On 8 June 2021, conservative news website Guido Fawkes broke the story that a student committee at Oxford’s Magdalen College had voted to remove a portrait of the queen from its graduate common room. One might think the interior decorating decisions of seventeen postgrads scarcely a matter of national importance, and that a bit of mild anti-royal symbolism would not be anathema to a publication named after Britain’s most infamous attempted regicide. Nonetheless, the students’ decision was condemned as totalitarian treachery (“Stalin would be proud”), and in the following days other pundits and politicians joined the pile-on; the Times, the Daily Mail, and the Daily Express all ran front-page headlines attacking Magdalen, whilst Education Secretary Gavin Williamson found time to publicly deride the students as “absurd”. In response, the college’s president – former barrister Dinah Rose – defended the graduates’ right to “free debate and democratic decision-making”, warning their critics against attacks on academic independence.
On one level, this was a quintessentially twenty-first-century controversy, exemplifying the campus culture wars which have lately been propelled to media prominence. After all, the portrait – far from being some ancient heirloom – had only been there since 2013, and the committee’s grounds for removing it referenced the hot-button issue of imperial legacies (minutes of the meeting noted the argument that “for some students, depictions of the monarch and the British monarchy represent recent colonial history”). Nonetheless, a quick dive into Magdalen’s annals suggests that the dispute has at least some echoes in the college’s deeper past. This is not in fact the first time that Oxford’s largest college has got into hot water for disrespecting the ruling monarch. The Windsors might be a little perturbed to know that, on the last occasion this happened, the end result was a revolution.
Magdalen may seem like an unlikely starting point for a rebellion. The college is best known for its sprawling Deer Park and the centuries-old custom of choristers singing from its tower on May Morning, making it one of the university’s foremost icons of wealth and tradition. For much of its history, it also tended to be a staunch supporter of the Crown, most notably during the civil wars of the 1640s; Oxford was then a key stronghold of the Royalist cause, and the college housed gun batteries designed to ward off rebel attack. Afterwards, forty-nine of its scholars chose to be expelled rather than swear allegiance to the victorious Parliamentarians. It is therefore quite surprising that, forty years after vigorously defending King Charles I, Magdalen found itself the epicentre of opposition to his son.
Nonetheless, when the college’s president died in March 1687, a conflict arose between King James II and the Fellows over who had the right to pick his successor. The monarch’s initial nominee was Anthony Farmer, who met with little favour; the scholars presented an eye-watering list of complaints about his moral character (according to nineteenth-century historian Macaulay’s summary, “he generally reeled into his college at night speechless with liquor… was celebrated for having headed a disgraceful riot at Abingdon… and had received money from dissolute young gentlemen commoners for services such as it is not good that history should record”) and elected John Hough instead. Not to be deterred, James insisted on imposing an alternative nominee – Samuel Parker, then also bishop of Oxford – and when the scholars refused to make a grovelling apology for contesting this appointment, he had most of them thrown out. In their stead, James began filling the college’s ranks with men who shared his own Roman Catholic religion, and when Parker died in 1688 the king’s hand-picked replacement was Bonaventure Giffard, another Catholic.
What began as a serious but localised dispute rapidly assumed wider significance. James’ high-handed actions seemed to confirm the worst suspicions of his critics, who saw him as a would-be tyrant willing to trample all over his subjects’ legal privileges in order to forcibly impose Catholicism. The dispute over Magdalen was so damaging because it suggested no-one was safe; even moderate Protestants from a conservative, royalist institution might lose their positions if the king took against them. Combined with other controversies (such as the prosecution of seven bishops who disagreed with his policies), the scandal helped to push much of the king’s traditional support base – the Tories, a party literally founded in order to defend his claim to the throne – into a reluctant alliance with his ex-Parliamentarian foes. Sensing danger, he tried to backtrack, with the result that on 25 October 1688 the expelled Fellows were reinstated and the newcomers dismissed. It was too late. Barely a week later, his son-in-law William of Orange landed in Devon with a Dutch army, and James’ regime collapsed. The constitutional overhaul which accompanied his toppling was to go down in history as the Glorious Revolution.
