By Tim Lambert
Oxford was founded in the 9th century when Alfred the Great created a network of fortified towns called burghs across his kingdom. One of these was at Oxford. There may have been a village already existing there or Alfred may have created a new town. The streets of Anglo-Saxon Oxford were in a regular pattern suggesting a new town but we are not certain.
Oxford is first mentioned in 911 when the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a sort of national diary, said: ‘King Edward received the burghs of London and Oxford with all the lands belonging to them’.
Saxon Oxford probably had a market from the time it was made a burgh and it soon became a flourishing town. In the 10th century, Oxford had a mint with 4 coin makers. But Oxford was a fortress as well as a town. In the event of war with the Danes, all the men from the area were to gather inside the burgh.
However, this strategy was not entirely successful. In 1009 the Danes burned Oxford. (An easy task since all the buildings were of wood with thatched roofs). However, Oxford was soon rebuilt.
Then in 1013, the Danish king claimed the throne of England. He invaded England and went to Oxford where ‘the people soon bowed to him and gave hostages’. In 1018 a conference was held in Oxford to decide who would be king of England.
Oxford in the Middle Ages
By the time of the Norman Conquest, there were said to be about 1,000 houses in Oxford, which meant it probably had a population of around 5,000. By the standards of the time, it was a large and important town (even London only had about 18,000 inhabitants). It was said at the time that Oxford was the 6th largest town in England. Oxford probably reached its zenith at that time.
About 1072 the Normans built a castle at Oxford. In the 11th century, the town’s defenses were a ditch and an earth rampart with a wooden stockade on top. Later the stockade was replaced by a stone wall.
In the 1140s there was a civil war in England between Stephen and Matilda. In 1142 Matilda was at Oxford castle but her rival’s troops burned the town and besieged the castle. However, one n Matilda managed to escape across the frozen river. Oxford soon recovered from this disaster and began to flourish once again.
The University at Oxford was founded in 1167. In Medieval Oxford, there was much tension between townspeople and students. In 1209 a woman was killed in Oxford. Afterward, the townsfolk hanged 2 students. Some of the students fled to Cambridge but in 1214 they were invited back. Evidently, the merchants in the town missed their custom. In 1121 a Chancellor was appointed with the power to discipline the students.
Nevertheless, further riots followed in Oxford in 1228, 1236, 1238, 1248, 1272, and 1298.
Tension continued because kings granted the students certain privileges, which harmed the merchants of the town. The tension came to a head in 1355 when a fight occurred between them, which lasted for 3 days. Afterward, an investigation was held and as a result, the university staff and students were given still more privileges. Despite this, the conflict between the townspeople and the university died down.
In 1258 Simon de Montfort and 23 other rebellious barons held a meeting in Oxford and forced the king to accept a number of reforms known as the Provisions of Oxford.
In the 12th and 13th centuries, Oxford was a manufacturing town. It was noted for cloth and leather. In Oxford wool was woven and then fulled, that is it was cleaned and thickened by being pounded in water and clay. There were many tanners in the town and leather workers such as shoemakers and saddlers.
However, in the 14th and 15th centuries manufacturing declined. Oxford came to depend on the custom of students. It became a town of brewers, butchers, bakers, tailors, shoemakers, coopers, carpenters, and blacksmiths. In the later Middle Ages Oxford declined in importance.
In 1122 an Augustinian priory (small abbey) was founded in Oxford. It was dedicated to St Frideswide. The priory was given the right to hold a fair. In the Middle Ages, a fair was like a market but it was held only once a year for a few days and it would attract merchants from as far away as London. The priory charged the stallholders tolls. A Cistercian abbey, Rewley Abbey was founded in 1280.
In the Middle Ages, the church ran the only hospitals. A hospital dedicated to St John the Baptist opened outside the east gate in the 12th century. It was closed in 1485. A leper hostel dedicated to St Bartholomew opened east of the town in the late 12th century.
In the 13th century friars arrived in Oxford. The friars were like monks except instead of withdrawing from the world they went out to preach and help the poor. In Medieval Oxford, there were Franciscan friars, known as grey friars because of the color of their costumes. There were also Dominican friars (known as black friars) Carmelites and Augustinians.
Oxford in the 16th century
In the 16th century, Oxford declined further in terms of national importance though it remained a fairly large town by the standards of the time. In the mid-16th century, it may have had a population of about 3,500.
Tudor Oxford was economically dependent on the university. The students provided a large market for beer, food, clothes, and other goods. Oxford was full of craftsmen who supplied these needs. By this time hostility between ‘town and gown’ had died out.
Like all towns in the 16th and 17th centuries, Oxford suffered outbreaks of plague. Severe outbreaks occurred in 1603 and 1625-26.
In 1538 Henry VIII closed the abbey, the priory, and the friaries in Oxford. In the Middle Ages, the priory and one of the friaries had the right to hold annual fairs and to charge tolls. After they were closed this right was transferred to the town. Yet both fairs declined and had virtually ceased to exist by the middle of the 17th century. However, in 1542 Oxford was made a city and was given a Bishop.
Henry’s daughter Mary tried to undo the religious changes of the previous decades and restore Catholicism. During her reign, 3 famous Protestants were tried in St Mary’s Church in Oxford. They were Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Nicholas Ridley the Bishop of London, and Hugh Latimer. All three were condemned to death for heresy. Latimer and Ridley were burned in Broad Street.
Oxford in the 17th century
In 1642 came civil war between the king and parliament. Opinion among the townspeople was probably divided but in 1642 a royalist army occupied Oxford. For the rest of the war, the king made Oxford his headquarters. By this time the walls around the town were in disrepair so the king forced the townspeople to erect earthwork defenses. However, by 1646 the king was losing the war and he was forced to flee in disguise. Oxford eventually surrendered to a parliamentary army. Although there was a fire in 1644 Oxford was not seriously damaged by the civil war.
