History of Oxford

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The first written reference to Oxford, or Oxenford as it was then called, is a 912 entry in the Anglo Saxon Chronicle stating that 'King Edward (the elder son of Alfred the Great) took possession of London and Oxford and all the lands which owed obedience to them'. However, the town was certainly in existence at least 200 years before when the patron saint of Oxford, St Frideswide, founded a priory on the site of what is now Christ Church cathedral.

From those early beginnings the town's fortunes fluctuated over the centuries and it is now a city of 130,000 inhabitants known for its academic, medical and scientific research, its 2 universities, and its thriving industrial and publishing base. However, it is almost certainly true that without Oxford University and its wonderful buildings the city would be just another pleasant but undistinguished English market town.

At the time of the Norman Conquest in 1066 Oxford was the 6th largest town in the country and was a well-established commercial centre. The building of the castle 5 years later consolidated it as the administrative hub of the surrounding area but by 1086 (Domesday) the town was in decay. However, it slowly recovered and by the end of the 11th century a market had been established. The town's revenues were further improved by the introduction of an annual fair and the seal was set on its rising importance when, at the beginning of the 12th century, Henry I built Beaumont Palace just outside the north gate and close to where Worcester College now stands. It was in Oxford that the agreement to end the struggle for the crown between Henry's daughter, Matilda, and her cousin Stephen, both grandchildren of William the Conqueror, was settled.

The growing importance of the town, its proximity to and its good communications with London, together with its fertile soil and temperate climate, led to the establishment of many religious houses and churches in the town and surrounding area. At that time religion and learning went hand-in-hand and, as a result, a culture of learning was established. This itself attracted teachers from Europe who set up in business by renting or buying houses and rooms and providing basic accommodation, food and tuition to students - in this way the first academic halls in the town came to be formed. As there were no universities in England, Englishmen went to Europe, usually Paris, for a university education. But this tradition came to an abrupt halt in 1167 when English students were expelled from Paris University. Many saw Oxford, with its established culture of teaching and learning, as the natural place to continue their studies and the church of St Mary the Virgin became the focal point of the emerging university. Teaching expanded rapidly and at one stage there were 120 academic halls in the town centre alone.

This rapid rise in the student population caused difficulties for the townspeople and the town/gown relationships became fraught. There were many riots over the years (including one in 1209 which resulted in a group of students fleeing Oxford and creating Cambridge University), but the most serious was in 1355 when a 3 day riot left 63 students, and probably half that number of townspeople, dead in the streets. As a result the university was granted significantly increased power by Edward III and virtually controlled the city for the next 500 years.

During the 13th century graduate colleges, with endowments of land and property to provide an income covering running costs, were established by wealthy benefactors. This enabled students to be taught without charge and when this practice was extended to undergraduate colleges with the foundation of New College in 1379, the future of academic halls was bleak; by the mid 15th century only 8 remained.

When civil war broke out in 1641 the university supported the royalists. The following year Charles I made Oxford his military headquarters and took up residence in Christ Church until he was forced to escape in 1646 disguised as a servant. Oxford was fortunate to escape the consequences of supporting the wrong side when Cromwell preferred to make himself Chancellor of the university rather than to destroy it but there was no new building in the city until the restoration in 1669.

The next 60 years, however, were the golden age of Oxford architecture with the building of the Sheldonian Theatre, Tom Tower, the Clarendon Building, the Radcliffe Camera and the great quad of All Souls College.

However, this golden age was followed by a period of decline and stagnation. Teaching and study became almost non-existent and university life became little more than an excuse for debauched living. It was not until the 19th century that the great revival began and future leaders in political, business and religious fields chose Oxford as their alma mater. Written examinations were introduced in 1800; the restriction on dons being allowed to marry was lifted in 1870; the next year non-Anglicans were welcomed as students, and at the same time the first women's colleges were founded.

By the early 20th century Oxford was transformed. The introduction of car manufacturing led to an explosion in the population. 'Town' became economically much stronger and the old town/gown rivalries were consigned to history when the Mayor was given an honorary degree and the Vice-Chancellor became a freeman of the city.

Today Town and Gown co-exist happily. Car production, although on a smaller scale, is still an important employer. But other industries, notably light engineering, publishing, scientific and bio-chemical research, as well as tourism provide employment opportunities for local people. A second university, Oxford Brookes, now has more students than its illustrious neighbour, and education at all levels is an important contributor to the local economy.

All of these changes have contributed to making 21st century Oxford a city of wonderful contrasts. It is easy to turn off a busy shopping area and within seconds be transported into a calm and quiet environment, evocative of centuries past. Oxford is a 'city of dreaming spires' but also a thoroughly modern commercial and prosperous town.