The History of Oxford
Medieval historians of a fanciful bent suggested a link with the Trojans three millennia ago, but compared with many of Britain’s cities, Oxford’s origins are relatively recent, though it is feasible some sort of settlement was established about 70AD.
It is in the Saxon era, however, that Ohsnafordia or Oxenaforda is first mentioned in writing (in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle 912) or on coins, the strategic significance of the site encapsulated in the name – this was a river ford, funnelling trade and military routes through a place rendered more important by its location on the Mercia-Wessex border. That strategic significance is demonstrated by the existence of a mint in the town by the 10th century.
Alfred the Great made one of his fortified burghs at Oxford, though whether based around an existing village or started from nothing is unclear. Alfred is, at least in legend, credited with making Oxford a centre of scholarship, in effect founding the university, though this cannot be substantiated. In 1009 the town’s military role was its undoing, the Danes razing it to the ground, fitting revenge for the massacre of Danish residents in 1002 – they had been blamed for burning St Frideswide’s nunnery. But the market that came with burgh status set Oxford on the route to prosperity.
That nunnery of St Frideswide is supposed to have been founded in the area in the 8th century, the first of many important religious houses there over the coming centuries, further emphasising the town’s consequence: in 1122 an Augustinian priory was founded, and in 1280 a Cistercian abbey; the following century they were joined by Franciscan and Dominican Friars, and Carmelites.
The University, certainly in existence by the 12th century, was of course for centuries a clerical institution. Knowing the (by then) city’s religious eminence Mary Tudor chose to burn Latimer , Cranmer and Ridley as heretics in Oxford in 1555. And down to the 19th century its importance as a religious centre continued with the growth of the Oxford Movement which intended to revitalise the Anglican faith.
In 1066 Oxford was one of the ten largest towns in England, and with the Norman Conquest the town’s fortifications were improved, firstly with earthworks and a wooden stockade, then with sturdier stone walls.
Though the academic and religious aspects of Oxford were inextricably entwined, indeed the university in essence evolved from the religious orders there, its early history was frequently far from spiritual: the 13th century brought regular riots; but it also saw the first colleges founded: University College in 1249, Balliol in 1263 and the following year Merton. The town increasingly relied on the growing student body for trade, superseding the significance of the annual fairs that two of the religious houses held by right, and focusing entrepreneurial efforts on that captive market rather than looking beyond the city. Unsurprisingly brewing flourished as the number of students grew, and weaving and clothing craftsmen benefited from the same customers. But tensions persisted between town and gown, dramatically flaring in 1355 with the St Scholastica’s Beer Riots claiming nearly 100 victims in what would be more accurately termed localised warfare over three days.
As a cosmopolitan place with both its academic side and the economy attracting incomers Oxford inevitably suffered its share, or perhaps more than its share, of plagues: in 1517 one epidemic is said to have wiped out half the population, town and gown; the 17th century was particularly horrific as regards such illness, with outbreaks in 1603, 1625, and 1666.
Oxford over the centuries was witness to great events in the changing nature of the monarchy in England. Canute was crowned there in 1018, marking the zenith of Norse power in the land. In 1142 Matilda , rightful heir to the throne, was besieged in Oxford by her usurper Stephen as their civil war devastated the kingdom. In 1258 Simon de Montfort and the Barons forced the Provisions of Oxford on Henry III , seen by some as our earliest constitution, limiting kingly powers and imposing thrice yearly Parliaments on the ruler. In that same century various Parliaments were held in Oxford, again underlining what an important cultural and economic centre it had become. In 1538 the tide had totally turned, Henry VIII dissolving the religious houses in the city as elsewhere in England, the Tudor dynasty at the height of its power; and it was Henry who made Oxford a city in 1542. Between 1642 and 1646 Charles I , ousted from Westminster , kept his court in Oxford – though tellingly it had many Parliamentarian sympathisers; and when Charles II was forced to flee disease-ridden London when a terrible plague struck in 1665 it was to Oxford that he rather symbolically repaired.
As a great centre of learning Oxford has seen many landmarks cultural and academic: in 1602 the Bodleian Library was initiated, a vast improvement on previous facilities; in 1650 the first Coffee House in England was opened there by a Jewish entrepreneur named Jacob; the Ashmolean Museum , another English first, opened its doors in Oxford in 1683 .
But the city has always had town as well as gown. The communications to the settlement were improved in the 18th and 19th centuries: in the last years of the 18th century the Oxford canal linked it with Coventry , and the Duke’s Cut drove a way to the Thames , as did the Isis Lock a few years afterwards. And in the Railway Age Oxford became a key point in the system, with three routes to London opened in 1844, 1851, and 1864. Such an infrastructure enabled the city in the 19th century to redevelop the industrial base it had lost in medieval times when it had been a noted centre for cloth making and leatherwork. This industrial renaissance of the city accelerated in the early 20th century with another change in transport technology, William Morris (eventually Viscount Nuffield) who had manufactured bicycles opening a car production facility there in 1910. Cars are still made in the city, though not on the scale that was reached in the 1960s and 1970s before the British car industry sank beneath the triple weight of bad management, bad labour relations, and appalling designs.
Oxford today is above all a University city, and a very beautiful one. These days, however, universities are big businesses in themselves, and create business beyond their walls. The ideas and technological advances Oxford’s students and academics create are now a major part of the city’s economy.