Hertford in the time of Corona
Professor Christopher Tyerman, Tutorial Fellow in History and Fellow Archivist
Covid19 is not the first pandemic to affect the University of Oxford. Reactions to past infections have differed greatly. The flu epidemic of 1918-19 was institutionally ignored. Colleges and the university remained open; tutorials and lecturers were delivered; exams were sat; the main preoccupations concerned the trauma of war losses, accommodating returning veterans and the restoration of corporate finances. Hertford College’s Governing Body Minutes betray no hint of medical crisis beyond one discussion of the salary implications for a seriously ill college servant. While Oxford was not immune to its economic repercussions, the epidemic was subsumed into severe wider challenges facing universities after the First World War. The ill seemed to have gone or stayed at home, but the university carried on, undergraduates at Hertford seemingly most intent on recapturing an atmosphere of normality after the depredations of war, as in their concerted efforts to get GB approval for a new dining club.
Five centuries earlier, the plague had a more devastating and transformative effect, contributing to the decline in late medieval numbers of students and adding to the precarious circumstances of the academic halls that then dominated university accommodation before the dominance of colleges from the sixteenth century. After its first arrival in 1348-9, outbreaks of plague persisted for over two centuries becoming endemic. Crowded towns were especially liable to recurrences. Periodically, both Hertford’s precursors, Hart Hall and Magdalen Hall, suffered, at times (eg 1519 and 1529) reduced numbers because of the plague leading to exemptions from dues payable to the university. While colleges like Queen’s or New College owned properties outside Oxford to which Fellows could retire during times of plague, halls lacked endowment: their senior and junior members either stayed and risked infection or left, thereby reducing income for the hall that relied for survival entirely on rents, battels and tuition fees. Medieval Hart Hall and Magdalen Hall were fortunate in being, in varying degrees, annexed to endowed colleges (Exeter and Magdalen respectively). But even then extinction remained a constant threat. Yet, paradoxically, in one instance, the plague indirectly secured the future of one of Hertford’s ancestors.
When planning his grand new college of St Mary in the 1370s, William of Wykeham, bishop of Winchester, was heavily influenced by the plague. One of his purposes in founding his college was to replenish the numbers of parish priests in his diocese ravaged by the plague. He also benefited from the cheap property prices in NE Oxford caused in part by the plague’s damage to the city’s economy and population. New College, as it was immediately called (to distinguish it from the older St Mary College, known as Oriel), was thus doubly a child of the plague. For the last quarter of the fourteenth century, to house his scholars before the formal founding of his college (1379) and during the building of his lavish collegiate complex, Wykeham leased Hart Hall from Exeter College, thus ensuring its continuation as a viable asset. On recovering direct management in 1400, over the following century, Exeter increased its investment in its annexe, allowing Hart Hall an institutional security that allowed its continuance into the sixteenth century when it first gained its independence. Without Wykeham’s intervention, with falling rolls, Hart Hall might easily have been completely absorbed into Exeter, leased out to non-academic use or sold.
Wykeham also transformed Hart Hall’s situation more literally. Taking advantage of the post-plague near derelict part of the city, he re-routed Hammer Hall Lane (now New College Lane) to run around his new cloister, demolishing all the buildings fronting the lane immediately to the east of Hart Hall making the hall a corner site, as it still is. If he had not needed the hall for his own students, he may have demolished it too. Thus, academically and physically, through a great government fixer’s reaction to and exploitation of the pandemic of the fourteenth century, Hart Hall survived. Hertford College will survive Covid19, but, like its medieval parent, is unlikely to be unchanged. ‘Even through the hollow eyes of death I spy life peering’ (Richard II, Act II, sc. 1, ll. 270-1). Let’s hope so, at least.