A Short History of Oxford University

By Tim Lambert


According to legend Oxford University was founded in 872 when Alfred the Great happened to meet some monks there and had a scholarly debate that lasted several days.

In reality, it grew up in the 12th century when famous teachers began to lecture there and groups of students came to live and study in Oxford. The university was given a boost in 1167 when, for political reasons, the English king ordered all students in France to return home. Many of them came to Oxford.

From the start, there was friction between students and the townspeople. In 1209 the students left and went to Cambridge. However, the traders in Oxford soon missed the custom of the students and persuaded some of them to return in 1214. In that year the first Chancellor was appointed, a man named Robert Grosseteste (1175-1253).

At first, the students lodged with the townspeople or lived in halls. St Edmund Hall dates from 1238. In the 13th century, the first colleges were founded. Each college owned its buildings. The colleges also owned land (today many of them own investments). Each college was self-governing. William of Durham founded the first college, University College, in 1249. (The oldest part of the existing buildings dates from 1634).

Balliol College was founded in 1264 by John de Balliol. He founded it as a penance after insulting the Bishop of Durham. Walter de Merton founded Merton College in 1264. Merton Library was built in 1379.

Exeter College was founded in 1314 by Walter Stapledon for students from Exeter Diocese, 8 were to come from Devon and 4 from Cornwall. Adam de Brome founded Oriel College in 1324. Robert Eglesfield founded Queens College in 1341. He was the queen’s chaplain and he named it in her honour. In 1377 John Wycliffe was expelled from Oxford University after he criticized some of the church’s teachings.

Then in 1379 William of Wykeham who lived from 1324 to 1404 founded New College.

After 1410 students were forbidden to lodge with townspeople and had to live in halls of colleges. Eventually, colleges replaced most of the halls. However, St Edmund Hall survived till the 20th century when it became a college. The Divinity School was built about 1426.

The Bishop of Lincoln founded Lincoln College in 1427. It was intended to train men to fight heresy. The chapel was built in 1630. All Souls College was founded in 1437 by Archbishop Chichele to commemorate Henry V and all the men killed at Agincourt. William of Waynflete, Bishop of Winchester, founded Magdalen College in 1448. Its bell tower was built in 1509.


In the Middle Ages, students learned from lectures as books were rare luxuries. The situation changed when Caxton introduced the printing press to England in 1476. Books became far more common.

In the Middle Ages, students learned the seven liberal arts of grammar, rhetoric, logic, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music. In the 16th century, they began to study the humanities. In the Middle Ages, ancient writers like Aristotle were regarded as the final authority. Lecturing was a matter of explaining what they meant. With the Renaissance, there was a new spirit of inquiry.

Brasenose College was founded in 1509. Its name comes from a bronze door knocker taken from a house in Stamford. The Hall was built in 1663. The chapel was built in 1666.

Corpus Christi College was founded in 1516. Cardinal Wolsey founded Christchurch College in 1525. In 1542 the chapel of Christchurch College became Oxford Cathedral. Tom Tower (the college bell tower) was built in 1682 by Wren. Trinity College was founded in 1555. Also in 1555 St John’s College was founded. Jesus College was founded in 1571 by Queen Elizabeth.

In 1444 Duke Humfrey (younger brother of Henry V) founded a library at Oxford. At the reformation, it was broken up and the books were sold. However, in 1598 Sir Thomas Bodley decided to restore it. The new library opened in 1603. Bodley then decided to extend the library. He died in 1613 but work went on and the Bodleian Library was completed in 1624.

In 1621 a physic garden, where medicinal plants were grown, was created at Oxford. It is now the Botanic Gardens.

Wadham College was founded in 1612 and Pembroke College was founded in 1624. Oriel College was rebuilt in the years 1619-42. In 1647 after the civil war Oxford University was purged of royalists among its staff. After the restoration in 1660, it was purged of Puritans.

Wren built the Sheldonian Theatre in 1669. The Old Ashmolean Museum was built in 1683 (it is now the Museum of the History of Science). The Clarendon Building was erected in 1713. Worcester College was founded in 1714. Radcliffe Camera opened as a library in 1749. Magdalen Bridge was built in 1782.

Radcliffe Camera


The famous debating society, the Union Society was formed in 1823. Oxford University Press dates from 1478. The present building was erected in 1830. The Ashmolean Museum opened in 1845. The Taylor Institution was built in 1854. University Museum of Natural History opened in 1860. The Clarendon Laboratory was built in 1872. Pitt-Rivers Museum was built in 1885.

Keble College was founded in 1868 to commemorate John Keble (died 1866). It was built by the famous architect William Butterfield (1814-1900). Hertford College was founded in 1874. Mansfield College was founded in 1886. St Hughs College was also founded in 1886.

In the late 19th century Halls were built for female students (later they became colleges). Elizabeth Wordsworth founded Lady Margaret Hall for women in 1878. Somerville College for Women was founded in 1879. St Hildas College was founded in 1893 by Dorothea Beale.

The University Act of 1854 made it possible for those who did not belong to the Church of England to study at Oxford. In 1889 a dissenter’s academy moved to Oxford. It is now Harris Manchester College. Kellogg College for Continuing Education was founded in 1878. Campion Hall (Jesuit theological college) was founded in 1895. It was named after Edward Campion (1540-81). Ruskin Hall was founded in 1899. It became Ruskin College in 1913.


In 1902 Cecil Rhodes died. He left money to provide scholarships for students from the colonies, the USA, and Germany. Rhodes House was built in 1929. The Bridge of Sighs was built in 1914. St Peter’s College was founded in 1929. Nuffield College was founded in 1937. St Anthony’s College was founded in 1948. St Annes College was founded in 1952.

Greyfriars Hall (a Franciscan friary which dates from 1910) was made a permanent private hall in 1957. (Franciscan friars were called grey friars because of the color of their costumes). So was Regents Park College. St Edmund Hall was finally made a College in 1957. Linacre College was founded in 1962. St Catharine’s College was founded in 1963. Wolfson College (originally Iffley College) was founded in 1965. St Cross College was also founded in 1965.

The Oxford Centre for Management Studies was founded in 1965. In 1983 it was renamed Templeton College after Sir John Templeton.

The Zoology and Psychology buildings at Oxford were erected in 1970. Green College was founded in 1979. After 1974 more and more of the colleges at Oxford changed from being single-gender to being dual-gender colleges. To date, the only exception is St Hildas. Blackfriars (a Dominican friary) was made a permanent private hall in 1994. Wycliffe Hall (which dates from 1877) followed in 1996.

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