It’s that time of year again when a new cohort of undergraduates arrives in Oxford to matriculate at the University. Matriculation is the formal admission of a student to membership of the University. Students, who have already been admitted to their colleges (which are legally and administratively separate from the central University), are then presented by that college to the University for matriculation. In celebration, the University Archives’ blog for October looks at matriculation through some of the records we hold of this longstanding Oxford tradition.
The history of matriculation is somewhat obscure for the University’s early years. Before the existence of colleges, students lived in private lodgings and were under the supervision of individual teaching masters. It’s generally understood that the University required every scholar to be on the roll or in the register (in rotulo or in matricula) of one of these masters. It appears, however, that this requirement was not enforced and there are, sadly, no surviving rolls or registers in the Archives documenting these early students. For the first few centuries of its existence, the University repeatedly tried, and seemingly failed, to get its students systematically recorded.
In 1420 a royal ordinance was issued which enacted that all scholars should reside in a college or hall, under the guardianship of a principal and that they, and their servants (more about them later), should swear an oath to observe the University’s statutes. The fact that this ordinance had to be revived in 1552, and the continued absence of any records of this process, suggests that it, also, was ignored. The 1552 ordinance is in fact the reason behind the creation of the earliest surviving list of persons residing in colleges and halls of the University. This list appears in a Chancellor’s register of the period, a register used for a wide range of University business.
Entry listing members of Christ Church in the Chancellor’s register, 1552 (OUA/Hyp/A/5, fol 68v)
The list is divided into sections for each college and each starts with the senior members of that college: masters (magistri in Latin) being denoted by the prefix ‘Mr’, and doctors, by ‘D’. It then goes on to list the junior members, ie students. There is no information about when a particular person entered the University or how long they’d been at the college. It isn’t, strictly-speaking, a record of matriculation at all, merely a list of names providing a simple snapshot in time.
In 1564 the University appointed a committee to look again into matriculation and draw up new regulations governing it. Their work culminated in the University’s first matriculation statute introduced in 1565. This required all scholars and privileged persons (more about them later, too) who, if 16 or over, should swear to observe the University’s statutes. The 1565 statute required students to be registered within seven days of their admission to a college or hall (or if living in the town under the supervision of a master), and to give the University certain personal information such as their age and place of residence.
The statute also established a scale of fees at matriculation whereby different amounts were charged depending on the matriculant’s social status. At the top of this list were the sons of princes, dukes and marquises (who paid 13 s 4d to matriculate). There then followed (in descending order) the sons of counts or viscounts; barons, bishops or baronets; esquires, deacons or archdeacons; knights and gentlemen. Until finally, at the bottom, the sons of plebeians (who paid only 4d). The ranks were peculiarly arranged – higher status individuals were separated into very small categories whilst the remaining 90% of the population were lumped together, effectively, as ‘plebs’.
The statute also made provision for a register or book of matriculations to be kept by the University. The very first matriculation register of the University was created that year. It is divided into sections, one for each college or hall. At first the entries are very much like the 1552 list of names, simply a snapshot roll-call for certain years, and not proper matriculation records. There are also long gaps in the register in which hardly any entries are recorded. Clearly the colleges were still not co-operating with the new matriculation statute. But the University persisted and in 1568 it set up yet another committee to look at the issue. The first proper matriculation entries in this register begin in c1571, presumably as a result of their efforts. In Christ Church’s entry (the first college listed in the register), for example, the first dated matriculation is in 1572. But there are still gaps in the register after that which suggest that matriculations were not being systematically recorded.
From 1581, a new restriction on matriculation came into force. From that date all matriculating students over the age of 16 were required to declare their assent to the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England, the Book of Common Prayer and the oath of Royal Supremacy. In order to demonstrate this assent, the matriculating student swore the oath of supremacy and signed his name on pages bound up in a register with a copy of the Thirty-Nine Articles. This effectively barred anyone who was not a member of the Church of England from entering the University; students who were Roman Catholic, Jewish, Muslim or non-conformist protestants, for example, were now excluded.
