During the sixteenth century it was recognised that the statutes had fallen into an unco-ordinated if not chaotic state. No single authoritative version existed, various copies being in the hands of different university officers. Attempts were made during that century and in the reign of James I to revise them and give them a more coherent shape. The accession of Charles I in March 1625 and the election of Archbishop Laud as Chancellor of the University in April 1630 finally produced a comprehensive and accessible code of statutes which was to govern the University for the next 200 years.10
King Charles and the Archbishop were as much concerned with the need to control religious divisions inside the University, and student indiscipline, as they were with the unsatisfactory state of the statutes themselves. The Laudian Code was preceded by the creation in 1631 of the Hebdomadal Board, the weekly meeting of the Vice-Chancellor and college heads to discuss university business, designed by Laud to dilute the influence of Congregation and Convocation, and by the grant by Charles I of the Great Charter of 3 March 1636. This charter enlarged the University's legal privileges, and the jurisdiction of the Chancellor's Court in both civil and criminal matters at the expense of the courts of common law, and reinforced the rights and privileges of the University Press.
The text of the Code, after a gestation period of five years, was finally settled by Laud himself and presented to the King who ratified it by Royal Letters of Confirmation on 3 June 1636.11 The political purpose of this document is clear, but its legal effect was more debatable. The operative part states that the King 'accepts approves ratifies and confirms' the Code. It directs the heads of colleges to give their written assent to the Code on the day of its presentation to and promulgation by Convocation and requires all the Masters and Scholars of the University to swear their allegiance to it within six months of that event. It was formally adopted on 22 June.12
The Code incorporated three statutes previously sent by the King to Convocation under the royal signet - the so-called Statuta Carolina, or Royal Statutes - which concerned among other things the appointment of Proctors and the establishment of the Hebdomadal Board. On the other hand it did not codify all the earlier statutes, some of which were unaffected by it. The provisions of the Code which dealt with Convocation's law-making powers, taken with the Royal Letters of Confirmation, gave rise to the question whether the University had retained any power, and if so what, to alter or annul its existing statutes - the Code generally, the three Royal Statutes in particular, or any of the others - or to make new statutes. Counsels' opinion delivered in 175913 brushes aside the legal effect of the Letters of Confirmation and is a robust statement of the University's continuing legal independence.
'... we think that the King has no power vested in him by his prerogative, or otherwise, to give laws or Statutes to the University after its original Act of Incorporation, without their acceptance, assent, or confirmation. And we also think, that it was not in the power of the University to delegate their right of making perfect By-Laws or Statutes to any subject, or even to the King: and that no Statutes, made by such delegation, would be valid without the assent or confirmation of the Convocation. It is that which we think gives vitam et modum to every Statute, and as it was not in the power of the University itself to enact any Statutes which should remain unalterable or unrepealable, so we think it could not delegate a power to any subject or to the Crown, to enact or make any laws that should not be repealable without the consent of such subject or his heirs, or such King or his successors; and though powers have in some instances been actually delegated by the University to the Crown, to give them Statutes for their government, and the Crown has accordingly so done, and such Statutes have been confirmed by Royal authority, yet even such Statutes so made and so confirmed cannot (we think), abrogate the legislative power necessarily inherent in, and incident to the University ...'
Blackstone gave advice to the same effect.14
Not surprisingly Convocation was prepared to act on that advice, but the issue was revived when, in response to a controversial election to the Regius Professorship of Divinity in 1836, Convocation purported to annul those parts of the Laudian Code which gave the professor jurisdiction over preachers. The University obtained legal opinions to the effect that the University's power to override the Code was limited by the provisions of the Code itself, on the ingenious ground among others that the Letters of Confirmation should be construed as a new charter. This advice was not followed, but the issue was again debated with the University Commissioners of 1850, who recommended that the University should petition the Crown for the removal of any fetter on the University's powers which the Code and the Letters of Confirmation might have imposed. Full power of dealing with the Code was granted by Royal Licence on 10 July 185415 with the exception of the Royal Statute which constituted the Hebdomadal Board. Licence was also given to repeal and alter any other statutes without further licence or authority. The document is silent on the power to make new statutes outside the scope of the Code, which must have been implicitly accepted.
For all practical purposes therefore, before the work of the University Commissioners in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the powers of the University now corresponded with the description given by Counsel in 1759, with the possible exception of the statute relating to the Hebdomadal Board.
10 For an account of the enactment of the Laudian Code and the events which brought it about see: C. L. Shadwell's Preface to The Laudian Code of Statutes (ed. Griffiths) (OUP 1888) ('LCS') and History of the University of Oxford, Vol. IV Chap. 4 (Fincham) (OUP 1997).
11 Reproduced in LCS, pp. 294-6.
12 The document bearing the signature of the heads of the colleges and halls is reproduced in LCS after p. xxiii.
13 The opinion of John Morton and R. Wilbraham quoted in full in the Preface to LCS, pp. xvi-xviii.
14 Preface to LCS, p. xviii.
15 Preface to LCS, pp. xxv-xxvii.