What lessons, if any, can twenty-first-century Magdalen learn from its previous conflict with royal authority? It is tempting to draw the obvious triumphalist parallel, and claim that history shows that any government which infringes upon the sanctity of academic freedom will suffer painful consequences. However, a closer look suggests that things are unlikely to be quite so clear cut. After all, there is a revisionist body of scholarship which questions the traditional story of James II’s overthrow. According to some historians, James II’s main aim was to achieve tolerance, not dominance, for Roman Catholicism, and he had no desire to become a despot. Only by adeptly manipulating the public sphere were his opponents able to generate majority support for resisting his policies, which over subsequent generations hardened into the consensus that his ousting had been necessary and ‘glorious’. The Magdalen affair may well have been shaped by such manipulation; the catalogue of outrages supposedly committed by Anthony Farmer (and so gleefully lapped up by later commentators like Macauley) seems to have been heavily exaggerated, as many of the same Fellows who accused him had vouched for his piety and good character when he’d been applying for a different post a year earlier. Thus, the most relevant lesson from 1688 is not necessarily that colleges are more powerful than kings, but that long-term victory in such clashes tends to go to the side which can control the narrative to present themselves as the defenders of common decency and shared values.
So far, the defenders of Magdalen’s graduate committee do not seem to have managed this. Ludicrously overblown though it might have been, the tabloids’ campaign against the portrait-removers dominated the headlines with little effective reply, and the students were not able to consolidate bipartisan opinion behind them. If anything, the reverse occurred; even Andy Burnham, one of the country’s most prominent opposition politicians, condemned the grads’ gesture as “divisive”. This doubtless reflected the fact that the current queen – unlike the polarising figure of James II – remains tremendously popular in Britain, even among those who have lukewarm opinions on the royal family more generally.
Thus, the committee’s decision to target her portrait was a risky one which seems to have backfired; the controversy ended up as grist to the mill of those who advocate government crackdowns on ‘unpatriotic’ universities, far outweighing the significance of the painting itself. This outcome is not necessarily the final word on the issue (another thing which Magdalen’s history teaches is that narratives and allegiances can shift dramatically with time, for today’s conservatives may be tomorrow’s radicals and vice versa), and we should be wary of inferring that political expediency should automatically trump all other considerations. Clearly, winning the battle of opinion can sometimes conflict with academic integrity, as it did for the defamers of Farmer in the seventeenth century. Nonetheless, it is evident that even the smallest political gestures within academia can have consequences which should be carefully considered before acting. Scholars can sometimes topple rulers, but it pays to pick your battles.
Written by Louis Morris.
 ‘Oxford College Scraps Queen’, Guido Fawkes (8 June 2021).
 ‘How Dare They! Oxford Students Cancel Our Queen’, Daily Express (9 June 2021); ‘Outrage as Oxford Students Vote to Axe Queen’, Daily Mail (9 June 2021); ‘Oxford College to Remove Queen’s Portrait Over Colonial Links’, The Times (9 June 2021).
 Dinah Rose @DinahRoseQC, Tweet (9 June 2021).
 Rena Gardiner, The Story of Magdalen (2003), p. 6.
 Thomas Babington Macaulay, The History of England from the Accession of James II, vol. 2 (1848), p. 287.
 Scott Sowerby, ‘Pantomime History’, Parliamentary History 30:2 (2011), p. 237.
 Jerome Bertram, ‘Farmer, Anthony’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004).
 ‘Andy Burnham criticises Oxford students for ‘divisive’ plans to remove portrait of Queen’, lbc.co.uk (9 June 2021).
 ‘The Most Popular Royalty (Q3 2021)’, yougov.co.uk (2021).