Lionel Smith, a Visiting Fellow at All Souls College, Oxford, sends us an overview of the college and of his research there, with a revealing anecdote about the College’s brief experimentation with nepotism…

Top: Sir William Blackstone's portrait, which hangs in the National Portrait Gallery. Bottom: a view of All Soul's, courtesy of Sergio Morchon, Flickr Creative Commons.Among Oxford’s 38 colleges and private halls, All Souls College (bottom photo) is unusual in lacking any student members.

Founded in 1438 by King Henry VI and Henry Chichele, Archbishop of Canterbury, it has evolved into a research institution that also maintains strong ties to civil society. The College has no formal disciplinary specialization, but it is traditionally strong in law, economics, classics, history, and mathematics.

All Souls has a slightly bewildering array of categories of fellowship. Some fellows hold research Chairs in Oxford University, while others are Senior Research Fellows without any formal teaching obligations. Every year the College elects two Fellows by Examination from among dozens of candidates, who must be recent graduates from an Oxford undergraduate program.

The College has not always been synonymous with research excellence. For many years, fellowships were not granted on academic excellence but often on the basis of nepotism. This was true during the time of Sir William Blackstone (fellow, 1743-66) who was the first Vinerian Professor of English Law (top photo) and indeed the first person to teach English law in a university.

Under the leadership of the lawyer Sir William Anson in the late 19th century, the College’s statutes were reformed to ensure that it took a more active role in the university and the wider world. It was at this time that the system of Examination Fellowships was established.

Even in the 20th century, however, further reforms were recommended, and this led eventually to the creation of the system of Visiting Fellowships, which is open to scholars all over the world. About a dozen Visiting Fellows are elected each year.

During my own visiting fellowship, I am pursuing research into the law governing the fiduciary obligation of loyalty, an evolving field of private law that has generated a great deal of litigation and theoretical controversy over the last thirty years. All Souls is the perfect setting for quiet reflection and study.

Lionel Smith was elected a Visiting Fellow at Oxford’s All Souls in 2011.

Top photo: Portrait of Sir William Blackstone, artist unknown, National Portrait Gallery, London, UK.
Bottom photo: View of All Souls College, courtesy of Mr Sergio Morchon, Flickr Creative Commons.