The History of Oxford University

Oxford University is one of the world’s oldest higher education institutions. It is also one of the smallest universities in Britain, with just over 24,515 students and up to 7,000 staff. However, its small size belies Oxford’s international reputation as an educational institution and its historical significance as a centre of learning and top of the world university rankings.

The origins of the University of Oxford can be traced back to the 12th century when English scholars began to connect with one another more frequently through trade and education. Those who excelled at their studies began to be known as ‘scholars’ – a name that would eventually become synonymous with Oxford University itself. In this article, we’ll explore some of the major key moments in its history as well as some lesser-known facts about one of England’s most prestigious universities.

Balliol College.
Balliol College was built in 1263 and is one of the oldest buildings

The Middle Ages

There is no definitive date for the establishment of Oxford University, even though documents indicate that teaching was taking place there as early as 1096. The University started to expand significantly in the 12th century when renowned professors started to give lectures there and students started to move to Oxford to live and study. Henry II forbade English students from enrolling in the University of Paris in 1167, which caused the enrolment at University of Oxford to significantly increase.

From the beginning, there was tension between the locals and students which caused the Town vs. Gown riots that lasted for many years. After a particularly nasty argument, several students fled from Oxford to Cambridge and founded their own university, which would become Cambridge, in 1209.

However, the Oxford traders quickly missed the students’ custom and convinced some of them to return in 1214. That year, a man by the name of Robert Grosseteste was selected as the first Chancellor (1175-1253).

The students first resided in residence halls or shared housing with the locals. The earliest colleges were established in the thirteenth century and each college had its own set of structures that all operated independently.

With the foundation of many religious orders in the town of Oxford, primarily Dominicans and Franciscans, the university gained further strength in the 13th century, especially in theology. In its early years, the university had no structures; lectures were held in rented halls or churches.

Initially, Oxford’s numerous colleges served only as endowed boarding houses for underprivileged students. They were primarily designed for master’s or bachelor’s degree holders in the arts who required financial support to pursue further education. University College, the first of these institutions, was established in 1249. Merton College and Balliol College were established in 1264 and 1263, respectively.

The prestige of Oxford in its early years was built on theology and the liberal arts. However, it also treated the physical sciences more seriously than the University of Paris did: Roger Bacon conducted his scientific research and gave lectures at Oxford from 1247 to 1257 after leaving Paris.

The All Souls College at the University of
All Souls College dates back to 1438

16th – 18th Century

Since books were a luxury in the Middle Ages, pupils learnt from lectures until the Bodleian Library was opened to scholars in 1602. When Caxton brought the printing press to England in 1476, the situation was altered, and books spread like wildfire. The seven liberal arts; grammar, rhetoric, logic, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music were taught to pupils during the Middle Ages. They started studying the humanities in the sixteenth century.

Aristotle and other classical authors were revered as the ultimate authorities during the Middle Ages. It was necessary to clarify their meanings when lecturing. The renaissance brought about a fresh spirit of enquiry.

A Parliamentary act resulted in the incorporation of the university in 1571. Archbishop William Laud, the university’s chancellor, codified the university’s laws in 1636. Professorships started to be endowed in the early 16th century. And there was a significant rise in interest in scientific research in the latter half of the 17th century.

Desiderius Erasmus brought fresh knowledge to Oxford throughout the Renaissance, and academics like William Grocyn, John Colet, and Sir Thomas More improved the school’s standing. Since that time, Oxford has had a longstanding reputation for being the top academic institution for instruction in the classics, theology, and political science.

Also early on, Oxford had a reputation for being a hub of spirited debate with academics engaged in ideological and political conflicts.

The Anglican churchmen Cranmer, Latimer, and Ridley were later convicted of heresy and executed at the stake in the city after Henry VIII forced the university to acknowledge his divorce from Catherine of Aragon in 1509.

The University was Royalist during the Civil War (1642–1651) and Charles I held a counter-Parliament in the University’s Convocation House.

