In October 1979, Queen’s admitted its first female undergraduates. This was, of course, a key moment in the College’s history that fundamentally changed Queen’s forever. But there were women who were associated – not members, but associated – with the College before 1979. This article will explore who some of these women were.

The first clue is in the name. Queen’s was founded by Robert de Eglesfield, chaplain to Queen Philippa of Hainault, and he named the College – in the Foundation Deed it is aule scholarium regine de Oxon (Hall of the Queen’s Scholars of Oxford) – in her honour. Oddly, in the statutes he stated that he had given to her the ‘perpetual advowson’ of the College. What this means is not clear. An advowson was the legal right to be able to present a priest to a cure of souls, which would imply that this gave the Queen the right to appoint the Provost, but in fact Eglesfield had explicitly given the right to elect the Provost to the Fellows. Nor was the Queen the Visitor, which was to be the Archbishop of York. Over time, the Queen’s position has morphed into the role of Patroness, though nowhere is this ever defined.

Nevertheless, over the centuries several Queens have acted as powerful friends or benefactors to the College. Philippa herself was responsible for persuading her husband, Edward III, to make the College the Perpetual Warden of God’s House in Southampton. This provided the College with an income that made it more comfortable than most of the other medieval colleges (though nowhere near as wealthy as Merton or New College!) and arguably allowed Queen’s to survive its earliest years. Moreover, when the College found that it could collect very few of the rents from Hampshire thanks to the pillaging of the French (these were the early years of the Hundred Years’ War), the King issued a deed freeing the College from paying taxation on these estates. Again, the deed cited that it had been done at Philippa’s request, and included a portrait of her in the initial letter. 

Several of Philippa’s successors also provided assistance to the College. Elizabeth of York (wife of Henry VII) assisted the College in its long battle with Eton College over the Monk Sherborne estate and Catherine Parr (the sixth and final wife of Henry VIII) ensured that Provost Denysson received a favourable hearing when several of the Fellows made serious complaints against him. Henrietta Maria (wife of Charles I) followed Philippa in persuading her husband to grant the College gifts in Hampshire, in this case six advowsons, all achieved through the most beautiful deed in the College’s Archive. The following century, when the building of Front Quad ground to a halt thanks to a lack of funds, Caroline of Brandenburg-Ansbach (wife of George II) gave £1,000 and promised another £1,000 which never materialised but which was, nevertheless, enough to see her immortalised in Sir Henry Cheere’s statute in the cupola. Her successor, Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, also gave £1,000 in 1779 for the rebuilding of Front Quad after a disastrous fire, but had to settle for a portrait in which she holds a plan of the Quad. 

But, of course, one did not have to be royal to be a benefactor. Eglesfield had expected the Provosts of the College to seek the patronage of the Queen, but some Provosts wisely decided that it would profit the College more to set their sights somewhat lower. None did this more successfully than Joseph Smith, Provost from 1730 to 1756, who befriended Lady Elizabeth Hastings, daughter of the Earl of Huntingdon. Lady Betty, as she has always been known, was a pious lady who wanted to support the sons of clergy and those who would carry out missionary work in India and elsewhere. Smith was prominent in persuading her to spread her bounty less narrowly and at her death she left Queen’s the manor of Wheldale in Yorkshire (it is now almost totally subsumed into the town of Castleford) to support men from the north of England who would study in the College before becoming clergymen. Thus, the Hastings scholarships were born. 

Not all benefactresses were as grand as Lady Betty or Queens Caroline and Charlotte. A surprising number of women gave silver to the College. A seventeenth century list includes a gilt bowl and cover given by the Countess of Leicester and a great gilt goblet given by one Mrs Jenkinson of Colebrock. The circumstances of these donations are now lost and the fact that they are not recorded on our current lists of plate suggest that they were amongst the items given to Charles I during the Civil War to be melted down to provide coin for his armies. But some silver from female donors, mostly made in memory of their husbands or fathers do survive, such as a pair of silver tumblers given in 1896 by Maria Farebrother in memory of her father Thomas, a former commoner of the College, or a whole plethora of plate given by Lucy Hunt in memory of her husband AS Hunt, a fellow of Queen’s from 1896 to 1934 who found fame as one of the discoverers of the Oxyryhnchus Papyri. 

The concept of female benefactresses is perhaps not too surprising, but many people may not be aware that there had been women living in the heart of Queen’s for centuries before 1979. Until the reforms of the mid-Victorian period Queen’s, like all Oxford colleges, was a community of clergymen, and until the Reformation in the mid-sixteenth century no priest was allowed to marry. Even after this no Fellow was allowed to marry while retaining his Fellowship until almost the twentieth century, but from the Reformation one member of College – the Provost – was allowed to marry.

So far as we know the first Provost to be married while in office was Barnaby Potter, who married Elizabeth Northcote in 1615, a year before the Fellows elected him Provost. However, his seven children were all born and baptised in his Devonshire living of Dean Prior, which suggests that he did not bring his family with him to Queen’s. But he did have one family member at Queen’s, for when Potter resigned the Provostship in 1626 he was succeeded by his nephew Christopher, who soon thereafter married Elizabeth Sunnybanke. Their three children, unlike their cousins, were born in Queen’s, so it seems likely that the whole family were living in the Provost’s Lodgings at the heart of Front Quad (now, of course, the Old Lodgings). This became quite normal and we know of many later examples, perhaps most memorably Mary, the wife of Thomas Fothergill (Provost 1767-96), who always walked a few feet behind him on their morning constitutionals, earning them the nickname Orpheus and Eurydice.

Certainly by the nineteenth century it was regarded as necessary that there was someone in the Lodgings to act as a cross between housekeeper and hostess and when the Provost was unmarried relatives often stepped in, such as Miss Eva Lefroy, niece of JR Magrath who ran the Lodgings after his wife’s death, and then the sister of JW Jones who played a vital role in keeping the conversation going when students were ‘entertained’ by the famously taciturn Provost.

One other category must be mentioned – what we would now call staff, but for centuries were referred to as servants. Eglesfield’s statutes of 1341 mention, apart from the Queen, just one woman: the College’s washerwoman. And the only thing that concerned Eglesfield about her was to ensure that on no account was she to enter any of the Fellows or students rooms, thus preserving everyone’s moral reputation. (In many colleges the washerwoman was not even allowed beyond the main gate.) For centuries she remained the sole female servant. What we would now call scouts – from the nineteenth century to the middle of the twentieth they were generally called bedmakers – were at that time invariably male and acted almost as the students’ valets; Lunt, Charles Ryder’s scout in Brideshead Revisited, gives a good idea of the role. It seems, from looking at the Wages’ Books, that it was during the Second World War while many of the bedmakers were on active service, that the College started employing women in large numbers.

There have therefore been, perhaps, a surprisingly large number of women associated with the College, some actually living and working in the College. But the principal function of Queen’s has always been education and it was not until 1979 that women were able, finally, to take a full part in the life of the College.

Michael Riordan, College Archivist