Sixteenth Century

For want of an accountant

For the early sixteenth century no accounts survive, but there is ample evidence that accounts, and an accountant, were badly needed. As explained above, the University's assets were kept in a number of chests, the principal of which was the Chest of the Five Keys; others, a dozen or more, were still used for making loans to needy students, and contained a great variety of valuable pledges. But the general administration of these chests had not been audited for thirty years and the University Chancellor, Archbishop Warham, sent down his own representative to conduct a thorough inquiry. In a letter to the University the Chancellor blamed the Proctors, who, he said, in financial matters "opened their mouths to their own advantage".

When the proctors came to submit their annual account, it was said they got their own friends elected as auditors, and where they should have made a profit for the University they actually left it poorer by including "vain and superfluous charges"; in modern terms, they fiddled their expense account – ut placet iudicibus. So far as the chests were concerned, the Chancellor's inquiry in 1510 showed that something like a third of the assets had mysteriously disappeared.


But worse was to follow, for in 1545 the University discovered that the all-important Chest of the Five Keys had been robbed and a great part of its contents had gone. On December 17th the University Convocation ordered that what remained should be put back into the Chest of the Five Keys, and this was to be repaired and deposited in the house of the treasurer of University College. A receipt by Dr Leonard Hutcheson, Master of University College, for 377 ounces of plate then in the Chest of the Five Keys, is still to be found in the University archives.

A month later Convocation turned its attention to the other chests, and ordered that all the pledges should be sold. Thereafter the Chest of the Five Keys survived alone. Any loans which might be made were made from this chest, but its primary use was a sort of trust pool for University administration.

No regular source of income

Up to the mid-sixteenth century the only series of annual accounts was that of the Proctors. The Vice-Chancellor, administrative head of the University, does not appear to have kept any accounts for the simple reason that he does not appear to have had any regular source of income to administer.

This is exemplified in the earliest Vice-Chancellor's account roll covering the three years 1547-50. This account is probably the direct outcome of the perturbation following the despoiling of the Chest in 1545. This document is a sheet of parchment in simple charge and discharge form. The sums involved are very small. The total receipts for the three years were £31 17s 0d and of this sum £20 was from two legacies, and the remaining £12 came from fines imposed in the University's court. This last was, in effect, the only real annual income the Vice-Chancellor had to reckon with, and fines provided a very chancy £4 a year.

The reason for there not being any early Vice-Chancellor's accounts is simple - the Vice-Chancellor had nothing to account for. But a change soon came, and from a somewhat unexpected quarter.

The Reformation

The medieval University was essentially an ecclesiastical institution, designed to educate clerics. The Reformation, consequently, had a shattering effect on the University, for all, reformers or counter-reformers, were equally disturbed by the general air of insecurity. Many left the University with their studies incomplete; many of the academic exercises fell into disuse; the buildings in which those exercises were held were allowed to decay.

This state of affairs was rectified by Queen Mary Tudor, who has not generally been recognised as one of the great benefactors of the University. In 1554 she gave to the University three rectories with an annual rent roll of about £130. This income was to be used to repair the Divinity School, to rebuild the old Schools of Arts and to revive many of the academic and religious practices which the Reformation had swept away.

'Bloody Mary' as benefactor

In the year in which Queen Mary made her benefaction to the University the counter-Reformation really got under way. Cranmer, Latimer and Ridley were brought from the Tower of London to defend their Protestant heresies. They were brought to the Divinity School, where brambles and nettles then grew against the walls, and they were forced to dispute for their faith with learned doctors of the University. Their opinions were condemned, and within two years all three were burnt at the stake in Broad Street.

This is the setting of Queen Mary's benefaction. One of the earliest charges on the benefaction was the payment for writing out the examination of Archbishop Cranmer, but the bulk of the income in the early years was devoted to repairs and rebuilding. It is interesting to note, incidentally, that all the financial responsibility for the rebuilding of the schools was entrusted by the University to the first President of St. John's College, who was later dismissed from his post as President by the founder of that College for misappropriation of college funds. It is a lesson which the University never tired of learning.

A renaissance in University finance and accounting

But Queen Mary's benefaction, born of the counter-reformation, inaugurated a renaissance in University finance and accounting. The importance of her benefaction can best be assessed if one remembers that all the annual revenue the University managed to acquire in the preceding three centuries amounted to no more than the £58 a year which the Proctors administered. Now the University's revenue was tripled, and moreover, the control of the greater part of this income was given to the Vice-Chancellor. A new series of accounts is now available, far exceeding the Proctors' accounts in variety and interest.

The present day University accounts have evolved from this early form of Vice-Chancellor's account roll which itself is a direct outcome of Queen Mary Tudor's attempt to re-establish Roman Catholicism in the University.

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