The 18th century saw both a scientific and religious renaissance with examples such as the Professor of Geometry Edmond Halley who foresaw the re-emergence of the comet that bears his name. The Methodist Society was also founded because of the prayer meetings led by John and Charles Wesley.

lady Margaret hall
Lady Margaret Hall – 1878

19th Century

The first honour schools for mathematics and humanities were established in 1802. In 1853, schools for “Natural Sciences,” “Law, and Modern History,” and other subjects were introduced. The final one had been divided into “Jurisprudence” and “Modern History” by 1872. Theology was included as the sixth honours college. The postgraduate Bachelor of Civil Law (B.C.L.) degree was, and still is, offered in addition to these B.A. Honours degrees.

The Oxford Movement, which began in 1833, aimed to revive the Catholic features of the Anglican Church. John Henry Newman, one of its key figures, converted to Roman Catholicism in 1845 and later was appointed a Cardinal. He was declared a saint in 2019.

Administrative reforms during the 19th century included the replacement of oral examinations with written entrance tests, greater tolerance for religious dissent, and the establishment of four women’s colleges.

In 1875, the university established a law permitting women to take exams at the equivalent of the undergraduate level. The Association for the Education of Women (AEW) was established in June 1878 with the goal of eventually establishing an Oxford college for women.

In 1879, Lady Margaret Hall and Somerville welcomed their first 21 students, who attended lectures in apartments above an Oxford baker’s shop (12 from Somerville and 9 from Lady Margaret Hall). In 1879, there were also 25 female students living at home or with friends. This group later became the Society of Oxford Home-Students, and in 1952 it changed its name to St. Anne’s College.

20th Century

Around 3,000 undergraduate students and roughly 100 doctoral students were enrolled at the university at the beginning of 1914. Many undergraduates and fellows enlisted in the military during World War One. By 1918, almost all fellows were wearing uniforms, and only 12% of pre-war students were still living on campus. 14,792 university students participated in the war, with 2,716 (18.36 per cent) of them dying, according to the University Roll of Service.

In the first three decades of the 20th century, Oxford University started conferring doctorates for research. In 1921, the first mathematics DPhil from Oxford was given out. Many eminent continental academics who had been uprooted by Nazism and Communism moved to Oxford in the middle of the 20th century.

Oxford and Cambridge were often seen to be bastions of male privilege in the early 20th century, but during the First World War, the integration of women into Oxford advanced. Women were given equal admission to medical school in 1916, and the university took over financial responsibility for women’s tests in 1917.

Women were granted the freedom to pursue degrees and were allowed to join the institution as full members on October 7, 1920. However, the women’s colleges did not receive full collegiate status until 1959. All of Oxford’s male colleges amended their admissions policies to admit women by 1986, and as of 2008, both men and women are now permitted in all colleges.

The Green Templeton College Radcliffe Tower
The Radcliffe Observatory built in the 18th Century, now part of Green Templeton College

21st Century

Oxford developed significant new research capacities in the natural and applied sciences, including medicine, over the 20th and early 21st centuries. By doing this, it has improved and strengthened its function as a global hub for learning and a platform for scholarly discussion.

Oxford University has been in the vanguard of international efforts to combat COVID-19 and to lessen its numerous impacts, such as creating a vaccine and identifying treatments. Over 2.6 billion of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine had been distributed to over 180 countries by the beginning of 2022, with almost two-thirds going to low- and middle-income nations. The vaccine is calculated to have prevented 50 million COVID-19 cases, five million hospitalizations and saved over one million lives.

The Colleges and Halls that make up the University

All students and the majority of academic staff must belong to a college or hall in order to be considered a member of the university. The University of Oxford is made up of 39 colleges and 5 permanent private halls (PPHs), each of which has its own internal organisation and activities.

