Archaeologists Discover Foundations of Oxford University’s ‘Lost’ College

Founded for Catholic priests, the institution was destroyed 500 years ago when Henry VIII established the Church of England

men and women in safety gear at construction site uncovering underground remnants of building
Archaeologists unearth a limestone foundation of one of the buildings of St. Mary's College - an Oxford College left to decay 500 years ago as result of Henry VIII's dissolution of the monasteries. Simon M. Gannon

Researchers with Oxford Archaeology have unearthed the remains of a “lost” college at a construction site for new student apartments at Brasenose College’s Frewin Hall Annexe, according to Tom Seaward of the Oxford Mail. Located near Cornmarket street in central Oxford, the newly discovered limestone foundations of St. Mary’s College, which was razed by Henry VIII, date to the early 16th century.

“We are excited that the construction of the new building gives us the opportunity, and that Brasenose College [has] given us the funding, to archaeologically excavate the remains of this unique and fascinating part of Oxford,” Oxford Archaeology’s project manager Ben Ford tells Isla MacFarlane for Show House.

St. Mary’s was established at Oxford University in 1435 as a place of learning for Augustinian canons, according to the BBC. The two-story college chapel and library had faced numerous construction delays until the 1520s when Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, Henry’s chief adviser, stepped in to speed up the process, per Show House. When Wolsey fell from power and out of favor with the king in 1530, the clergy disbanded—the final result of Henry’s establishment of the new Anglican Church and the dissolution of the monasteries between 1536 and 1541—the building fell into disrepair.

Archaeologists say the foundation was built during Wolsey’s phase of construction and is believed to have supported one of the chapel walls, per Oxford Mail. The team also unearthed a series of pits containing butchered animal bones and charcoal, possible evidence of a kitchen area. Additional items uncovered at the site include a complete 17th century stone flagon, a long-cross silver penny, a comb made of bone, and ornately decorated medieval floor tiles, reports Show House.

dugout pathway to large section of brick wall covered in mud
Researchers also uncovered a large section of foundation that once supported the walls of St. Mary's College. Simon M. Gannon

St. Mary’s was one of many Catholic religious facilities destroyed and looted in the 1530s, Sam Tonkin writes for Daily Mail. In November 1534, Henry created the Church of England, independent of the powerful Roman Catholic Church, after the Vatican refused the monarch’s request to divorce Catherine of Aragon, on the basis that she had not provided a male heir. Influenced by Anne Boleyn, who would become his second wife, and nobles with personal grudges against Wolsey, Henry ordered the closure of all monasteries loyal to the Papacy in Rome, including the Augustinians. The loyal Wolsey was stripped of all of his offices on a charge of praemunire, or overstepping royal authority, per Encyclopedia Britannica.

The Frewin Hall complex, where excavations are taking place, has been continuously occupied since the 11th century, reports the Daily Mail. In addition to the college, archaeologists also unearthed structures of a house built for a high-status owner in the Norman period, which lasted from 1066 to 1154.

"We are hoping to shed light not only on the layout of the lost college of St Mary's, but also discover evidence that tells us about the lives of some of medieval Oxford's most powerful Norman families who probably lived at the site," Ford tells the BBC.

He adds, "If we are really lucky, we may uncover signs of even older everyday life, from Oxford's earliest years when it was first built as a heavily-defended town on the Thames, guarding the border between Saxon and the Viking held lands."