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Joseph Foster (editor)

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'Preface', Alumni Oxonienses 1500-1714 (1891), pp. V-VI. URL: Date accessed: 19 April 2014. Add to my bookshelf


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When I acquired, some years ago, the voluminous transcript by the late Colonel Chester, D.C.L., of the Matriculation Registers of the University of Oxford, I little contemplated, the vastness of the task that I was destined, in its publication, to undertake. As is not unfrequently the case, I found that the materials which I proposed to edit required virtual reconstruction, while the supplementary matter that I have myself added has increased so largely their bulk and their value as to justify me in claiming for the result of my labours the status of an original work.

The arrangement of the register on my own plan, in alphabetical order, (fn. 1) with the different forms of each name grouped under that which predominates, involved in itself the entire re-casting of Colonel Chester's MS., which was further necessitated by my incorporation of the early admission entries and of the names of graduates respectively, which were not included by my predecessor. This, however, only represents the initial and, so to speak, mechanical portion of my task. It has been with me the labour of years to form and perfect my MS. collections relating to Members of the Inns of Court, Knights, and Members of Parliament. In these absolutely unique collections, I possess the materials for illustrating and annotating the Oxford Matriculation Register to an extent and with an accuracy that no one else, not even the authorities of the University themselves, can hope to rival. But I did not rest content even with these collections. The close association of the University with the Church led me further to undertake the transcription of some 150,00 'Institutions to benefices' since the Reformation, and 'Compositions for first-fruits,' which I have caused to be arranged in alphabetical order and also under parishes. Thus the student who consults these volumes will find placed at his disposal, in the handiest and simplest form, facts which, it is not too much to say, he could only have acquired, if acquired at all, by an amount of toil that would be virtually prohibitive for the individual searcher.

Strange though it may sound to the general public, this is also the only work which contains a complete and alphabetical list of Oxford graduates from 1500-1885, just double the period covered by the University authorities, who have only published the names of graduates from 1660-1850.

In this second series, comprising the earlier registers, I have been led by the desire to perfect still further my self-imposed task, and by the belief that my additions will be here even more valued, to extend considerably the scope of annotation. Far be it from me, however, to claim that my annotation is exhaustive. I would rather lay stress on the fact that it is based on exclusive information. The Inns of Court Registers, for instance, dovetail in a remarkable manner with the University records, and thus supply me with the means of ascertaining parentage, etc., where the matriculation register is dumb. The information I give might easily be supplemented from printed and familiar sources, and to many of these I content myself with giving references, especially in the case of well-known men. For it is, after all, in the facts it supplies as to personages who, though of minor biographical importance, vastly preponderate in these pages, that the chief value and interest of this work will, I trust, be found. Genealogists are painfully aware of the difficulty, even when a pedigree is established and completed, of clothing its somewhat arid skeleton with flesh and blood. Here they find, ready to their hands, the means of ascertaining the academical, clerical, legal, or parliamentary career of all those members of a family who entered the University of Oxford, and so of 'following up their men' and investing their pedigree with a living interest which it could never otherwise acquire.

Even the dry bones of a matriculation register are instinct with life to the student of history. In so simple an entry, for instance, as that of 'Charles Carty, son of an esquire in Co. Cork,' who matriculated in 1602 (vide McCarty, page 956), he will be able, probably, to recognise Cormac (alias Charles), afterwards Viscount Muskerry, 'a youth of great expectation among the Irish,' who was virtually kept at Oxford as a hostage for his father, Cormac McDermod (McCarty), 'the powerfullest man in Munster' (Carew Papers). This is but one of the entries relating to the sons of Irish chieftains sent to Oxford (Ath., ii. 146) partly to/ serve as pledges for their fathers' loyalty, and partly to be Anglicised, if I may use the word, and removed from their native associations. It is one of the points in which the age of Queen Elizabeth approaches the reign of Queen Victoria, that with each extension of the British Empire the chiefs and princes of those countries that are brought beneath its influence or its sway send their sons and relatives at times to become acquainted with English life under the auspices of the University of Oxford.

Another matriculation entry to which I may call attention is that of William Stanley, who (with his brothers Francis and Ferdinando) was admitted to St. John's College as 'comitis fil.' in 1572, then aged eleven, and became sixth Earl of Derby on the death of his said brother Ferdinando, 16 April, 1594. A special interest attaches to his name from the fact that, as has been lately pointed out by Mr. James Greenstreet, he was busily engaged 'in penning comedies for the commoun players' at the close of the century (see letter of 30 June, 1599, in State Papers, Domestic, Elizabeth, Vol. 271, No. 34), after returning from his adventurous travels. According to a MS. history of the family, his brother Francis is described as 'an active and a towarde younge gentleman, who died younge' (Harl. MS., 1997, fo. 78). Is is not a little remarkable that Wood should have omitted such distinguished alumni as these from his 'Athenæ Oxonienses'; and it is singular that while he notices Sir Charles Danvers. in Fasti i. 250, he omits his celebrated brothers, Henry, Earl of Danby, and Sir John Danvers 'the regicide.' From these instances it will readily be realized that even the Athenae is by no means exhaustive, and the registers still afford a wide field for research.

But I must not allow myself to dwell too long on such examples as these. The snare of annotation is, indeed, notorious; and it has had for me, as for other students, an all-too-dangerous fascination. Even within the limits to which I have endeavoured to restrict myself, the labour involved has been far in excess of anything I could have originally foreseen, and has, in fact, transcended all my past experience. I can only trust that the result may be deemed commensurate with the toil, and may meet with favourable appreciation from those best qualified to judge. I have, at least, succeeded in escaping the fate that awaits too often the projectors of such vast undertakings, of whom my fellow-antiquary Cole, 'after quoting Dr. Johnson's striking reflection ("Rambler," No. 71) on the tendency of antiquaries to forget the brevity of human life,' proceeds thus sadly to remark: 'However reasonable the observation may be, there may be many palliatives in favour of the dilatory antiquary. It is to be presumed he would make his work as perfect as he could—collect all the materials necessary for that purpose. In the meantime, years slide from under us, and we leave our collections to others to piece together, who have not had the drudgery to collect, but have all ready to their hands.'