The University appears to have tightened up its recording of matriculations after this and the entries in the register become fuller and more comprehensive. Each student was now required to provide the following information to the University: his age, the rank or status of his father, and his county of origin. Age was required by the University as it determined whether or not the student was required to take the oath of supremacy (if under 16, he was not required to do so). The father’s rank or status was still required in order to determine the matriculation fee. The county of origin was useful to colleges, as certain college fellowships and scholarships were limited to those born in specified counties, but it is not clear why the central University needed that information. From 1616, the registers begin to note whether the person matriculating was the eldest or second son, etc. Eldest sons of certain ranks were granted privileges relating to their studies, such as dispensations from particular University requirements. From 1622, the matriculation registers also contain the name of the student’s father and (it is not clear exactly which), either the parish in which the student was born, or the parish in which the father resided.
The first Christ Church matriculations, 1570s (OUA/SP 1, fol 20v)
What is also clear from the earliest matriculation entries, such as those of Christ Church, is that the ages of students matriculating ranged more widely, and, by and large, students were much younger than today. In the list pictured, Robert Sydney matriculated aged only 12; Edward Montague, aged 13. Putting aside the possibility of less-than-truthful entries, it is certainly the case that students matriculated at a younger age in centuries past. In the late 16th century, their ages ranged between 7 and 30, with one record found of a five-year old, Audley Mervin, matriculating in June 1618 (but it is suspected this might be a clerical error for ‘15’). The general trend has been for students to get older over the centuries until they reach the, more usual, age of 18+ as today.
Some students may have wanted to avoid having to assent to the beliefs of the Church of England and so deliberately came up to Oxford before they were 16 (at which age it became compulsory). Some may have been young boys sent to Oxford at the same time as an older brother. What other records held here show is that most of these very young matriculants rarely proceeded to a degree.
The information given by the matriculants was not checked or verified, as far as we know, and so was not necessarily entirely accurate. Like many records kept by archives, the information these registers contain has its limitations. It is what someone wanted the University to believe, not necessarily what was the case. Some students deliberately understated their social rank in order to pay smaller fees, for example; there’s evidence from college records that students sometimes assigned themselves a lower status to the University, and a much higher one to their college.
There’s also evidence that not every student at a college even matriculated. The University’s matriculation records contain errors and omissions when compared to college admission records. Students unwilling to subscribe, for example, might avoid matriculating entirely. It appears, however, that attendance at colleges without matriculation was rare by the end of the 17th century and had mostly ceased by the middle of the 18th.
A far greater range of people were admitted to membership of the University at this time than today. One large group of these were privileged persons. Privileged persons (personae privilegiatae) were, generally, of two types: servants or tradesmen. Servants (servientes) could be either personal servants or common servants. Any University member could bring his personal servant to Oxford with him and have him admitted to the status of privileged person. ‘Common servants’ included lower-ranked University officers such as bedels, or college servants such as manciples or cooks. The other type of privileged person were tradesmen and workmen of the town (privilegiati), people such as booksellers, brewers or carriers. Privileged status conferred on them the right to trade with the University and its members and gave them access to a large and wealthy customer base that the non-privileged tradesman did not have. Privileged persons appear in the matriculation registers until the late 18th century, often in a separate list at the back of the volumes.
In 1870 the University introduced a new system for recording student information at matriculation: the matriculation form. Completed by each matriculating student, in their own hand, this asked for personal information. For the first 20 or so years, the form was very small, requiring students to give much the same type of information as they had done for years past: ie name, age, whether the matriculant was the eldest or second child, place of birth, father’s name and ‘quality’, date of matriculation and college.
Matriculation form of Oscar Wilde, 1874 (from OUA/UR 1/1/6)
Dates of birth, school and father’s present address were added to the form in 1894, a useful addition for both the University at the time and the genealogist of the future. But one has to wonder how practically useful some of the other information on the form now was. The University had asked for the same kind of information from its students for centuries, long after some of it was of any use at all. Would the fact that a student was a third son be of any relevance in 1890? One suspects not, as the privileges that status had once offered had long since disappeared.
