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Early History of Oxford University

An early history of Oxford University from the first dwellings in Oxford to the first official recognition in 1214 from the Church. Includes short history up until the 17th Century and the founding of Christ Church by King Henry VIII


Radcliffe Camera and University Church from River Thames

Foundation of Oxford as a place

There has been a dwelling around Oxford since Roman times. However nothing permanent was established until about 700 AD when the hamlet of Oxnaforda became a strategic place between the kingdoms of Mercia and Wessex. After the Norman conquest the town was fortifies from about 1070. Some of these city walls remain and one of the mounds is still in existence (by the Old Prison)

Origins of the University.

The first evidence of learning in Oxford could be traced back to 720 AD when the local ruler King Didan founded a nunnery for his devout daughter Frideswide. This was built in the grounds of Christ Chuch Cathedral. This nunnery later dissolved but it was taken over by a community of Anglican monks in about 1120. They rebuilt the chapel and dedicated the church to St Frideswide.

By 1167 there were 3 small monastic schools of learning in Oxford, of which the community in Christ Church was one. At this time many English scholars were forced to flee the University of Paris. The current King Henry II encouraged many of these to come to Oxford and continue their studies their. The patronage of Henry II was important for the development of Oxford as a seat of learning.

The scholars brough the ancient curriculam from Paris. All learning was under the Chuch of Rome and all scholars and Masters were in holy orders and used to wear a long black gown. These scholars were not of the nobility but often from humble origins but they played an important role in the administration of the state being the small % of the literate population.

Recognition of University by Church

In 1214 Oxford was recognised as a university by the Church and the first Chancellor was appointed. This attracted many scholars to come. These young boisterous scholars often created friction and conflict with the local towns people and during this century there were frequently “town versus gown” riots which left a couple of people dead. Because of this many scholars moved to other towns such as Cambridge leading to the formation of other universities.

First Oxford Colleges

In the 13th Century many masters created halls of residence to protect scholars from local hostility. Also in the 13th century there appeared the first of the University colleges. Colleges were different to the halls of residence because they were not tied to the monastic tradition. In fact many colleges prevented their members from taking monastic vows. This enabled more adventurous teaching than in the monastic halls. The colleges were like a secular response to the monastic halls of residence.


View of Oxford to the South, Merton College in distance

Colleges were usually founded by rich churchmen who had no offspring to leave their wealth. Thus it was seen as a commendable act to create a college and endow it with wealth. Because of their greater wealth and permanence the colleges flourished and gradually began to overtake and absorb the smaller, more impermanent halls.

Which was the first College at Oxford University?

The first 3 colleges to be set up were University college, Merton and Balliol. It is much disputed which is the oldest and depends on how you define the foundation of a college. St Edmunds Hall can claim to be the oldest place of teaching have been a medieval hall and later making the transition to a full college. With the establishment of colleges university life became more regulated. It became more common for scholars to live in the same college and be taught by the resident masters.

In the 14th and 15th Century another 7 colleges came into existence including Exeter, Oriel, Queen’s, new college, Lincoln, All Souls, and Magdalen.

Foundation of Christ Church

In the 16th century the most important development was the founding of Christ Church by king Henry VIII. It was founded in 1546 despite the turbulence created by the reformation. But with royal approval the University was protected and given a higher profile. Following the reformation the composition of university scholars started to change. Instead of monastic scholars it was increasingly the middle classes who wanted to send their sons to be taught. These gentleman commoners were willing to pay for their tuition. This enabled an increased expansion of the university.

By: Richard Pettinger

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