Researchers with Oxford Archaeology have unearthed remains of Oxford’s ‘lost’ college during the construction of additional student accommodation at Brasenose College’s Frewin Annexe. 

A team from Oxford Archaeology is excavating the site of the former St Mary’s College, which has been described as Oxford University’s ‘lost’ college due to its relative obscurity. The team is working alongside construction firm Beard, which is developing 30 student flats on the site located on New Inn Hall Street. 

The archaeological finds – which include part of the foundations of St Mary’s College – are helping to improve our understanding of the former college.

Intended to be a place of learning for Augustinian canons, St Mary’s College was founded in 1435 and existed for just one hundred and six years. A two-storey college chapel and library were built initially, but attempts to complete the college buildings dragged on with little progress for over eighty years. The college did, however, accept students throughout this time, existing as a residence for canons attending lectures at the university. 

Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, King Henry VIII’s chief adviser, intervened in the 1520s to hasten the construction process; much of the college was constructed under Wolsey’s patronage until Wolsey’s fall from power and death in 1530. 

The college ultimately disappeared from history amidst the turmoil of the English Reformation. Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries in the 1530s spelled the end for St Mary’s. The 1534 Act of Supremacy gave Henry ‘supreme power’ over the Church of England, with which he separated England from papal authority and ordered the closure of all monasteries loyal to the pontiff in Rome, including the Augustinians. 

St Mary’s College was disbanded in 1541 and quickly fell into disrepair. The college was one of many Catholic religious facilities to be looted and destroyed during the dissolution of the monasteries, particularly after the legal formalisation of dissolution.

Other than a rubble wall at the gateway to the Frewin site, nothing now remains of the college above ground. However, the decision to develop Brasenose College’s Frewin Annexe has led to the opportunity to excavate the site of the former St Mary’s. 

Remarkable’ archaeological artefacts have already been recovered, including a complete 17th century stone flagon, a long-cross silver penny, a comb made of bone, and ornately decorated medieval floor tiles.

Archaeologists have found part of the Wolsey phase of construction in the form of a limestone wall foundation, believed to have supported the wall to one of the buildings that likely formed St Mary’s College, possibly the south range of the cloister.  Also unearthed are a series of pits containing butchered animal bones and charcoal, indicating waste disposal from food preparation – possibly evidence of a kitchen area. A stone lined cess pit also suggests, by its size and shape, that it served a relatively high status population: presumably St Mary’s College.

In addition to the college, structures of a house built for a high-status owner in the Norman period have been unearthed. 

Senior project manager at Oxford Archaeology Ben Ford said: “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.”