The social ranks had also changed quite dramatically over time and the particular terms used had changed, or lost, their meaning so much that by the 19th century they’d become rather meaningless. Matriculating students were using, and misusing, outdated terminology established over 200 years earlier. In 1891 the confusion felt on all sides led the University to change the question from father’s rank or ‘quality’ to occupation.
A very significant change to matriculation took place in 1871. Subscription at matriculation remained obligatory until 1854 when it was abolished by the Oxford University Act. But religious tests for membership of the University were not finally abolished until 1871 when the Universities Tests Act enabled those of all faiths and none to matriculate. This began the opening up of matriculation to a greater number and range of people.
The University took a little longer to allow women to matriculate. Although women had been studying in Oxford, at the women’s colleges set up in the city from the 1870s onwards, they were still not allowed to matriculate. Women could sit and pass University examinations but until they could matriculate, under the University’s longstanding regulations, they were not allowed to graduate. This finally changed in 1920.
Matriculation form of Isobel Millicent Matthew, 1920 (from OUA/UR 1/2/1)
The first woman to matriculate, Isobel Millicent Matthew, did so on 7 October 1920. As her matriculation form shows, the University had to change its standard male-centric matriculation form for its new women matriculants. But instead of taking the opportunity to review the forms and see whether the information they were asking for was relevant to the 20th century, the University decided to simply tweak them, change their colour, and replace all masculine vocabulary with feminised versions. As a result, the form now asked its female matriculants for some entirely irrelevant information: no-one in the University would ever need to know whether the matriculant was an eldest daughter. This had no bearing on any University procedure. The men’s forms were also restructured into this new, enlarged format, but the redundant information continued to be collected.
The matriculation registers continued to be maintained after the forms were introduced in 1870. These were completed, as they always had been, by University administrative staff and from the 1870s, they simply copied the information from the forms into the registers, effectively creating a second (often much more legible) copy of the information. By 1924, however, the time taken to maintain the parallel series of matriculation registers could no longer be justified and the University decided to stop keeping them. From then on, the forms themselves were to be the official record of matriculation. The last register entries were made in 1925.
The University continued using the matriculation forms all through the twentieth century. The occasional review added another piece of required information to the form (such as the type of school attended, nationality, or proposed subject of study) as demands grew on the University to report statistics of the nature of its student body. It therefore had to add to the forms the kind of information which it needed to answer the questions being asked of it by others (such as social origin, class, income and background). By and large, however, the content, and purpose, of the forms remained the same.
With the advent of computerised student systems in the 1980s, the University revised the matriculation form yet again, with a view to standardising data collection and speeding up the production of statistics. The inevitable progress of technology meant that the decision to stop creating paper matriculation forms at all was finally taken in 2005.
Much has been written about the University’s early matriculation records. A good discussion of the period between 1571 and 1622 can be found in Andrew Clark’s Register of the University of Oxford Vol II, Part I, (published by the Oxford Historical Society in 1887).
For further information about how to access the information in the matriculation records, please see the guidance on the University Archives’ website at https://www.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/universityarchives/guides/past-members. The guidance includes links to published registers, available online, of those who matriculated before 1892. It also provides contact details for sources of information regarding students matriculating after 1892.
For a detailed look at the changing student body of the University over time, see Lawrence Stone’s chapter entitled ‘The Size and Composition of the Oxford student body 1580-1910’ in The University in Society, Vol I Oxford and Cambridge from the 14th to the Early 19th Centuries (Princeton, 1974).
The University recently commemorated the 150th anniversary of the 1871 Universities Tests Act with the creation of the ‘Opening Oxford 1871-2021’ website at https://openingoxford1871.web.ox.ac.uk/
For information about matriculation today, see the University’s main website at https://www.ox.ac.uk/students/new/matriculation