Different Christian denominations founded long-term private halls. One distinction between a college and a PPH is that, whereas colleges are controlled by the fellows of the college, a PPH’s governance belongs to the relevant Christian denomination. The five PPHs in use today are Blackfriars Hall, Campion Hall, Regent’s Park College, St Stephen’s House and Wycliffe Hall.

Dons are a collective word for the teaching staff members of the colleges, however, the university hardly ever uses it. The institutions provide their students with social, cultural, and recreational activities in addition to housing and dining options. Undergraduate admissions and tuition management are the duty of the colleges; for graduates, this obligation is with the departments.

Magdalen college
Magdalen college dates back to 1458

Colleges Established before the 16th Century:

  • University College – 1249
  • Balliol College – 1263
  • Merton College – 1264
  • St Edmund Hall – 1278
  • Exeter College – 1314
  • Oriel College – 1326
  • Queens College – 1341
  • New College – 1379
  • Lincoln College – 1427
  • All Souls College – 1438
  • Magdalen College – 1458

Colleges established between the 16th and 18th Century:

  • Brasenose College – 1509
  • Corpus Christi College – 1517
  • Christ church College – 1546
  • St John’s College – 1555
  • Trinity College – 1555
  • St John’s College – 1555
  • Jesus College – 1571
  • Wadham College – 1610
  • Pembroke College – 1624
  • Worcester College – 1714
  • Harris Manchester College – 1786

Colleges established in the 19th Century:

  • St Catherine’s College – 1868
  • Keble College – 1870
  • Hertford College – 1875
  • Mansfield College – 1886
  • St Hughs College – 1886
  • Lady Margaret Hall – 1878
  • Somerville College -1879
  • Anne College – 1879
  • St Hugh’s College – 1886
  • Harris Manchester College – 1889
  • St Hildas College – 1893
  • Ruskin College – 1899

Colleges established in the 20th Century:

  • Peter’s College – 1929
  • Nuffield College – 1937
  • Anthony’s College – 1950
  • Annes College – 1952
  • Greyfriars Hall – 1957
  • Regents Park College – 1957
  • Linacre College – 1962
  • St Catharine’s College – 1963
  • St Cross College – 1965
  • Templeton College – 1965
  • Wolfson College – 1966
  • Green College – 1979
  • Kellogg College – 1990

Colleges established in the 21st Century

  • Green Templeton College – 2008
  • Rueben College – 2019

When was Oxford University founded?

The earliest documents show teaching at Oxford University in 1096, but no official date of foundation is known.

Is Oxford better than Harvard?

The Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2023 put Oxford first and above Harvard’s second spot and Cambridge in joint third. Factors scored were Teaching, Research, Citations, Industry Income and International Outlook.

One of the world’s oldest academic institutions, the Oxford University logo was created in 1400 and contains elements full of meaning. It displays an open book with seven seals and three crowns. The motto of the University is “Dominus Illuminatio Mea”, which appears in the emblem and has been in place since the 1600s. The logo can be found everywhere in the University, including the Oxford University Natural History Museum.

The University of Oxford has its own blue colour and there are strict guidelines to follow if you are a designer or are asked to use the Oxford University logo. Almost every University also uses its own badges to customize souvenirs for our students as commemorative gifts, such as pin badges. Different faculties also have their own emblems as a symbol of identity.

Which famous people went to Oxford University?

The University of Oxford is synonymous with excellence and tradition, and alumni include 15 former British Prime Ministers and the last 5 in Rishi Sunak, Liz Truss, Boris Johnson, Theresa May, and David Cameron. Prior to that Tony Blair, Margaret Thatcher, Edward Heath, Harold Macmillan and Clement Attlee too.

There have been kings, world leaders, authors, actors, scientists, broadcasters are more. There is plenty of lists of famous Oxonians out there, so here’s just a few notable – Professor Stephen Hawking, Bill Clinton, T S Eliot, J R R Tolkien, John Le Carré, Lewis Carroll, Oscar Wilde, Percy Bysshe Shelley and many, many more.

So many notable people, that you wonder why the teaching method of tutorials is not more widespread.