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9. The City of Oxford


County Town of Oxfordshire

* Doc Brown's Science Website biology chemistry physics *

The place of "Town and Gown"

Housing estates, shops, offices, factories etc. AND the ancient seat of learning with its many colleges with their carved stone towers, quadrangles, chapels and libraries etc.


Sub-index of pages

9a. General Scenes around the City Centre of 'Oxford Town'

9b. Christ Church College

9c. A walk around Christ Church Meadow

9d. Merton College and Chapel

9e. Christ Church Cathedral

9f. Trinity College, Wadham College and Balliol College

9g. Broad Street Area`- Clarendon Building, Sheldonian Theatre and Bodleian Library

9h. Churches of St Mary Magdalen, St Giles Church and St John's College

9i. The Ashmolean Museum (and links to sub-pages of museum pages)

9j. University Museum of Natural History

9k. Museum of the History of Science

9l. Keble College


A brief history of Oxford.

The name Oxford is derived from 'the ford for oxon' i.e. a crossing of the River Thames

The first evidence of settlement at Oxford comes from archaeological finds of Neolithic arrowheads and other early prehistoric finds in the area and perhaps there was a large Neolithic population as early as 4000 BC and there is clear evidence of Bronze Age barrows dating from 2000 to 700 BC.

Oxford does not seem to have been an important centre by the time the Romans invaded Britain and it seems to have been largely ignored by the Roman conquerors, though there is evidence of pottery kilns.

In the Saxon period Oxford starts to become an place and a Saxon abbey was established where Christ Church now stands, and the abbess was St. Frideswide, a Mercian princess. She is credited in building the abbey as a way of preserving her virginity. When a persistant suitor tried to gain the abbey (and the abbess) by force, he was struck blind. Only when the saintly Frideswide forgave him was the unfortunate man's sight restored and so, by such miracles, St. Frideswide became the patron saint of the city of Oxford. St. Frideswide's abbey was burned to the ground in 1002 and the Danes of Oxford were blamed for this, and many  were massacred in 1002. The abbey was later rebuilt as an Augustinian priory and the cemetary of the priory has now been excavated in Christ Church Meadow. Oxford's grew considerably in the late Saxon period because of its position on a major trade route between the powerful Saxon kingdoms of Mercia and Wessex and this was also partly due to the influence of King Alfred the Great King of Wessex. He led the Saxon resistance to the invading Viking Danes. Alfred's had a great  interest in scholarship and it is not impossible that Oxford first centre of learning was founded by him. King Alfred was reasponsible for the Saxon system of "burhs", or fortified towns, built to keep the Danes at bay and Oxford became a burh in 911 and its royal protection enabled steady important commercial growth. During the reign of Ethelred the Unready the city sacked by the Danes in 1009 in revenge for the massacre of 1002. In 1006 Oxford capitulated to the Dane Swein Forkbeard but the growing importance of Oxford was emphasised by the fact that Canute chose the city as the scene of his coronation in 1018.

The history of Medieval Oxford really begins in 1071 when the Norman lord Robert D'Oily built Oxford Castle and the castle was much fortified both against the city and the surrounding domain. In the late 11th or early 12th century Oxford became a centre of learning for training clerics which in its quiet way began the start of its college history from then to its present great academic status. Oxford University was never founded as such, but evolved gradually out of a community of masters and students who settled in Oxford in the 1100s. After which Oxford attracted students from all across Europe and scholarship was centred on houses (fore-runners of the later colleges) established by the Dominicans (in 1221), Fransiscans (in 1224), Carmelites (in 1256), and Augustinians (in 1267). Oxford's in the early medieval period was not helped by a great fire in 1138 that burned much of the city to the ground. Further more, Oxford was badly hit hard by the Black Plague (1348-1350)and the colleges had country houses where scholars could flee during periods of plague, but not so for the residents of the city and the population of the city fell dramatically, and the colleges took to buying up vacant property! In the 1360s John Wycliffe was Master of Baliol College and published religious works questioning the infallibility of the Pope. Not surprisingly, he was denounced as a heretic, and forced to resign from his post at Balliol but his  followers, known as Lollards, carried on the philosophical movement he had begun. In the Tudor period Henry VIII took control of Christ Church from its 'fallen from grace' founder, Cardinal Wolsey, but Henry abolished the study of canon law, instituting chairs for Medicine, Civil Law, Greek, Theology and Hebrew. and thus shifted the emphasis for the University away from its monastic beginnings and into wider intellectual spheres. During the rule of Henry's daughter Mary there was considerable religious and Mary, being Catholic, was trying to reverse the Anglican reforms begun by her father Henry VIII. Prominent church leaders and reformers were burned at the stake, including Bishops Latimer and Ridley, and Archbishop Thomas Cranmer. The three men were tried for heresy and condemned to death when they would not recant their Protestant faith. Latimer and Ridley were burned outside Balliol College on October 16, 1555 and Latimer is supposed to have said to Ridley as the fire was lit, "Master Ridley, we shall this day light such a candle in England as shall never be put out". Cranmer was held in prison until permission from the pope was obtained for his execution. While in prison he recanted his Protestantism, but the sentence was still carried out. The Martyrs' Memorial by Balliol College and St Mary Magdalen Church commemorates their martyrdom. Charles made Oxford the centre of the Royalist cause in the English civil War. Town largely supported the Parliamentary cause but the University was staunchly and traditionally royalist and in 1642 the colleges of Oxford University donated much of their valuable plate to Charles to help fund his campaign. From 1642 to 1646 Charles stayed at Christ Church, Queen Henrietta Maria at Merton College and the other colleges hosted the rest of the royal court. Oxford suffered for its support of Charles when the war was over and after Oliver Cromwell was made Chancellor of the University in 1650, and many heads of colleges were replaced with Cromwell supporters. In 1651  Parliament ordered the city's defences to be dismantled.

Some of Oxford's great architectural monuments date from the 18th century e.g. Queen's College, Magdalen College and Folly Bridge were rebuilt and new buildings from this period included the Radcliffe Camera and Observatory, and the Clarendon Building.

The relationship of Oxford University (the 'gown') and the now City of Oxford (the 'town'), has a turbulent history with outbreaks of rioting and violence - the classically described conflict between 'Town and Gown'. One of the most infamous outbreaks came on St. Scholastrica's Day on Feb 10 in 1354 which started innocently enough, when some students drinking at the Swyndlestock Tavern, close to the Carfax Tower, accused the landlord of serving them "indifferent wine". The argument escalated until some townsfolk came to the aid of the innkeeper via the bells of St. Mary's church! and for three days students were beaten and killed students and colleges ransacked. The consequences of the riots were serious and the city had to pay for repairs to the colleges, and the Mayor and burgesses of Oxford had to swear allegiance to the Chancellor of the University every year and pay token damages in a special ceremony which continued well into the Victorian period. There were still occassional riots in the 19th century, notably in 1867. The traditional night for conflict was Bonfire Night, so on November 5 both the University and the city council planned entertaining festivities to distract people's attention. The 'town' i.e. the now City of Oxford had always resented the University's scholars' legal precedence over the town and it was only in 1974 that the university lost the right to place its own representatives on the Oxford City Council.

In the 20th century car manufacture at Cowley where e.g. Morris, the Rover Group have been some of the city's major employers.



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