Balliol can claim to be Oxford University's oldest college as it may have been founded as early as 1261 - records certainly show that students existed at Balliol before June 1266. In the 1260's, Sir John de Balliol took an oath, as a result of a penance, "to provide a perpetual maintenance for poor scholars in the university." This led directly to the founding of Balliol College. Sir John gave annual payments to the college to support it but it was not until 1282, some thirteen years after Sir John's death, that the college was given a firm financial footing by Sir John's widow, Devorguilla. In 1282, the college's statutes were drawn up.
To begin with, Balliol was not a land holding college. It consisted of a hall and a principal was given charge of the college. The college's financial affairs were looked after by a Franciscan friar who worked with a secular rector. It was the job of these two men to give out a weekly allowance to the students. Originally, Balliol was only for students studying the Trivium. Once they had gained a Masters degree, they could move on to another faculty.
The original plans for University College, Oxford, were not accepted as the building would have been far too small to accommodate all the students who wished to attend. University College was originally funded by William of Durham. When William died in 1249, he left £207 to support ten masters at Oxford University who were studying Theology. About £100 was spent on loans to scholars who wished to study Theology while the rest was used to buy a large house in which the masters lived and several other houses in Oxford. These houses were rented out and raised about £12 a year in rent. This is how the original University College was funded and the college came into being in c1280. The original large house in which the masters lived is still known as the Great University Hall.
The main purpose of University College was for student to take a course in Theology and ultimately to become a Doctor of Divinity. The tutors at the college were under the supervision of a senior master, who received two allowances; one for his teaching and another for the administrative work he did. In 1292, the position of senior master disappeared and the college was put under the control of a chancellor. In 1311, the college was given the right of self-governance. With the money gained from the rental value of the property bought in Oxford, University College was tolerably well off and bought more property and land as time progressed. This increase in its ownership of property brought in more money - and the college became more and more wealthy.
Merton was founded by Walter de Merton. He held a high position in the church and was seen as an ecclesiastical statesman. He did well financially during his life and decided to use his wealth to develop the university at Oxford. In 1263 he gave over his country estate in Malden, Surrey, to eight scholars at Oxford - all eight were his nephews. He asked Henry III for his permission to move the scholars from Surrey to Oxford. Henry III gave the required permission for Walter to do this and the move was completed in 1264 . The original task of Merton was to teach Theology.
The college was run by a warden. The eight nephews of Merton received an annual income of between £2 to £2 13s 4d. The number of students at Merton increased to 20 but all were in some way related to Walter. All the students at Merton were expected to wear the same uniform. Walter de Merton also founded a college at Cambridge. This was almost certainly in response to the localised conflict between the people of Oxford and the students there. Walter anticipated many students moving from Oxford to Cambridge, possibly for their own safety. In 1265, the church of St. John the Baptist was bought from the Abbey of Reading along with several houses in the neighbourhood of the church. These were bought for Merton College by Walter de Merton. In 1274, the warden of Merton was given complete control over the students at the college. He ensured that all in the college spoke Latin and that the numerous relatives of Walter at Merton lived in peace. The students were expected to live in the college throughout the year.
Exeter College was founded between 1314 and 1316. It was founded by Walter de Stapledon, Bishop of Exeter. A single scholar served the college as a chaplain and he studied Theology. Any of the other students at Exeter studied the Arts. The students at Exeter was responsible for all that happened in the college except the maintenance of property. The rector of the college was elected by the students and he held that position for one year. Anyone who won a scholarship to Exeter had to live in the diocese of the Bishop of Exeter, the only exception to this was the chaplain who was nominated by the Dean and Chapter of Exeter.
Oxford Universities also was the home of monastic colleges.
Oxford had what can only be described as a college residence for students that was lost - Burnell's Inn. When Edward I expelled the Jews from England, their property in oxford was bought by William Burnell, Archdeacon of Wells. He turned the property into halls for students at Oxford. In 1307, after the death of Burnell, the hall was passed to Balliol College. In the monarchy of Henry IV, Richard Clifford, Bishop of London, bought the hall and it became known as London College. On his death, Clifford left money to the students studying there. It is thought that the college was destroyed by Cardinal Wolsey to make way for Christ's Church.