JMW Turner's 'The High Street, Oxford' (1810)
JMW Turner's 'The High Street, Oxford' (1810)
Private collection courtesy of the Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford


Visitors to Oxford often ask where the University is. This is not always an easy question to answer; some parts of it are landmarks, while others seem to be hiding in plain sight.

In the heart of the city is the Sheldonian Theatre, where students are officially enrolled and take their final degrees. It was at the University Church of St Mary the Virgin nearby that the bells were rung to call students to arms during the murderous city riots of the 14th century; the townsmen did the same for their side at Carfax, where now only the bell tower remains.

Oxford, and its university, have witnessed plague, the violent destruction of centuries-old abbeys and monasteries by the crown, the public execution of bishops by fire, the cannonballs of civil war – and, much more recently, the creation of the modern motor industry, which changed both the city and the world for ever.

Today, as the Minis roll out from Cowley to new owners around the globe, the University too has modernised its practices and outlook.

How it all began

In the 8th century the first abbey was built in Oxford: that of St Frideswide. So began a long tradition of religious scholarship in the city – and St Frideswide, whose name means ‘bond of peace’, is still Oxford’s patron saint.

Pottery, weaving and tanning were the original trades of early Oxford. As the scholars gathered, however, so did landlords, stonemasons, paper makers, bookbinders, scribes, printers, tailors and shoemakers.

In the 12th century Henry II and his court regularly came to his palace at Beaumont, just outside the city wall. The court needed scholars trained in law to cope with the complexities of administration. Unable to travel to Paris while relations between England and France were strained, more scholars began to join them in Oxford. Education was often confined to the seven liberal arts; three of them taught together, Logic, Rhetoric and Grammar, were known as the trivium.

‘A horrible outcry in the town’

The scholars and the townsfolk did not always cohabit peacefully. Throughout the 1200s there were repeated outbreaks of violence, in which citizens and students maimed and killed one another. At one point many scholars fled the town, to join others at Cambridge. The violence reached a peak on St Scholastica’s Day – 10 February – 1355, when fighting went on for several days and many lives were lost on both sides.

Town and gown etchingDetail from 'Town and Gown from College Life: A Series of Etchings', E Bradley, Oxford (1849–50)

Religious upheaval and civil war

Oxford’s abbeys and convents were destroyed during Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries in the 1530s. He respected the University, however, establishing five ‘Regius, or King’s, professorships – today’s postholders are still appointed by the Queen.

In 1542 Oxford officially became a city, with the right to control markets and theatrical performances, and in 1586 the University was granted the privilege of printing books. Oxford University Press is now the largest university press in the world.

During the Civil War the University supported Charles I. He moved his base to the city and melted down the colleges’ silver plate to buy weaponry. Cannonballs from this era are still kept as souvenirs in some colleges.

From the 17th century to the 21st

17th-century Oxford was home to scholars such as physicist Robert Hooke and Christopher Wren, who was a professor of astronomy when he built the Sheldonian Theatre.

In the 1800s reforms brought in the teaching of the natural sciences, and bursaries for those who could not otherwise have afforded to study. University fellows were first allowed to marry in 1877, prompting the building of large family houses in north Oxford. In 1878 Oxford University Extension delivered a series of lectures around the country, a movement which was to found the Department for Continuing Education. The first female students arrived to form women’s colleges in 1879.

In the 1930s Oxford’s numbers were added to by an influx of Jewish intellectuals escaping the Nazis. In 1945 state funding through the University Grants Committee gave students access to degree courses regardless of their financial status.

There are now 38 colleges in the University, all open to men and women. While each college has its own rules and regulations, they are all part of the University as a wider whole. In recent years the student body has become much more international; today the University hosts students from 140 different countries, with China and the USA the most popular sources after the UK.

Interactions between the University and the community are now more diverse and complicated than ever. Instead of murderous riots students are involved in volunteering initiatives and support. Academic disciplines reflect much more of the problems of our modern world, and a commitment to make that knowledge available to all. In addition to their academic studies, students today are involved in a range of volunteering initiatives and support.