This edited article about Oxford originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 639 published on 13 April 1974.
Walking through the centre of “the city of dreaming spires,” as Matthew Arnold called it, down the busy “High” – one of the most famous streets in Europe, one can only wonder how it all began. In what dim distance of far-flung time did Oxford become the first university of Britain?
To try to answer this question we must go back more than twelve hundred years, to the Anglo-Saxon days of about 737, when St Frideswide founded her nunnery in the place where Christ Church now stands. That was the first known beginning of Oxford, but it was not yet distinguished for learning.
The credit for founding the university is often attributed to Alfred the Great. There is no direct evidence of it. We must move on another two hundred years, when, at the end of the twelfth century, we hear of Oxford as the home of 3,000 students.
They did not go to colleges, and they had no university buildings. Instead, “Masters” gave lectures in Latin to any students who cared to attend, and at the end of each lecture they collected a fee from the listeners.
After lectures, the students often ran riot around the city, picking fights with the townsmen, so that the turbulent “town and gown” riots of Oxford became proverbial.
Colleges had to come, of course. Which was first? The distinction is disputed. We know, though, that University College, founded in 1249 by William of Durham, but not established as a society until 30 years later, was the first to be endowed. Balliol College, founded by John Balliol between 1263 and 1268, was the first to exist as a corporate body. And Merton College, established by Walter de Merton, Chancellor of England about 1264, was the first corporate body to exist with full statutes.
So, down through the succeeding centuries, more and more colleges, most of them built in distinctive yellow-grey Cotswold stone, were added to the city, until more than 20 of them formed the complex of Britain’s senior university. Between these venerable, pinnacle-covered college buildings are intermixed gardens whose lawns have acquired a fineness which comes only from centuries of rolling and cutting – even the grass is reverenced at Oxford.
They range, these noble buildings, from 19th century colleges for women like Lady Margaret Hall and Somerville, to proud Christ Church, endowed by Cardinal Wolsey at the Reformation out of the revenues of suppressed monasteries. At that foundation it is said that King Henry the Eighth replied to his courtiers who wished to destroy the University, too: “Sirs, I judge no land in England better bestowed than that which is given to our universities.”
Within the massive, semi-monastic colleges the undergraduates, as students are called, live a life hedged about by strange, centuries-old rules. For instance, on all academic occasions, such as lectures, conferences with tutors, chapel, and dinners “in hall” (in college), the undergraduate must wear his short gown.
Members of the university live there for only half a year. Much of the real reading for degrees is done in the six months of vacation. Lectures, essay-writing, conferences with tutors and reading take up four to six hours of the average daily schedule during term. The rest of the day is devoted to sport and social life.
All the universities of England sadly deteriorated in their educational standards in the eighteenth century, and Oxford was among them. Lord Eldon, who was Lord Chancellor in the reign of George the Fourth, wrote about his undergraduate days:
“An examination for a degree at Oxford was a farce in my time. I was examined in Hebrew and History. ‘What is the Hebrew for the Place of a Skull?’ said the Examiner. ‘Golgotha,’ I replied. ‘Who founded University College?’ I answered, ‘King Alfred.’ ‘Very well, sir,’ said the Examiner, ‘then you are competent for your degree’.”
It would be unfair to single out Oxford for criticism in this era, however, for a year after Lord Eldon gained that dubious degree, Richard Watson was appointed Professor of Divinity at Cambridge University, whereupon he wrote: “On being raised to this distinguished office, I immediately applied myself with great eagerness to the study of Divinity.”
The Church, the other arm of learning, had also fallen into disrepute in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and it was to put this matter right that a group of Oxford men conceived the idea in 1833 of what has come to be called the Oxford Movement. Their idea was to reform the life and worship of the Church of England, making it more vigorous and powerful by increasing the number of services, reminding the clergy of their varied duties, and rendering it more than a mere adjunct of the state.
An essential feature of the Oxford Movement was the restoration of some of the ceremonial of worship that had fallen into disuse since the Reformation. The Oxford men who wanted these things done were called High Churchmen and their views, of course, attracted strong opposition.
One of the greatest of them was John Henry Newman, who became a Fellow of Oriel College when he was only 21. In the pulpit of the university church of St Mary’s, Newman preached sermons which became renowned for their literary perfection and devotional tone.
One man who heard him preach at Oxford was the historian J. A. Froude, who wrote afterwards:
“Clever men were looking with interest and curiosity on the apparition among them of one of those persons of indisputable genius who was likely to make a mark on his time. His appearance was striking, His head was large, his face remarkably like Julius Caesar’s . . . I had then never seen so impressive a person.
“He seemed to be addressing the most secret consciousness of each of us – as the eyes of a portrait appear to look at every person in a room. A sermon from him was a poem . . . even to those careless of religion . . .
