Fifteenth Century

New chests for a new century

Early in the fifteenth century two new chests were made, both known as the Chest of the Five Keys. The first one, made in 1412, was used chiefly to hold University statutes and other documents of value. The second, made in 1427 was reserved for money and plate. The five keys of this chest were held by the Vice-Chancellor and four elected Masters of Arts, and there were also eight Auditors of the accounts of the chest. The Chest of the Five Keys is the direct ancestor of the Chest as we know it today, the central financial organisation of the University. This fifteenth century chest, normally on exhibition in the Ashmolean Museum, was in use until 1668 when it was superseded by a painted iron chest which was in use up to 1756.

The first banking account

The Chest then disappeared for over a century as it was no longer needed; the University having in 1756 opened a banking account with Messrs. Child & Co. of Temple Bar, which it still retains. The Chest was found in Corpus Christi College in 1875 and when opened on the 28th January of that year in the bailiff's room at Corpus Christi in the presence of the President and Bursar of Corpus Christi College and the Secretary of the Chest was found to contain:

1. A record book dating from 12 September 1667;

2. A paper of memoranda relating to University documents formerly preserved in the Chest;

3. A canvas bag containing eight silver coins of the reign of Elizabeth I, James I and Charles I (pictured right).

It was removed to the Old Clarendon Building, then the site of the University's administrative offices, and in the seventies to the University Offices at Wellington Square to the office of the Director and Secretary of the Chest. When the documentary contents of the chest were catalogued, and removed to the archives in 2000, the canvas bag with its coins was found, and retained as a symbol of the continuity of financial responsibility in the office of the Chest (and, one might say, the University's last reserve).

Early accounts

No accounts of the Chest earlier than the sixteenth century have survived. There are, however, two other sets of accounts surviving from the Middle Ages, the earlier of which is a small account book of expenses incurred by University officials in travelling to London on legal business over a period of three months in 1357-58. This is the earliest financial document in the University archives. The other earlier accounts are more interesting since they consist of a series of fifteen audited account rolls dating from 1464 to 1496. These are the annual accounts of the Proctors, two Masters of Arts annually elected as the official representatives of the University and responsible for its routine administration.

All these fifteenth-century rolls are audited accounts set out in a simple charge and discharge form, the balance at the end being given in running prose. This is a rough translation of the Latin in the first surviving roll:

"the sum of the expenses and payments, together with £30 put into the Danvers Chest is £69 0s 8½d, and so, all reckonings having been made, the Proctors owe £3 17s 10d to the University, which sum they have paid to the Proctors for next year, and so they are quit." (Picture right: First Proctors' Account Rolls 1464-65)

'For the hanging of students'

It will be noted that the sums of money involved were not large; in the fifteen years for which these accounts survive in the fifteenth century, the average income of the University was £58 and the average expenditure was less than £45. The income came chiefly from fees paid by those taking degrees, from rents of a few houses which the University owned in Oxford and from customary receipts like the payment of 52 shillings a year for the hanging of the students. The payments made by the proctors were mainly for university lectures, university ceremonies, the repair of buildings and so on, but two small items may be of particular interest.

Every year, the Proctors, who were the chief disciplinary officers of the University, made a claim to cover the expenses of some of their statutory duties, which included the patrolling of the streets at night and the hiring or maintenance of arms for the enforcement of their discipline. Payments under these two heads, the night watch and the upkeep of arms, were always made to the Proctors in round figures, with the note "ut placet iudicibus", - as the auditors please.

This definitely suggests that the Proctors were paid a sort of concealed salary, concealed in these suspiciously round figures for incidental expenses, and that the amounts of such payments were fixed by the auditors when the balance for the year was known. This method of paying salaries out of the annual balance must certainly have encouraged economy in University administration. One other interesting feature of these early accounts is that one of the largest items of expenditure in any one year was often the cost of a feast given to the auditors.

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