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  • Writer's pictureAlex Beeton, PhD

A Brief History of the University of Oxford

What is the University of Oxford?

The University of Oxford is the oldest university in the English-speaking world, founded in the 11th century.


University of Oxford

University of Oxford

Oxford University is one of the world’s most famous and ancient universities. There is evidence of teaching having taken place here as early as 1096 (only 30 years after the Norman Conquest), making Oxford the second oldest continuously operating university in the world and the oldest university in the English-speaking world. Cambridge, Oxford’s famous competitor, in fact originated as an offshoot of Oxford, founded by academics in the 13th century who were fleeing unrest in the town.


Although the university has always stood as a famous symbol of learning and scholarship, its main function was originally to serve the Church. Many who came to Oxford up until more recent times did so to receive training in theology and become clergymen. The university was also structured very differently in its early centuries. Throughout the Middle Ages, many students would have attended halls rather than colleges. Halls were effectively boarding houses for students, governed by a principal. Colleges, on the other hand, were larger, wealthier and governed by a body of fellows. The first colleges only began to emerge in the 13th century: University in 1249, followed by Balliol in 1263 and Merton in 1264. These colleges gradually began to replace the halls, as their numbers dwindled through the centuries. The final one, St Edmund’s Hall, became a college in 1957, though it’s kept its old name.


Today, the university consists of 39 colleges and six permanent private halls of residence. The colleges are spread throughout the city, but most are grouped around the centre, which also contains the university’s most iconic buildings, such as the Sheldonian Theatre, the Radcliffe Camera, and the Bodleian Library. The colleges range enormously in age. Some, such as (confusingly named) New College, have existed since the Middle Ages, while others, such as St Hugh’s, are from the Victorian period. In St Hugh’s case, its relative novelty reflects its origins as a women’s only college, since Oxford only began to admit women in the 1870s and awarding degrees to women in 1920.


Throughout the city you can see the university’s coat of arms, which shows three crowns surrounding an open book on a blue background. On the book are the words ‘Dominus Illuminatio Mea’ (Latin for ‘The Lord is my Light’), the opening words of Psalm 27. With some variations, this has been the symbol of the university for over 600 years, representing the university’s traditional association of learning with religion. While the book and its title embody the religious aspect of the university, the three crowns represent, in turn, the three university faculties historically deemed most important: Medicine, Theology, and Law.


The size, age, beauty, and educational standing of Oxford University across the centuries has meant that it’s forever been intertwined with wider political and social events. During the British Civil Wars, it was the headquarters of King Charles I and the Royalists, and in more recent decades its many beautiful buildings have become a part of popular consciousness through the large number of films and TV shows which have used the university for filming. The widely beloved investigations of the cantankerous Inspector Morse and his genial assistant, Lewis, were largely set within the bounds of Oxford colleges, while the Harry Potter films made use of some of the university’s most picturesque locations such as the Duke Humfrey’s Library.


Today, Oxford remains one of the most prestigious universities in the world, educating many heads of government, including 28 British Prime Ministers. Whether visiting colleges, libraries, or other university sites, you can enjoy nearly a millennium’s worth of academic history.


Listen, learn, and love Oxford with Urbs’ Oxford audio guide app.

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