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How Lawrence of Oxford became Lawrence of Arabia

Blog | By Harry Mount | Dec 05, 2019

T. E. Lawrence (right) with C. Leonard Woolley at the archaeological excavations at Carchemish, Syria, c. 1912-1914. Lawrence is wearing his blazer from Magdalen College, Oxford. Source: From Woolley's 'Dead Towns and Living Men' (1920)

Lawrence of Arabia, who has just featured on Start the Week, had his first lucky break at Oxford, says Harry Mount

For over a century, a lost dossier unlocking the hidden story of Lawrence of Arabia slumbered in the medieval Founder's Tower of Magdalen College, Oxford.
And then, in 2015, the college archivist stumbled on the sheaf of documents that explain how TE Lawrence made one of the crucial decisions of his life.
In 1910, aged 22, Lawrence was about to embark on an academic career, buried deep in the hushed libraries of Oxford. But, as the dossier reveals, Magdalen College gave him a valuable scholarship that allowed him to head to Syria, learn Arabic and, in due course, become Lawrence of Arabia - the dashing war hero who set the world alight with tales of derring-do, fighting with the Arabs against the Ottoman Empire.
Armed with a First in History from Jesus College, Oxford, Lawrence was all set to do a rather less dashing B.Litt - a postgraduate degree - in 'Mediaeval Lead-Glazed Pottery from the 11th to the 16th Centuries'.
It was only when Magdalen College gave him a scholarship - in Magdalen terms, a 'Senior Demyship' - of £100 a year, that Lawrence could afford to leave Oxford's dreaming spires. Only then could he embark on archaeological studies in Carchemish, an ancient Hittite site in Syria, Isis territory until recently.
'Without the Magdalen money, Lawrence might well have continued his B.Litt research from Jesus College, remained in Europe, and never have become "Lawrence of Arabia",' says Jeremy Wilson, Lawrence's authorised biographer, 'Given that most of Lawrence's surviving letters date from 1922 or later, anything new from this early period is extremely unusual.'
The discovery in the Magdalen archives came by chance, after a college member donated a bust of Lawrence to the college. The bust by Eric Kennington - a pallbearer at Lawrence's funeral in 1935 - was carved from life in 1926, and eight copies exist.
'To thank the donor, we decided to hold a small TE Lawrence exhibition for college members in the Old Library,' said Dr Christine Ferdinand, Magdalen's librarian in 2015, 'We thought we didn't have that much material on him, and then the discovery was made.'
No one in the college had any idea about the existence of a TE Lawrence dossier in the archives. On a hunch, Dr Robin Darwall-Smith, Magdalen's archivist, started digging around among the thousands of records held in the Founder's Tower.
'It was serendipity, really,' says Dr Darwall-Smith, 'I was thinking about Lawrence and what we had on him, and assumed we didn't have very much. Our undergraduate files only go back to the 1930s.'
And then Dr Darwall-Smith remembered that each Senior Demy - a post-graduate scholarship post that no longer exists - had his own dossier.
'I looked through the dossiers, and there was the Lawrence dossier,' says Dr Darwall-Smith, 'Magdalen has such a large archive and so many treasures but, still, this was very exciting indeed.'
The lost dossier contains Lawrence's application for the scholarship, in his handwriting, describing himself as a 'Scholar of Jesus Coll.', living then at '2 Polstead Rd, Oxford'.
The dossier contains three letters from Lawrence. In 1913, he wrote to Herbert Warren, the President of Magdalen, explaining how he was spending the scholarship money in Carchemish. He wrote how he was 'learning Arabic, together with what little I picked up of pottery and Hittite seals and terracottas... The country round us is being plundered very fast of everything of a present money value in Aleppo.'
106 years on, after Isis blew up the ruins of Palmyra and looted ancient sites, little has changed.
In his letter, Lawrence adds, in a self-deprecating way, that his archaeological report is 'necessarily a boneless sort of body'.
In 1918, Lawrence wrote again to President Warren, apologising that 'Feisal' will not be able to visit Oxford. This was the future King Faisal I of Iraq, leader of the Arab Revolt sparked off by Lawrence.
The dossier includes glowing letters of recommendation for Lawrence's scholarship from high-profile Oxford academics. One is from Sir John Rhys, Principal of Jesus College from 1895–1915, who wrote, 'He is altogether a remarkable and enterprising student. Professor Hogarth to whom he is well known speaks most strongly of him and will be able to tell you more about his promise in archaeology.'
It was David Hogarth, a Fellow of Magdalen and another scholarship referee, who encouraged Lawrence to learn Arabic and took him to Syria to learn the rudiments of archaeology. Through these studies, Lawrence gained vital, first-hand experience of the terrain over which he was to fight so gallantly.
Lawrence worked with Hogarth, and later the scholar, Sir Charles Leonard Woolley, at Carchemish. In 1914, Lawrence and Woolley published their archaeological findings in 'Carchemish: Report on the Excavations'. Woolley and Lawrence also mapped part of the Sinai Peninsula, south of the Dead Sea, deepening Lawrence's understanding of the Middle East.
Woolley was so close to Lawrence that he included a photograph of the two of them on the Syrian dig as the frontispiece to his book, 'Dead Towns and Living Men'. Lawrence is shown dressed in shorts and a Magdalen blazer, decorated with the college's coat of arms. Lawrence of Oxford was on the verge of becoming Lawrence of Arabia.