Adam de Brome

Little can be known about the early life and family of the college’s founder, Adam de Brome, though it is likely that he was born at Brome in Suffolk sometime in the third quarter of the thirteenth century [1]. In those days talented young men from humble origins were sometimes educated at the expense of noble patrons, who needed clerks to write letters, keep accounts, and fight on the legal frontiers of property disputes. It seems that Adam benefitted from the patronage of Edmund Earl of Cornwall and lord of the manor of Brome, a cousin of King Edward I. If this was the case, Adam must soon have quit the Earl’s household, since in the early 1290s he was a clerk in Chancery, writing documents in the service of the crown. There, it may be surmised, he established a reputation for efficiency, perhaps bordering on ruthlessness. His first really high-profile commission came in the years 1297-1301 when he was given the unpopular job of overseeing forced sales of produce (at unfavourable prices) to provision the King’s armies fighting in Scotland. It is impossible to know whether the revulsion expressed by some contemporaries at what they saw as an abuse of royal power affected Adam in any way, though his subsequent work as a tax-collector between 1305 and 1323 was almost certainly plain sailing by comparison.

During these years Adam was also acting in a legal capacity, as an attorney at first, and then as a judge in special commissions and at the Staple, which implies some legal training coupled with knowledge of mercantile affairs. An education in Common Law would have been acquired at the Inns of Court, sometimes referred to as medieval England’s ‘third university’, as well as on-the-job in royal service. There is no evidence that Adam attended university, though he worked alongside several clerks who had, and their influence can be detected in the foundation of the college in 1326. His financial acumen was sharpened dealing with other people’s money in his role as a clerk, while on the side he was also acting as a creditor, perhaps as a middle-man raising money for third parties. The details of Adam’s financial, legal, and administrative career might make him seem a precursor of today’s ‘revolving door’ between the worlds of politics and finance, but there were important differences that make such trans-historical comparisons a false friend to the understanding of the past. Not least among these is the fact that all clerks in royal service were – quite literally – clerics, men of the church. It is likely that Adam was ordained in minor orders at an early stage in his career, though he may never have proceeded to major orders as a priest. Clerks in Chancery were often presented to clerical benefices in the King’s gift, which would have given them an income from agricultural produce and tithe receipts. Despite holding various rectories across the country Adam should not be imagined as a peripatetic priest. Rather, as a royal administrator, judge, and small­time financier, he was an absentee clergyman, paying vicars (from the Latin vice: deputy) to sing divine services and minister to his parishioners.

One of Adam’s benefices was the rectory of St Mary’s in Oxford, which he was awarded in 1320. The rectory building was located opposite St Mary’s Church, on the site of the present Third Quad, and it was here in 1324 that Adam set about establishing a community of scholars under the control of himself as Rector. With a license from King Edward II, Adam bought up property in Oxford whose rental income would support these scholars, including Tackley’s Inn on the High Street which is still in the college’s possession and remains in use as student accommodation. Adam was unusual amongst the founders of colleges in being intimately involved in the life of the university. As Rector of St Mary’s he had persuaded Thomas Cobham, the Bishop of Worcester, to pay for the construction of Congregation House, which would be the university’s first common library and lecture room, and he more than once represented the Chancellor of the University in court. Soon, however, Adam became more ambitious, and persuaded Edward II to allow him to upgrade the scholars of St Mary’s into a fully-fledged college with a set of statutes based on those of Merton. Although the King was favourable, Adam’s project coincided with the collapse of Edward’s authority, and it was only by dealing with Hugh Despenser, the emerging focus of political power, that the college received its ‘royal’ foundation charter on 21 January 1326.

Adam was the first Provost of the college he founded, the House of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Oxford, and he was as energetic in finding the funds to add to its endowment as he was in negotiating the turbulent political situation at the beginning of Edward III’s reign. In 1329 he acquired the house known as La Oriole, on the site of the present Front Quad, from the nephew of the King of Castile. By the time of Adam’s death on 16 June 1332 the college comprised six Fellows, and was standing financially on its own feet. Adam left no stipulations for preference to be given to ‘founder’s kin’ or the scholars of his home region in future elections of fellows, which gave the college a freedom unique within Oxford. He was buried in St Mary’s Church.

More about Adam de Brome: Oxford National Dictionary of Biography


[1] This account is based upon that of Jeremy Catto in Oriel College: A History (OUP, 2013), pp. 14-27, where a fuller account of Adam de Brome’s life and the foundation of the college may be found.