Magdalen College was founded in 1458 by William of Waynflete, Bishop of Winchester and Lord Chancellor. Waynflete had previously founded a university hall named Magdalen Hall in 1448. The founder's statutes included provision for a choral foundation of men and boys (a tradition that has continued to the present day) and made reference to the pronunciation of the name of the college in English. The college received another substantial endowment from the estate of Sir John Fastolf of Caister Castle in Norfolk (1380–1459). A second university hall named Magdalen Hall emerged on a site adjacent to Magdalen College, moved to Catte Street in 1822 and became Hertford College in 1874.
Magdalen's prominence since the mid-20th century owes much to such famous fellows as C. S. Lewis and A. J. P. Taylor, and its academic success to the work of such dons as Thomas Dewar Weldon. Like many of Oxford's colleges, Magdalen admitted its first mixed-sex cohort in 1979, after more than half a millennium as a men-only institution. Between 2015 and 2017, 47.2% of UK undergraduates admitted to Magdalen were from state schools; 12.2% were of BME heritage and 0.7% were black. In 2015, Magdalen topped Oxford's Norrington Table of college undergraduate examination results, and its average score over the 2006–2016 period is the best among the colleges.