Names of English Colleges

by Mari Elspeth nic Bryan (Kathleen M. O'Brien) and Juliana de Luna (Julia Smith)

© 2004-2007 by Kathleen M. O'Brien and Julia Smith. All rights reserved.
Version 1.4, updated 19 November 2007


While doing a bit of research, we found ourselves deep in the details of how the colleges that make up Oxford and Cambridge were known around 1600. One thing led to another, and our notions about the way colleges were named in the Middle Ages and Renaissance changed substantially.

Oxford and Cambridge, like universities on the continent, were known by the name of the town in which they were located. Continental institutions such as the University of Paris, the University of Bologna, and the University of Salamanca also follow this pattern.

However, the constituent parts of the universities had a variety of names with different origins. The original institutions at both Oxford and Cambridge were named University College, but colleges and halls quickly proliferated. Names for these institutions came from a variety of places; the most important were religious names and the names of founders, but several other patterns are found as well.

Not much later, other educational instutions began to be founded. Some form the basis of the modern "public schools" of England, educating younger students to prepare them for university studies. Others became lesser universities. We have included many of those, as they seem to have been named in the same ways as the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge.

Naming Patterns: Designators

The term university is used to refer to the great institutions like Oxford and Cambridge. Each of them is made up of several smaller institutions, which were the main centers both of residence and instruction. Several terms are used to refer to these smaller units: college, hall, and school. The terms college and hall continue to be used today. The main difference between colleges and halls was that colleges were corporate bodies who administered their own finances, whilst the halls had their finances administered by the University or other trustees. As corporate bodies the colleges could own estates and property and consequently attracted more benefactors, were wealthier and more powerful. Otherwise, there is little difference between them; both are degree granting instutitions within the broader university.

A second group of English institutions of higher learning are the Inns of Court and Inns of Chancery; these instutitions were intended to train government admistrators in London. The Inns of Court survive as the English law schools. These institutions are referred to as inns, but they are not taverns. We include them in a separate section, as they reflect many of the same trends in naming as the colleges.

Naming Patterns: Names of Colleges

There are several ways in which colleges are named. The most important source of names are saints names and religious references. The names of ten different saints were used in the English colleges; some were explicitly named after the saint to whom a church or chapel was dedicated. Most of these names use the term "Saint" in front of the name, though some use only the given name of the saint. Magdalen is the only case in which a saint's byname was used; it reflects the more general use of the saint's name in period (though even the name of a Magdalen College appears once as "Collegii beate Marie Magdalene Oxonie"). Saints names are found both unmodified (Peter house) and in possessive forms (St Peters House), sometimes in the same document.

The other religious referents basically fall into two categories: the names of the Trinity (Trinity, God, Jesus, Christ, Emanuel) and the names of feasts (religious celebrations, such as All Soules and Corpus Christi). Again, both unmodified and possessive forms are used. Between saints names and other religious referents, the general rule of naming seems to be that names that would be suitable for a church, whether Catholic or Protestant (the Puritans were founding colleges before 1600), before 1600 is a plausible candidate for a college name.

Another group of colleges are named for their founder, in one of three ways. None use the complete name of the founder. Instead, they use either the surname or the title of the founder. Most surnames that are used are straightforward, but one (Caius) is a Latinized form of Keyes, which the user adopted during the Renaissance fascination with classical forms. Surnames are never used in the possessive form. Titles fall into two categories: job descriptions and the seats of titles. Job descriptions found here are mostly very high ranking (king, queen, cardinal), though abbots is also found. All of the job description names use a possessive form, except for Cardinal College, which was brief-lived and for which we have no period citations. Those that use the seats of titles (Pembroke, Exeter, Lincoln, among others) never use a possessive form. There are two exceptions: one early case which uses a title and surname (Bishop Trellick's) and one terminal period case (Sidney Sussex) which uses both the surname (Sidney) and the title (Countess of Sussex) of the founder.

Other patterns are less frequently found. Most schools that educate students below the university level and universities (as opposed to the colleges that make them up) are named after the locations in which they are found. These forms always use the name of a city or town, rather than a region or country, and never use a possessive form. A small number of colleges are named after the buildings in which they were located; these buildings are generally named after a prominent feature of the building. The Inns of Chancery and Court also generally follow that pattern; the most famous Inns of Court, the Inner and Middle Temples, are so named because the building previously belonged to the Knights Templar. Finally a few colleges are named after corporate groups that founded or funded them, including a guild (Merchant Taylors) and an order of monks (Greyfriars).

Names of Colleges

Names of Inns of Court and Chancery


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