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Oxford History And Visits

Saxon Tower, Oxford

Oxford is full of colleges which look like fanciful castles, and castles are actually a good starting point in thinking about Oxford, since it was as a fortified town that the history of Oxford really begins. Oxford was one of a number of fortified towns, or burghs, created by ninth century Saxon king Alfred the Great during his long struggle against the Danes. Tension between Saxons and Danes continued after Alfred's reign, and Oxford was burnt down by rampaging Danes in 1009. Only one building in Oxford survives from its time as a Saxon stronghold, and that is the Saxon Tower in Cornmarket Street. The tower stood at what was once the North Gate in the city walls, and was attached to a larger building which served as a prison. Parts of the city walls also survive, and can be best seen at New College in Holywell Street. At Oxford's Ashmolean Museum, Britain's oldest museum, a broach probably dropped by Alfred as he hid from his Danish enemies in the marshes of Athelney in Somerset, can be viewed.

It was really only after 1066 and the Norman invasion of England that a Saxon Danish divide ceased to be important. The Normans built a castle in Oxford in the usual motte and bailey style, putting a wooden fortification on the top of a huge mound, approached via a fortified gateway. The mound still survives at the site of Oxford Castle. Stone towers and walls were then added in the later Norman period. St George's Tower, and the crypt of St George's Chapel survive from this time. It was during the Norman period that Oxford University came into being. Quite why scholars and teachers started to gather here is not understood, but for some reason Oxford gained a reputation as a place of learning. So in 1167 when Henry II banned all scholars from attending the University of Paris, students congregated at Oxford, and Oxford University began to take shape in something approaching its modern form. Of course learning at this time meant study related to the Church. Knowledge was knowledge of God, and rather than discovery of new things, learning was all about the constant revelation of God's eternal plan. In a very real way learning was designed to maintain a stable outlook as Europe slowly emerged from the chaotic period following the Roman Empire's collapse. The scholastic method aimed to present conflicts and then demonstrate their resolution. Colleges were built to look like churches, and both colleges and churches were built to look like castles. The search for spiritual security was given a physical expression in the castle-like architecture of colleges where the same mysteries were ritualistically explored again and again. The first purpose built colleges, University, Balliol, and Merton were opened between 1249 and 1264.

This is not to say that everything was plain sailing in Oxford's castle-like colleges. With many young people studying together, there was always going to be the likelihood that at least some of them would tend to want to look at the world in a new way. By the late 1300s Oxford was a hotbed of religious dissent. This was dissent in the sense that some people were questioning a Church which extorted huge amounts of money out of people by promising them, for example, a better after-life in return for money. John Wyclif, the great religious agitator of this period was Doctor of Divinity at Oxford. He wanted an end to Church corruption, and the Bible translated into English. This infuriated ferociously authoritarian Archbishop Thomas Arundel, who made plenty of money from Church corruption, and did not want ordinary people reading the Bible and thinking for themselves. Arundel came down hard on Oxford. In 1395 the university chancellor was summoned, and actually walked out on Arundel as the Archbishop was announcing his cancellation of Oxford's exemption from ecclesiastical jurisdiction. Waking out on a man like Arundel was a brave thing to do. This was a man who would burn people who did not toe the religious line. Within a month the chancellor was forced to apologise in writing, and Oxford had to submit to Church inspection at any time. Nevertheless the spirit that Oxford showed in resisting Arundel was in the best traditions of academic freedom. Around 1400 Geoffrey Chaucer was completing his masterpiece The Canterbury Tales. In The Canterbury Tales the Clerk of Oxford, a poor student of Oxford University, is one of the very few decent religious characters. This idealisation of an Oxford student once again must have been galling for Church authorities. Sadly in the future the example that Oxford set at this time would not always be followed.




Merton College

For many centuries successive governments tried to use Oxford University, and its close relation Cambridge University, to form and control religious opinion. In 1427 Lincoln College was founded specifically to defend the scriptures against heresy. During the sixteenth century Reformation and Counter Reformation, England swerved between Protestantism and Catholicism. Much effort was put into inculcating the right attitudes in students who would then go on to staff the country's religious hierarchy. It was very dangerous to be on the wrong side of shifting religious fault lines. When Queen Mary attempted to reverse the protestant Reformation begun by her father Henry VIII , protestant bishops Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley, and protestant archbishop Thomas Cranmer, were held in the Bocardo prison, part of which survives as the Saxon Tower. In October 1555 Latimer and Ridley were burnt at the stake in what is now Broad Street, and Archbishop Cranmer suffered the same fate in March 1556. The door to the cell in which Cranmer, Ridley and Latimer were held still survives in the Saxon Tower. A cross design set into the cobbles outside Balliol College shows the approximate place of their executions.





Broad Street, Oxford

It was around this time that learning at Oxford began to widen. The Reformation coincided with the Renaissance, an exciting period of rediscovery of ancient Greek learning. This great change influenced Oxford profoundly, but even so the university remained very much a place where churchmen were trained. In many ways the ritual of scholastic learning was replaced by the ritual of classical learning. Over in Cambridge in the 1620s a young John Milton found his enquiring mind constricted by what he saw as boring and pointless philosophical twaddle centred on Aristotle. He wanted poetry to be taught, along with natural sciences of all kinds, geography, astronomy and moral philosophy. There was little sympathy for Milton's views. If a wider syllabus was taught at Oxford and Cambridge it was only in a tutor's spare time, as a kind of hobby when the real work was not being done. The real work was preparing men for the Church, and it seems even this did not receive too much effort.

