows. Entry by Prize Fellowship was a severe academic test in the College's two main subjects, law and history. Chichele's service to the Church via a degree in theology had evolved into service to government and empire via the study of history. But there was much in Anson's All Souls that the archbishop would have recognised, just as Anson's All Souls is still recognisable in the College's configuration today.

Since Anson's time, All Souls has enlarged its ranks of Professorial and Senior Research Fellows and extended the range of subjects studied, right across the humanities, and also into theoretical sciences. Since the mid-1960s it has developed a scheme of Visiting Fellowships. Women have been eligible for Fellowships since 1979. Some of these developments would have been inconceivable to both Anson and Chichele. Yet they all build upon the two founders' fundamental vision of a College that promotes both pure and applied research as well as intellectual engagement with a wider world.