In 1651 the first coffee house in England opened in Oxford. Coffee was a new drink at that time but it soon became popular. Many coffee houses were opened where middle-class and upper-class men could meet, have a drink, read newspapers, and talk shop. In 1659 a free grammar school was founded in Oxford.
At the end of the 17th century, a travel writer called Celia Fiennes described Oxford as: ‘Pleasant and compact. The theatre is the highest of all (the buildings), encompassed by several colleges and churches and other buildings whose towers and spires appear very well at a distance. The streets are very clean and well-paved and pretty broad. The High Street is a very noble one, so large and of great length’.
Oxford in the 18th century
18th century Oxford remained a market town where produce from the surrounding area was bought and sold but most industries in Oxford were still geared toward supplying the needs of the university. The city was full of brewers, bakers, butchers, tailors, and grocers. In the 1720s a writer described the city as ‘large, strong, populous and rich’. He was also impressed by the university buildings.
In 1708 a charity school for boys was founded in Oxford. It was called the Bluecoat school because of the color of the school uniforms. Holywell Music Room was built in 1748. Radcliffe Infirmary was built in 1770. In 1772 a workhouse was built to house the destitute. As the name suggests the able-bodied were expected to work.
In the 18th century, the streets of Oxford were becoming increasingly congested on market days as the stalls interfered with traffic. So, in 1774 a covered market for vegetables, meat, and fish was built. There had been a prison in Oxford since the Middle Ages. It was rebuilt in 1789. In 1771 East Gate and North Gate were demolished. In that year a group of men called the Improvement Commissioners was founded with responsibility for paving, cleaning, and lighting the streets (with oil lamps).
New Road was built in 1776 and Magdalen bridge was rebuilt in 1779. In 1790 a canal was cut to Hawkesbury near Coventry. St Giles fair began in the late 18th century.
By the middle of the 18th century, Oxford probably had a population of about 8,000. By the end of the century, it was nearly 12,000.
OXFORD IN THE 19th CENTURY
From 1819 Oxford had gas street lighting. Warneford hospital was built in 1826. Littlemore hospital followed in 1847. There were some drains and sewers in Oxford in the early 19th century but the sewers emptied into the river. In the 1870s a modern system of sewers was built. In the 18th century, a private company provided piped water – to those who could afford it. In 1808 the council took over the water company but many people continued to rely on wells. It wasn’t until the 1880s that everybody in Oxford had piped water.
Despite these improvements, there were epidemics of cholera in Oxford in 1832, 1849, and 1854.
Meanwhile, a martyrs memorial to the 3 Protestants who were burned in Mary’s reign in the mid-16th century was built in 1843.
A railway from Oxford to London was built in 1844. Another to Banbury was built in 1850. In 1860 the Natural History Museum opened. The first electricity generating station in Oxford was built in 1892.
Meanwhile, in the 1820s and 1830s, working-class houses were built at Summerstown. This suburb was officially absorbed by the city in 1889. After 1850 a middle-class estate was built at Park Town. In the 1830s and 1840s, a working house suburb grew up at Jericho. In the 1870s houses were built at Northam Manor and Oxford was made a county borough in 1889.
In the late 19th century, a marmalade-making industry began in Oxford. There was also a publishing industry and an iron foundry. Yet Oxford remained a city of craftsmen producing things for the university, not a manufacturing center.
OXFORD IN THE 20th CENTURY
Oxford gained its first cinema in 1910. Christchurch Memorial Gardens were laid out in 1926.
The fate of Oxford was changed in 1913 when a man named Morris began making cars in the city. In 1919 a radiator-making company was formed and in 1926 a pressed steel company that made car bodies.
By the 1930s Oxford was an important manufacturing center. It was also a prosperous city. Furthermore, it escaped serious damage during the Second World War.
Private houses were built around Woodstock Road in the 1920s. In 1929 the boundaries of the city were extended to include Summertown, Wolvercote, Headington, Cowley, and Iffley. In the 1930s more were built at Cumnor Hill and Headington Hill. Council houses were built in Headington, Wolvercote, and Cutteslowe. Oxford police station was built in 1936. In the 1930s many new houses were built in Botley, North Hinksey, and Cowley.
The Museum of the History of Science opened in 1924 and Hinksey Park opened in 1934.
Nuffield Orthopaedic Centre began life as a convalescent home in 1872. In the 1920s it began to specialize in orthopedics. It was given its present name in 1931 when Viscount Nuffield gave a gift of money. Churchill Hospital was built in 1940. Meanwhile, Oxford airport opened in 1938.
In the late 1950s and 1960s, a council house estate was built at Blackbird Leys. Other council houses were built at Rose Hill. Cutteslowe park was laid out in 1952.
St Clare’s College opened in 1953. Templars Square Shopping Centre opened in 1965. The Westgate shopping centre opened in Oxford in 1972. Clarendon Shopping Centre opened in 1984. Meanwhile, Queen Street was pedestrianised in 1970.
The Gallery of Modern Art opened in Oxford in 1966 and the College of Further Education was built in 1972.
The Museum of Oxford opened in 1975 and Ferry Pool opened in 1976. A Science Park opened in 1991.
Meanwhile in 1954 at Oxford Roger Bannister became the first person to run a mile in less than 4 minutes.
OXFORD IN THE 21st CENTURY
Today the main industries are still car manufacturing and making vehicle parts as well as publishing. There is now a biotech industry in Oxford. Furthermore in 2006 Oxford Castle opened to the public. In 2020 the population of Oxford was 154,000.