Oxford University is composed of no less than twenty-one separate colleges, all of which have their own officers and buildings and are situated in various parts of the town, each college consisting of a chapel, library, dining or great hall, quadrangle and dormitories. Balliol and Merton divide the honor of being the oldest colleges, as the former was founded in 1260 and the latter four years afterward. The examinations for entrance to Balliol are unusually "stiff" and her graduates generally rank high upon the honor-roll in the university examinations. Merton boasts of the finest chapel, the choir and stained-glass being particularly good, and it is of this college that Dr. Harvey, the discoverer of the circulation of the blood, was warden. Oriel, founded in 1324, ranks next in antiquity and has always been marked for religious tendencies, for here Keble and Wilberforce often discussed and argued in the common's room.
Queen's College is remarkable for the number of quaint customs it retains, among them the summoning the students to meals by trumpet instead of bell, and bringing in the Boar's Head with carols, while every Eastertide the Bursar presents each member of the college with a needle and thread accompanied by the suitable motto "Be Thrifty." The library is one of the largest among the colleges and contains over 60,000 volumes besides many rare manuscripts. New College belies its name, as it was founded in 1586 and besides the usual amount of plate and relics has the crozier of its founder William of Wykeham, bishop of Winchester, wonderfully wrought in silver gilt and studded with jewels and probably the finest relic of its kind in the world. Lincoln and St. John Colleges are smaller than the average and of but little interest with the exception that the former contains a manuscript copy of the Wycliffe bible and was the Alma Mater of John Wesley, while the latter treasures the hat and walking stick used by Archibishop Land on his way to execution.
Sir Christopher Wren, the architect of St. Paul's Cathedral in London, was a fellow of All Souls, and Froude, the historian, of Jesus College. Dr. Johnson studied at Pembroke, and many of his copybooks and manuscripts are to be seen there. Blackstone, of law fame, was also a student of this college. Magdalen, although not the most celebrated for learning or age, has the most beautiful surroundings, and is perhaps a favorite among the English. Brasenose gets its peculiar name from the fact that one of its halls stands on the site of an old brasen-hus or brewery of Alfred the Great's palace, and although the large brass nose fixed over the gateway is picturesque it was added without doubt in late times to account for the name.
Christ Church College, founded by the renowned Cardinal Wolsey in 1525, has the largest number of students on its books, but is seldom called a college, its name among the fellows being "The House," derived from its Latin name Aedes Christi. This college is renowned for the statesmen it has sent forth upon their career. Among the older graduates are such names as Godolphin, Bolingbroke, Mansfield, Locke, Ben Johnson and Sir Philip Sydney, while the modern names of Peel, Canning and Gladstone keep up the reputation of the college. Christ Church Hall with its lofty roof of Irish oak and armorial bearings is the finest in the world, Westminister Hall in London excepted. Many celebrated pictures hang upon the walls by Lely, Kneller and Sir Joshua Reynolds, and it is here that Holbein's Cardinal Wolsey and Henry VIII. are carefully treasured, together with a huge gridiron on wheels, a relic of the banquets given to that monarch by the crafty cardinal.
Keble is the most modern of the colleges as it was founded in 1870, it chapel alone costing L30,000. Exeter, Worcester, Wadham, Corpus Christi, Trinity, University and Hereford constitute the remaining colleges, all homes of celebrated men, although smaller and of less consequence than the rest help to make the University of Oxford one of the largest in the world.