Botolf College almost Oxford stands as a grand pile of stone, wood and stained glass in the English countryside between Witney and Burford. Its tall Tudor-laced windows look out over a landscape which hasn’t changed in eight hundred years; patchworks of arable fields followed by rolling meadows edged up against low downs.
The College has, unlike most other seats of learning, remained quarantined within the walls of the great house, no annexes, red brick wings or monstrous concrete departments have sprung around the late medieval mansion. This is because its sole benefactor, Sir Ingram Benson-Botolf, left such an immense fortune at his death in 1540 that no extra revenue and thus no extra space, was needed to maintain the College’s high standards of academic achievement.
Sir Ingram’s stifling conditions of educational philosophy and study, which he stated as part of his legacy, are so ‘curious’ that only the most dedicated and wealthy students bother to apply for places. No more than thirty undergraduates are enrolled at any one time, taught by an aging faculty of just nine Professors (with a combined experience of eight hundred and forty years). Having to live in the College throughout the three terms of the year, both staff and student bodies observe archaic house edicts that would be more at home in the Schools of Sword set up for the Hundred Years War (from where it has to be said most of the Botolf’s academic rules had derived).
A walk down the long gallery of Botolf College today is almost indistinguishable from the same meander taken by Sir Ingram almost five hundred years before. The bright cold afternoon light shows the stern faces of the Benson and Botolf families staring down with increasing disapproval as you reach the entranceway to the line of great rooms leading through the centre of the house.
The first of these ornately designed rooms is the Great Hall, reserved now for the dining of the college hierarchy and postgraduate students. Those who have dined here include several Prime Ministers, members of the Royal Family, archbishops of the Protestant and Catholic Faith and many successful academics now resident in one of the two great Universities, near-by Oxford and further-a-field Cambridge.
Many a new undergraduate has questioned his professor on the College’s seemingly peculiar appellation ‘Botolf College almost Oxford’. Usually to be told to mind their own business. The more determined and foolhardy student will discover deep in the chronicles of the College’s history a shameful secret of attempting to hedge bets between Royalists and Parliamentarians during the English Civil War. The College simultaneously committed itself to both sides with the return promise of entry into the books of Oxford University, but on the victory of Parliament over the King this sham was uncovered and the mocking adage ‘almost’ was given as a punishment.
“Why then”, asks the confused student from beyond cane swinging distance of his master, “advertise it in the College title, crest and motto?”
This was the brainchild of one of Botolf’s Deans, Sir Bucksome- ‘Shot’-Reilly. Shot was a lifelong Blue of the Botolf, enrolled in 1812, graduated in 1829, postgraduate in 1850, head of the Department of Medieval Thoughts until 1861 and from then until three months after his death, Dean of the College.
(Sir Bucksome- ‘Shot’-Reilly died in May 1861 seated at his favourite desk in the College Library. It was not unusual for him to spend several days studying ancient tomes and rolls and so the library staff simply left the old grumpy man to it. It was only after complaints by students about the decaying whiff that in August 1861 the Chief Librarian finally established that Shot had bored himself to death.)
Shot’s reasoning was this; it was better to be ‘almost’ in Oxford than to be most defiantly not in Oxford at all and if Botolf kept using Oxford in its name perhaps the great University would simply accept the inevitable and just regard Botolf as one of their colleges. After all that’s how he got the Deanship of the college himself. He basically hung around long enough for the other candidates to die off.
“If it wasn’t for the Botolf benefit, the important work of the college body could not continue,” Shot would say, “but the safety net of Oxford University will someday be needed, we’ll out-wait them,” he’d grumble to anyone who’d listen, “at some point the Dons of Oxford will be too young and naive to realise that we’re not officially part of their clique.”
This out-waiting policy hadn’t worked in the last four hundred years, but Deans of Botolf were not known to change policies at a whim, or indeed doing anything at a whim.
Through the Great Hall of Botolf the visitor will come to the rooms of the Armoury where, displayed without glass cases, are the armours and arms of many of Botolf’s finest students and seated upon horseback, the first Botolf to be made a Knight of the Kingdom, receiving the Order of the Knickerbocker in 1388. Resplendent in his silver armour upon his polished black stead sits Sir Kallon Botolf, who, at the Battle of Otterburn was reputed to have changed sides eleven times during the fighting, finally getting it right and ending up in the victorious English camp. Henry ‘Hotspur’ Percy recommended him personally to the King for his knighthood on the grounds that it was better to have a weasel in your pocket than up your trouser leg.
Beyond the dusty Armoury you come to the even more dusty Library, where allergy sufferers have been known to have been carted out in fits of sneezing and younger students play dust-ball in the mild winters when no snow reaches the downs. Botolf’s library is old and extensive; its strained bookshelves are bent low in the middle from many tomes gathered from the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII, donations by former students and, less laudable, collections liberated from nearby estate houses which had fallen on hard times, (A few shillings and moonless nights were a necessity for the acquisition of many of these valuable books. Botolf Deans were, in the past, not beyond such lateral thinking when it came to the Law).
Like all the great libraries of the world this one is a mix of strict organisation and total chaos. Yes you may travel the well-worn paths through the dust and find the text you have been assigned by your master, but this is most likely only achievable because said master had made the journey the day before you (it’s very important in Botolf to know the shoe size of your thesis supervisor). The more adventurous students, and even tutors, may find themselves lost in African Architecture, hemmed in by Unorthodox Scripture or even, in one sad case, trapped in a cave-in of Early Persian Deity Rituals for four days without food or water.
Indeed parts of the Library at Botolf have become so dangerously unstable that they are permanently cordoned off to prevent loss of life or the learning of ancient erotic practices which many of the modern Deans have felt were just a little ‘tawdry’.
If one keeps one’s head down and stays to the time honoured passageways through the Library you come to the west wing of the College which serves as the offices of each of Botolf’s many functioning and non-functioning departments. None would be surprised to find a Department of Classical Military History, or indeed the Department of Ancient Philosophy. But others are maintained here that have long since disappeared from other colleges or never were in existence at all: The Department of Witch Finding hasn’t really had any students since 1512 but nevertheless its Professor has a regular consultation hour every Wednesday, three until four a.m. Some students, out of curiosity or as a drunken bet, have gone in for a consultation only to find themselves doing essays on the subject for months afterward. The Department of Far Eastern studies still has ‘there be dragons’ on their wall map where China should be, and the department of Persian Tongues actually studies Eastern tongues rather than dead languages, so be aware before you sign up.
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