Oxford History

Oxford’s long illustrious history is tied inextricably with its university. The 38 colleges, which today make up Oxford University have helped it become a place of global renown, its influence felt keenly wherever you turn within the city.

Prior to the first mentions of Oxford’s educational establishments in the 12th century, the town’s history is a relatively short one. First developed around a river crossing around 900AD, Oxford became a key frontier town between the old kingdoms of Mercia and Wessex, prior to the unification of England.

Oxford was destroyed by the Normans following the conquest of 1066. In the wake of the Norman arrival, the construction of Oxford castle and its adjoining chapel brought with it monastic orders, who offered formal education. With the castle’s development, the seeds of the English speaking world’s oldest university were sewn.

The university itself began life around a series of informal houses, before colleges ordered students to live in halls of residence. University College, Balliol College and Merton College were the first formal colleges in the city, created in the mid 13th century, with dozens more following as their reputation burgeoned.

Beyond university life, the city played a central role in the theological battles of the 16th century, with the execution of key scholars for heresy, before becoming the capital of Royalist England during the Civil War of the 1640s. Charles I held court in the city before being forced to flee.

With the arrival of canals and railways in the 18th and 19th century, Oxford’s population boomed, a trend which was to continue into the 20th century with the creation of Morris Motors. This huge car plant brought workers from across the UK and the globe to Oxford, helping it to become one of England’s most diverse cities.

Spared the attentions of German bombers during the WWII, Oxford remains a city steeped in history. A walk through its town centre, with dreaming spires and perfect quadrangles everywhere, is a reminder of its unique place in English history.

Did you know?
• Roger Bannister ran the first four minute mile at Oxford’s Iffley Road running track in 1954.
• 26 British Prime Ministers were educated at Oxford.
• Radiohead played their first ever gig at the city’s Jericho Tavern pub.

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