If it be thought that I have insisted too much on the time and labour required for the production of such a work as this, I may confidently appeal to the opinion of experts, and to the frank recognition of the fact by the press and by individuals alike. But it is for no mere self-glorification that I lay such stress upon the point; it is rather to contrast it, as I am sadly compelled to, with the meagreness of the support accorded me in this undertaking. I may here, perhaps, be permitted to quote the Notes and Queries reviewer on the completion of the first series at the end of 1888:

'It is, however, fair to point out that in Mr. Foster's list does not appear a single club, English or American, that while the royal library at the Hague, and thirteen American libraries secure the book, royal, parliamentary, and municipal patronage is refused to it in England, and that the Sydney public library is the only institution in any English colony to support the undertaking. It is, indeed, remarkable that no name of noblemen, with the exception of two Bishops, or Member of Parliament, is on the list. Of Mr. Foster's labours, we can only say that they are of national importance, and that what reward or recompense a public or private recognition can afford, is his right.'-7th S. VII., January 5, 1889. (fn. 2)

The labour and expense involved, indeed, has been indefensible on commercial principles, but it was not on strictly commercial principles that I entered on my self-imposed task. Had I done so, I may frankly confess it must have been abandoned at the very outset. In spite, therefore, of every discouragement, I have carried out the work to its completion, and have even annotated the second series more elaborately than the first.

And now let me turn to a pleasanter subject, and render my thanks to all those friends who have so generously supported me throughout. It is only just to my original subscribers, both librarians and private individuals, to record the fact that for these volumes the public, are largely indebted to their financial co-operation. When the apathy to 'Oxford's Roll of Fame' was made evident by the paucity of my subscribers, I appealed to my supporters to increase their subscriptions, and so to reduce the very heavy pecuniary deficit I had incurred. To that appeal they almost all assented, and although I must remain the chief sufferer from the apathy to which I have referred, I am glad to tender them my cordial thanks for encouraging me—nay, more, for enabling me, by their increased subscriptions, to place at their disposal, and at that of Oxford men and genealogical students all the world over, an absolutely unrivalled repertory of genealogical information.

To the editor of a college or public school register this work will be simply invaluable, if only for its alphabetical lists of matriculations and degrees, though I trust that the bulk of the annotations will be equally welcome; and though I have exercised the greatest caution in attaching the institutions to livings to alumni identical in name, I would, as has been done in the case of the degrees (O.H.S., xii, p. 5), repeat the note of caution. I trust that the appearance of this work will incite all the colleges to issue lists of their members, annotated from their own (college) records, and arranged upon some uniform plan, so that the student may eventually have access to the names of those Oxford men who neither matriculated nor graduated at the university and whose names therefore do not occur in this work.

Looking back upon my past labours for the best thirty years of my life, I confess to a feeling that the time has come when I am loth to pursue them with the same vigour. It is almost physically impossible for the same man to undertake (single-handed) another work of this exhausting nature, or to renew the 'self-denying ordinance' that I have found it to entail. It is only right that honest labour should bring the labourer either profit or honourable distinction; but it would really seem as if in genealogy the more conscientious and painstaking the worker, the less his prospect of success or acknowledgment. Official fiction and flattery are welcomed, while truth is left to be its own reward. I am not, however, without the hope that I have done something to found a school of scientific genealogy, and that the younger and more energetic students, who are already doing such excellent work, will reap the benefit of my labours, and in their turn follow my lead. It will, at least, be always to me a source of pride and a pleasant memory that I have associated myself in my magnum opus with the historic University of Oxford, that I have been, in a humble way, privileged to continue the work of Wood, of Hearne, of Rawlinson, and others of her devoted alumni, and that I have earned by so doing the warm gratitude of those who cherish in their hearts the traditions of her glorious past.


21, Boundary Road, London, N.W.

POSTSCRIPT (Easter, 1892).—It is noteworthy that Wood issued his 'Athenæ Oxonienses' in 1691 and 1692, and that by a rare coincidence my 'Alumni Oxonienses' was completed in 1891 and 1892.


1 Following the example set by Wood, I have included those men from other Universities who were incoporated at Oxford, though I regret that the annotation of their names is often very meagre, owing, in some measure, to the absence of lists of Cambridge graduates prior to 1660, though by the kindness of the Registrar, Dr. Luard, and by the hospitality of Dr. Venn, the editor of the Caius Register, I have been enabled to take copious extracts from the University collections. I have also inserted the names of the earlier alumni mentioned in Wood's Athenæ, and some other biographical works.
The matriculation records themselves show the natural evolution of a register; for though the modern entries supply all desirable information, its earlier entries are not only meagre, but have not always the advantage of having been made at the precise date on which matriculation took place. Often the student is made to matriculate and to graduate on the same day, or nearly so, while sometimes the natural order is reversed and the degree even precedes the matriculation. See more at length in preface O.H.S., x. I have retained 'fil' in those instances where the parent enjoyed a personal dignity, e.g. baronis, baronetti, eq. aur., eq., mil., epi., cler., etc., but I have omitted it in the majority of cases where the status of father and son is the same, as in pleb. or arm.
2 The subscription list for libraries and clubs has, however, been subsequently increased to presenting them with a volume of the later series, 1715-1886, which I had unfortunately over-printed.