One of the most famous Oxford colleges, All Souls, was founded as a group of clerks who were charged with praying for the dead of the French Wars, in the reign of that most pious king, Henry VI. One of the founders was Archbishop Chichele of Canterbury, whose tomb in Canterbury is so striking. The upper level of the tomb shows the Archbishop fully vested, looking most splendid. The lower level shows a withered cadaver. The message is clear: death is the great leveler. “I was pauper-born,” reads the inscription, “Then to primate raised. Now I am cut down and served up for worms. Behold my grave.” The Archbishop constructed the tomb before he died, and its purpose is to serve not just as a momento (sic) mori, but also as a way of soliciting a prayer for the deceased.
(I visited the basilica of St. Denis north of Paris and saw the cadaver tombs of Louis XII and his wife Anne of Brittany and of Henri II and Catherine de Medici--they do have a great effect!)
Of the history of All Souls, the college website states:
All Souls had two functions. The first, common to all colleges, was religious. The Warden and, originally, forty Fellows were to pray in chapel for the souls of the founders, of those who had fallen in the long wars with France (at the time not being prosecuted with much vigour), and of 'all the faithful departed'. The second function was academic, and in this, then as now, the College was distinctive. Chichele envisaged the medieval equivalent of a graduate college, an institute of advanced study of a very practical kind. With minor exceptions, the College never took in undergraduates. Its Fellows were previously to have studied somewhere else for at least three years and most would already have a BA. Once admitted they were to study or teach for the higher degrees of theology, law (civil and 'canon', or Church, law), and medicine - especially theology and law. The Fellows, all in Holy Orders, had to prepare themselves, not for life in the ivory tower, but for service to Church and government. They were, as Chichele himself put it, an 'unarmed militia', trained for the unashamedly patriotic task of restoring national prestige and good order in the face of heresy at home and stalemate abroad.
Tudor religious changes created much confusion in the College:
All Souls selects its Fellows by offering examinations. Hilaire Belloc took the examination and failed to earn a Fellowship after earning a First in History from Balliol College in 1895. This site suggests that he might have failed because he placed a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary on the desk before his examination. I can imagine Belloc being so demonstrative about his faith. Remember his famous response when running for Parliament. Asked if he was Papist, he took his rosary beads out of his pocket and said, "Sir, so far as possible I hear Mass each day and I go to my knees and tell these beads each night. If that offends you, then I pray God may spare me the indignity of representing you in Parliament." Belloc was, however, very disappointed not to earn the All Souls fellowship--he probably would have started praying for all the souls of the faithful departed!