Into the 1640s study in Oxford took a back seat to the Civil War, with Charles I making his royalist headquarters in Oxford. Christopher Hibbert in his book Charles I describes this time memorably:

"By the beginning of the new year 1643, Oxford was more like a garrison than a university town. Undergraduates, forsaking their books for spades, threw up new earth works and fortifications; scholars and professors joined the colours; noble students sought leave to put on the gleaming armour of the king's Life Guards; soldiers were drilled in the streets and quadrangles; gunners were trained in the meadows... At the same time the life of court went on as though its denizens were still in Whitehall. There were musical entertainments and plays; new sonnets and satires were published; new fashions were paraded through the streets and were copied by the citizen's wives; love affairs were conducted by the river bank and beneath the secluded walls of college gardens..."




Magdalen College


Oxford was to be Charles's final stronghold. He gave himself up in 1646, and Oxford returned to being a university town. Then in a accident of history the 1650s saw a group of London based scientists centred around Robert Boyle starting work in Oxford. Many Oxford academics had fallen into disfavour following the Civil War because of Oxford's support for the defeated Royalist cause. Oliver Cromwell, needing some new academics, moved in a group from London, amongst whom happened to be the greatest scientific minds of the age. Robert Boyle, using his personal fortune, set up an ambitious independent research group. In 1653 a young Robert Hooke of Christ Church College, joined Boyle's group, and went on to become one of the architect's of the Newtonian revolution in science. Inspite of all this, however, science was hardly central to the university's activities. Robert Hooke left Oxford in 1662 without taking a degree, having spent all his time with Robert Boyle.

The university was now set in its ways, and by the eighteenth century had fallen into a sad state of lethargy. Adam Smith arrived at Balliol College in 1740, having studied for the previous few years at Glasgow University. Glasgow was a vibrant institution supporting the thriving trading city of Glasgow. The needs of commerce had encouraged maths and science at Glasgow while those who taught at Oxford felt they were above such things. Smith, a very hard working young man, was appalled by the laziness he encountered amongst his teachers at Balliol. He saw that dons at Oxford were assured of their income, regardless of whether they did any teaching or not. Most barely did anything at all. In Smith's most famous book Wealth of Nations, Oxford is described as one of those learned societies which "have chosen to remain, for a very long time, the sanctuaries in which exploded systems and obsolete prejudices found shelter and protection, after they had been hunted out of every other corner of the world" (Bk5 Ch1). Smith was not impressed, and became convinced of the importance of competition in life. Oxford's inertia in part stemmed from its continuing role as an institution of the training of churchmen. From the seventeenth century until the mid nineteenth century admission was denied to students who were not anglican. In many ways Smith's description of Oxford as a sanctuary for exploded systems and obsolete prejudices was very apt. Not working hard, or at all, could be overlooked, but if you did not toe the religious line expulsion was likely. Percy Bysshe Shelley had a room at University College Oxford which resembled a mad scientist's laboratory. In 1811 Shelley wrote a pamphlet encouraging free enquiry into religious belief, which he rashly sent to bishops, heads of colleges and the Professor of Poetry. The recipients of this pamphlet, entitled The Necessity of Atheism, took a dim view of it and Shelley was expelled from the university.




Oxford Botanic Garden

Seventeen years after Shelley's expulsion from University College, Charles Darwin arrived at Christ's College Cambridge. He, like all his fellow students was having an education with the aim of producing a churchman. However, Rev'd John Stevens Henslow, Professor of Botany, became Darwin's unofficial tutor. The study of Botany at this time was carried on in the spirit of confirming God's presence in nature. Since 1621 the Oxford Botanic Garden had been dedicated to "furthering of learning and the glorification of God". But Darwin's spare time botanical study led after university to a famous career in natural history which was to effectively take God out of nature. Already there were new evolutionary ideas in the air, and these were confirmed by publication in 1859 of Darwin's The Origin of Species. This precipitated a profound change in the way people thought about and studied the world. Scientific enquiry took over from largely ritualistic learning. Now in the old spiritual castles of Oxford, and Cambridge, the idea of knowledge as a discovery of something new took over from the revelation of an unchanging truth.

Even though the society that produced castle-like Oxbridge colleges has gone, there would be very few people who would want to replace them. In Oxford and Cambridge new generations look to the future, and they do so in environments of unparalleled history. In both cities the link to the past remains welcome. Walking through carefully tended quadrangles, it's as if the old knowledge is still there, a knowledge that doesn't change. This is the kind of knowledge that makes Shakespeare's plays as valuable now as when they were written. Perhaps the idea of knowledge as something unchanging, and the idea of scientific knowledge as something changing all the time, can actually complement one another. The old colleges are a counterpoint to the modern world. They remind us that in some ways life is still the constant revealing of the same thing. If it wasn't we would have given up reading Shakespeare centuries ago.





Hertford College

Nearly all of the colleges are open to visitors at certain times of the day. See the university web site for visiting details.


Oxford University has been used for many film locations including the Harry Potter films, The Madness of King George, Brideshead Revisited, Howards End and Another Country.