A discourse on the Wadham Charter

22nd October 2015

News, Student news, Alumni news

Wadham Emeritus Fellow Jeffrey Hackney brushes up his Latin as he translates the Wadham Charter, granted to Dorothy Wadham in 1610 by King James 1 to establish her new college.

  • Wadham Image - charterseal3_1

    Detail from the Charter with its seal


  • Wadham Image - img_6167_0

    The reverse of the seal

  • The Wadham Charter

    The Wadham Charter

  • Wadham Image - img_6194_0

    Detail from the Charter

"Over the summer of 2015, the College received some footling lawyers’ enquiry as to the effect of the provisions of the Charter, in the form of letters patent, granted to Dorothy Wadham on 20 December 1610 by King James I to establish her new college. It has provoked the following gratuitous display of a little learning by a man with ‘small Latin and less Greek’.

"The Charter preceded by nearly two years the Statutes which Dorothy, by its authority, made for her college on 16 August 1612.  Both documents are in Latin (Shakespeare died in 1616…).  We have a 19th century printed copy of the Charter and contemporary version of the statutes with the imprimatur of the Parliamentary Commissioners acting under the Oxford University Act, 1854, but we had no English translation of either document.  This initially came as a bit of a shock, but reminded me how recently it was that members of Oxbridge colleges were still expected to be able to communicate in Latin.  It was, after all, only parliamentary intervention in that same Act which forced the University to allow members of its Parliament, Congregation, to address its meetings in English, but just to make sure this was not the end of civilisation as we know it, amendments to motions put (in Latin) could only be amended in Latin. (And for what it is worth, it also ordered the University Court to stop using Roman law for the resolution of cases before it.) This Act gave Commissioners the duty to make new Statutes for Colleges in English, and later legislation gave their successors the duty to make new ones in Oxford and Cambridge. The ones in use today are modifications of those created by Commissioners under the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge Act, 1923.  It is quite clear that these Statutes supersede all earlier versions, including those of Ms Wadham."

"But the Commissioners were not given power to touch the Charter and so the question has arisen as to the legal force of the 1610 Charter today.  Normally a lawyer would advise that the College was ruled by a three tier hierarchy, with the Charter paramount, followed by Statutes made under its authority, followed by By-laws or simple rulings made by the Governing Body under their authority.  But it is not so simple and the present regime has an element of topsy-turvy about it."

"Parliamentary intervention has led to a new constitutional position which seems to be an inroad into the Prerogative of the Crown.  Parliament gave the Statutes made by the Commissioners priority, if they conflicted, over the provisions of the Charter.  The Charter remains the instrument of foundation (and without it we do not exist in our present form), but if there is a conflict with the new statutes it has moved into second place.  The Act provides:

Every statute or part of a statute made by the Commissioners, and approved by Order in Council, shall be binding on the University and on every College or Hall, and shall be effectual notwithstanding any instrument of foundation or any Act of Parliament, Order in Council, decree, order, statute, or other instrument or thing constituting wholly or in part an instrument of foundation, or confirming or varying a foundation or endowment, or otherwise regulating the University or a College or Hall.

Parliament then gave colleges the power to make new statutes but provided that to be effectual in altering the Parliamentary Statutes they had be submitted, following the parliamentary procedure, to the Monarch in Council, and that it should be ‘lawful’ for the Monarch to approve them.  To this extent Crown prerogative is restored. But the Act did not give the Privy Council power to make new statutes for Colleges, nor to make consent to proposed changes conditional on colleges proposing other quite unrelated changes, which the PC might wish to impose.  So in the absence of other lawful authority, such a power does not seem to exist.  (It seems necessary to state this in these rather blunt terms since it has not always been clear that the politicians who sit on the PC from time to time realise that they are not the College’s line managers.)"

The Charter

"The style of the Latin of the Charter most resembles that of 1970s local authority multi-story car parks: brutal and difficult to find your way around. 

"A first crack at translating it was made, at the instigation of his tutor Stephen Heyworth, by Jack Kelleher [matric 2010].  If a heart can both bleed for and go out to someone, that heart is my heart.  Without his initial stalwart work, I suspect I might well have lost the will to pursue this, if not the will to live. I am most grateful to him. The language is full of technical jargon, quite unpalatable if not utterly incomprehensible to those not lawyers, probably even to those who are not legal historians.  Sentences go on for ridiculous lengths and words and phrases are repeated in an hysterical way.  It is lawyer’s lore that this is down in part to scriveners.  Scriveners were not lawyers, but they were not mere secretaries and they could be hired by clients to draft legal documents, following guidelines set by the law.  But they were paid by the word and so if a word can be repeated, it is…several times. This makes haplographical mistakes for a translator a frequent snare.  My beta version in parallel text format is now here on the Wadham website. I will not pretend that I have fluently translated all the gobbledygook, but I think the important sense comes through.  Some of the gobbledygook may even be the result of my own demoralisation.  If anyone wishes to have a crack at improving on it, ad futurum eruditionem, we can publish a better version in due course."

Jeffrey Hackney can be contacted at: jeffrey.hackney@wadh.ox.ac.uk