Front Quad of Lincoln College, the walls covered in bright green ivy

College Visitors

This exhibition is based on the fourth Lincoln Unlocked lecture given by Visiting Researcher Dr Andrew Foster.

A College Visitor is an external figure of authority on whom the College can call for advice and for arbitration if insoluble dispute arises amongst its Governing Body, as a successor to the Founder.

At Christ Church and Oriel College, for example, as Royal foundations, the Visitor is the reigning monarch.  The Queen is also Visitor at University College. At All Souls, Keble, and Merton it is the Archbishop of Canterbury; at Queen’s, the Archbishop of York;  Corpus Christi, Brasenose, Exeter, Lincoln, Magdalen, New, St Anne’s, St John’s, St Peter’s, Trinity, and Wadham have bishops; Hertford, Lady Margaret Hall, Pembroke, St Edmund Hall’s, and Somerville colleges have the Chancellor of the University as their Visitor. (Oxford Archives Consortium,  accessed 16/02/2022)

In succession to our Founder, Lincoln College’s Visitor is the Bishop of Lincoln. Bishops of Lincoln were also Visitors of Balliol (although the link was severed in 1691), Oriel, and Brasenose and King’s College, Cambridge.

A Visitor ‘had the power to interpret statutes, to issue injunctions, to deprive heads and fellows, to settle disputes among the members and to carry out formal visitations, investigating the conduct of secular and spiritual business.’  (History of the University v.3, Penry Williams). In his exploration of the role of the College Visitor in Oxford, 1550-1700 in the fourth Lincoln Unlocked Lecture, ecclesiastical historian Dr Andrew Foster made clear that whilst the above description sounds like one of great power and influence, the records suggest that Visitors were in practice more usually called upon to provide judgements with reference to college statutes when heads of colleges or fellows were in dispute; there is little evidence that they were much engaged in major changes of policy and practice. Rarely do we have details of a visitation with questions that go beyond checking compliance with the statutes and an audit of accounts.

Of the 16 bishops of Lincoln between 1557 and 1705, there is evidence for substantial involvement of only about half of those men in Lincoln College affairs. There was a break in the relationship between 1646 and 1660, as there were no longer any bishops with jurisdiction, and after 1647, all Oxford colleges answered to a board of Parliamentary Visitors. The archives post-Reformation indicate contact was largely initiated by those within the colleges, with no sign of a regular relationship other than through routine rituals of appointment and occasional disputes.

So when did Lincoln’s Visitor get involved? Bishop Cooper was concerned about Catholic recusants in the College in 1574, and later drawn into the contested election of Rector John Underhill in 1577. Elections of Fellows gave Bishop Chaderton headaches in the 1590s. In 1627, there were disputes about payment of battells, problems that occurred on a grander scale in the 1680s, when the incompetence of a Bursar led to a fellowship being temporarily suspended with the agreement of Bishop Barlow. And when the diocese of Oxford was carved out of the sprawling diocese of Lincoln in 1542, the rights of Visitors and colleges relating to their livings were protected, but the bishops of Oxford needed reminding of this by the Visitor several times during the 17th century.

Expenses in the annual accounts
An excerpt of a handwritten letter, depicting a list of some kind
Bishop Cooper’s involvement from Accounts
Extract from a page of an old ledger depicting expenses related to the election to rector of the Subrector John Gibson, and of the journey to the College Visitor’s residence at Buckden to inform him of the result.
Chaderton M.R. f.33v.
An old page full of very small handwritten text
College Register I
Image of an old handwritten letter dated 1622
Engraving of John Williams, Bishop of Lincoln 1621-1641
Engraving of John Williams, Bishop of Lincoln 1621-1641, in a large collar
College Register II
Page of an old book depicting a handwritten letter dated July 26 1639, from Lambeth.
Miniature of Rector Paul Hood by engraver David Loggan
Black and white drawing of a man, nestled within an ornate golden frame
Engraving of Robert Sanderson, Bishop of Lincoln 1660-1663
Engraving of Robert Sanderson, Bishop of Lincoln 1660-1663, in a gown and hat, with the Lincoln College crest underneath
Letter from the Visitor Thomas Barlow to Rector Marshall in November 1684
An excerpt of a handwritten letter dated 1684
Letter dated 27 September 1683 from the Visitor to Rector Marshall
An excerpt of a letter dated 27 September 1683 from the Visitor to Rector Marshall regarding the freedom of the parishes of All Saints and St Michael at the Northgate from Oxford episcopal jurisdiction.
View of Lincoln College and its Oxford livings of All Saints and St Michael at the Northgate
Engraving featuring a view of Lincoln College and its Oxford livings of All Saints and St Michael at the Northgate, first published in 1743 in the Oxford Almanack. Titled 'Founders & Benefactors of Lincoln College, with a birds eye view of the building'
Sermons by Robert Sanderson, 1657
Title page of 'Sermons' by Robert Sanderson

Dr Andrew Foster FRHistS, FSA, FHA is an ecclesiastical historian who has written numerous articles on bishops, cathedrals, clergy, parishes and churchwardens of early modern England. He is a long-standing Literary Director of the Sussex Record Society and is an Honorary Senior Research Fellow at the University of Kent.

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