There has been an institution called Brasenose on the present site of College since at least 1279. Brasenose Hall, one of the medieval Oxford centres of learning which began as lodging houses, predated the College and its late fifteenth century kitchen still stands as a place for cooking and eating. William Smyth, Bishop of Lincoln and Richard Sutton, Serjeant-at-law and steward of the nunnery of Syon officially founded the College in 1509.
The last three Principals of the Hall, Edmund Croston, John Formby and Matthew Smyth, all had links with the new College. Croston left money in his will to the building of the College, Formby became a fellow on the new foundation and Smyth became the first Principal of the College. Since this time the College has seen in several elections to the Head of House, most recently with its thirty third Principal-Elect, Mr John Bowers QC.
The College charter, dated 5 January 1512, authorized the founders to make statutes for the College. It was under these statutes that College was governed by the Principal and six Senior Fellows (subject to the interpretation of an external arbitrator and College Visitor, the Bishop of Lincoln) until the royal ordinances of 1855-1857. The election process has of course changed since 1512 but the College still retains some of the old traditions, such as burning the paper votes after the election. This tradition has been in existence since at least 1822 when the Vice-Principal’s Register, kept in the archives, records it happening at the election of Ashurst Turner Gilbert, Principal of the College 1822-1842.
The Visitor papers in the archives also cover the subject of elections to the Principalship. One letter, dated 15 July 1648, written to the Vice-Principal from the then Bishop of Lincoln, Thomas Winniffe, indicates his approval of the election of Thomas Yates to the Principalship. This letter is quite significant in College history as whilst Thomas Yates was elected Principal in 1648, he did not take up the position for another twelve years.
At the time of the English Civil War Oxford was a Royalist stronghold, King Charles I having created the Oxford Parliament in 1644. However by 1646 the city had folded to parliamentary forces and in 1647 the Parliamentary Visitors arrived in Oxford, intent on reforming the University. Samuel Radcliffe, Principal 1614-1648, refused to submit to the orders of these Visitors, and it was eventually ‘ordered that Dor Ratcliffe, Principall of Brasen-nose Colledge, being adiudged guilty of high contempt and denyall of authority of Parliament be removed from being Principall of Brasen-nose Colledge’. Radcliffe refused to adhere and in response the Visitors ordered that Daniel Greenwood, a Fellow of the College, succeed to the headship. Radcliffe pleaded illness and remained in his College lodgings until his death (he was at this point in his late sixties), refusing to give up his keys to the College treasury. The Visitors even put a guard of soldiers outside his lodgings!
In the meantime the Fellows refused to accept Greenwood as head of the College and proceeded to elect a Principal of their own choosing. Though they were at first prevented by a further guard of soldiers and even arrest, they went on to elect Thomas Yates on 12 July 1648. However Greenwood went on to retain the headship until 1660. This was because the Fellows were forced to submit to the Visitation or be expelled; of the sixteen Fellows on the books thirteen were expelled. Greenwood remained Principal throughout the Commonwealth and after the restoration of the monarchy the Visitor eventually ordered for the reinstatement of Yates as Principal. He was installed as Principal in Brasenose Chapel on 11 August 1660.