“Newman described closely some of the incidents of our Lord’s passion; he then paused. For a few moments there was a breathless silence. Then, in a low voice, of which the faintest vibration was audible in the farthest corner of St Mary’s, he said, ‘Now, I bid you to recollect that He to whom these things were done was Almighty God.’
“It was as if an electric stroke had gone through the church, as if every person present understood for the first time the meaning of what he had all his life been saying.”
Later, Newman left the Church of England and entered the Catholic Church in which, when he was 78, he became a cardinal. But the revivalist work that his Oxford Movement did breathed a new life into the Anglican Church – a life which sustained the deep devotion to Christianity which characterised Victorian England.
A new evangelical force was founded in the university city in 1921. It was called the Oxford Group and its leader was Dr Frank Buchman. Seven years after it was started, the Oxford Group launched a crusade to convert the world from militant materialism to practical Christianity, and by 1937 the movement had spread to more than 50 countries.
The Oxford Group taught that its followers must have “a change of heart” to be achieved by setting aside an early morning period in which they listened for the guidance of God. But the Group had its severe critics when some of its prominent members were advocating pacifism at a time when Nazi Germany was rapidly rearming.
Oxford rests in a bowl of gently-sloping hills between the Thames – which in this region is generally called the Isis – and its magnificent tributary the Cherwell. In the centre of the old city is Carfax, which comes from an old English word carfoukes, from the Latin quadrifurcum, meaning “four forks,” or crossroads.
To the east of Carfax runs the “High,” as far as Magdalen Bridge, and half-way along the High is the University Church of St Mary’s, where Newman preached. Nearby is one of the most important of the buildings owned by the University – the Bodleian Library. Other famous university properties which are part of the wonderful heritage of the city are the Ashmolean Museum and the Sheldonian Theatre.
The university is, of course, so much a part of Oxford that it is sometimes easy to forget that the city has a separate heritage of its own. Three times the Danes came to burn down the place before colleges were even thought of, and in the castle tower in the year 1142, Maud, daughter of Henry the First, was besieged by Stephen; she escaped by fleeing over the frozen Isis.
In the turbulent times of the Tudors, Oxford was the scene of one of the saddest acts of English history. It concerned Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury who, in the reign of King Edward the Sixth, signed the document declaring the succession of Lady Jane Grey. When that unfortunate “queen’s” reign ended after only nine days, Mary Tudor, a Catholic whom Cranmer had declared to be illegitimate, came to the throne, and the unfortunate Archbishop was attainted for high treason.
Cranmer was taken to Oxford to defend in argument his objections to the Pope and the mass. Although he spoke with dignity and moderation, he was later condemned for heresy. The common jail in Oxford in those days was called the Bocardo, and there Cranmer was imprisoned with his two friends, Bishop Latimer and Bishop Ridley.
Two years passed before the three great churchmen of England were tried. Latimer, now 65, came before his judges in an old threadbare gown of Bristol frieze; on his head he wore a handkerchief with a nightcap over it, and another cap over that with two broad flaps buttoned under the chin.
Latimer and Ridley were both condemned to be burned at the stake; Cranmer had to wait to know his fate. The two bishops were loaded with chains and placed upon the twin piles of faggots. A kind man placed round the neck of each a bag of powder to hasten the work of the flames. The place, opposite where Balliol College stands today, is marked by a granite cross in the road.
As the flames began to crackle, Latimer cried out, “Be of good comfort, Master Ridley; play the man. We shall this day light such a candle, by God’s grace, in England as I trust shall never be put out.”
Five months passed before Cranmer suffered the fate of his friends, at the same spot. In a moment of weakness he tried to save himself by recanting, and wrote confessing that the opinions he held were grievous errors. But this was not enough to save him, and he grew bitterly ashamed of his weakness.
Before he died, he told the people how he repented of what he had written and when he was tied to the stake, before the rest of his body was touched, he held his right arm in the flame, saying, “This was the hand that wrote it, therefore it shall first suffer punishment.” He neither stirred nor cried out while his hand was burned.
Nearly a hundred years later, Oxford was the focal point of another national struggle – this time, the English Civil War, in which the city declared itself resolutely royalist. Charles the First could count on few more loyal people than those of Oxford, and it was here that he set up his exiled court and his headquarters. Nearby he fought the Battle of Edgehill. We may imagine the disruptive effect the fighting had on student life; although things returned to normal after the Restoration of King Charles the Second, it was many more years before any more colleges were founded.
War and suffering seem a long way off on a walk today through beautiful Oxford – a city famed for its walks, where the spirit of the past seems forever alive and stirring. There is Broad Walk, near Christ Church; “Mesopotamia,” a walk between twin streams for half a mile; Addison’s Walk at Magdalen College, which leads to the water walks. These are places which, every day, come somewhere in the world to the mind of some Briton who set out upon life’s great adventure with one of the greatest advantages man may have – a sojourn at the university in the “city of dreaming spires.”
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