A Brief History of Oxford University- Know More

In the a academic circles, one of  Prestigious institutions young scholars look up to is Oxford University. This research institute contributes many exclusive findings and many prominent personalities to the society. It would be a dream of young scholars to read from Oxford. But among the most asked questions regarding Oxford is the History and founder of the said institution. In this article, we are going to see about a brief History of Oxford University.

Universitas oxoniensis:  the lord is my light.

A Brief History of Oxford University

Brief History of Oxford University

The question regarding the origin of oxford, which is frequently raised by many, remains unanswered. Information regarding the person or people behind the establishment of this 12th century institution is unknown. But the teaching at oxford university can be dated back to early 1096, the presence of some kind of teaching was there at such an early stage. 

But the rapid growth of oxford was stimulated with a move by the English king henry ii in 1167 through which English pupils were restricted from attending the University of Paris, which was the most prestigious one at that time. This brings back many English students who were attending the University of Paris at that time.

English scholars at Paris

Scholastic establishments in middle age Europe consist of mere monastic schools or cathedral schools. Most of them were run by single tutors and only accessible for noble boys. In most of these schools, education was purely ecclesiastic and took place mostly in churches. It was in the early 12th-century Europe witnessed the formation of its first universities, which can’t be associated with the modern notion of university consisting of campus and classrooms.

First universities were at Bologna and at Paris, which was a corporation of more than one tutors and students- “scholastic guilds”- which conduct lectures at any place they could find. The establishment of such an organization opened the door for more authority for the educated pupil and more access to scholastic sources. This drew many young pupils, including those from England, to these newly established universities, especially towards the university of Paris. Later Europe saw a flow of both students and tutors into Paris.

Becket controversy 

Migration of the best minds of Britain to Paris came to a standstill with the Becket controversy and the ban on best brain drain by Henry II in 1167. It all started with a power dispute between the archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Becket and Henry II of England. An argument for the jurisdiction of both crown and the church over criminous clergymen. King wanted to try them under the state, irrespective of how minor order they are. 

But Becket wanted complete authority over such clergymen in the hands of the church. This leads to a massive clash between these two and both began to seek supporters among kings, clergy, Pope, and so on. The king of Paris was one of the supporters of Becket and this provoked Henry II. As a result of this, he forbid English tutors and students from attending the University of Paris. This compelled them to return to England.

Growth of Oxford 

One of the 8th century Abbey, in the name of St. Frideswide, was there in Oxford which was used for educational purposes and mostly as a monastic school. The Paris return students and tutors find a need for a Scholastic establishment for their academic needs. Such parish return scholars and masters gathered at Oxford, mainly because of the geographical location of the city and the patronage it receives from the king. They made use of the structural and academic facilities available in the Abbey and this was later turned into the University of Oxford. 

Many prominent tutors and masters turned up at Oxford for addressing the students gathered there. Later many young scholars began to attend Oxford even from overseas. The first such known scholar was Emo of Friesland. The first person known to have authentically taken “Master of Arts” from Oxford is Edmund Rich. Initially, 7 liberal arts were taught there with due importance to humanities and social sciences.

Establishment of colleges

In the early middle ages, centers of education were monasteries under the roman catholic church and Latin was the medium of instruction in those schools, taught by monks or nuns. Universities later evolved from these Christian cathedral schools and monastic schools, by utilizing their physical and academic facilities. 

Pope Gregory VI itself promoted the establishment of universities, a higher form of scholastic establishment, in his 1079 papal decree. Initially, rather than colleges “halls of residence” which is now known as “permanent private halls” (PPH) came into existence, in 1224. Those were educational organizations managed by Christian denominations. Such private halls began to sprout soon after the conflicts between scholars and these townspeople. They initially acted as a residential facility for scholars.

Establishment of colleges 

Later when the works and writings of Greek philosophers began to get translated into English there arose an ideological conflict. This was between the Greek philosophies and their ideologies with the Christian theology. To find a balance between these, church-supported and encouraged the establishment of many colleges under oxford university. 

The first such was university college in 1249 and Balliol college in 1263. Later Merton college was established in 1264 and then the existing St. Edmund hall was turned into a college. Later pope began to identify such universities officially and Edward III of England distinguished graduates from Oxford in 1355.

Teachers of Oxford 

The earliest known tutor or master who had carried out at least any form of teaching at Oxford University was Thibault d’Estampes. He read to the scholars during the period 1117 – 1121. Evidence shows he mentioned himself as “Magister Oxinfordiae”. He is considered to be taught what is currently known as ‘liberal arts’ in the Scholastic establishment that existed in Oxford before the University. 

In his teachings, he used to criticize the monasteries by mentioning them as “prisons of the damned” and because of this he used to be accused of “being occupied with secular literature”. Another master of Oxford University, mentioned in the Osency Chronicles was during 1133 who was a theologian – master Robert Pullein. He used to lecture on the “Holy scriptures”. Roughly around the same time, there was another one named Robert of Cricklade.

Till this time only theology and liberal arts were taught in the University and it was Vacarius, a Lombard jurist who introduced a new branch of study to the pupil of Oxford- civil law, which later became more sought-after. Another known tutor of Oxford was Walter Map, archdeacon of Oxford, who was also described as “an Oxford master”. 

But a more important milestone in the tutoring of Oxford was during 1187 when the prominent historian Giraldus Cambrensis also known as the Gerald of Wales conducted a three-day public reading of his work on the topography of Ireland, for the scholars of Oxford. The descriptions of Giraldus regarding this mentions the participation of scholars from all over Europe in Oxford University.

Women at Oxford

Even though many prominent tutors visited and many scholars attended Oxford, membership was still restricted exclusively for men and it took years for women to attain membership in the University. 

For the same, there was an Organisation in the name of “Association for the education of women” (AEW). As a result of such efforts, the first college for women was founded in 1878, Lady Margaret Hall, and later Somerville college in 1879. Both of them started admitting women scholars from 1878 onwards and there were 12 women scholars in their first batch. But women scholars had to wait till 1920 for full membership in the University. 

Even though women began to attend Oxford, men’s colleges remained exclusively for them till 1974, when 5 colleges began to admit female scholars also along with male ones. The last single-sex college started admitting women in 2008.

Controlling authority

In the early stages universities, unlike today, were private establishments of scholars and teachers and were managed by themselves. More than the physical space of the institution students have importance to the tutor or master under whom they’re trained. So early universities never had the authorization of any authority such as a church, king, etc. universities were run by internally regulated organizations without any external intervention.  

In 1201 oxford becomes an organization with controlling authority heading under the title “magister scholarum oxonie”, which later became “chancellor” by 1214. It was in 1231 that Masters at Oxford were identified as Universitas. Pope and King identifying such universities have greater authority and independence to them.

Spread out of Cambridge

In the history of oxford university, the conflict of 1209 between university students and townspeople, that caused the formation of Cambridge university is unavoidable. This started after the murder of a woman by some university students and town authorities hanged the accused without consulting the church, which was in charge of the university. 

This created chaos and scholars afraid of the rage of townspeople began to migrate to other academic centers such as Cambridge and Paris. This paved the way for the formation of a university nucleus at Cambridge and later turned out to be Cambridge University.

Present oxford university

This prominent and oldest University is currently a research university with 39 colleges under them, which are self-governing ones yet affiliated to the central university. There are 6 permanent private halls, which are small and still headed by Christian denominations, under Oxford. 

There exists a federal system between these colleges and universities. Oxford is a city campus without a main campus and buildings scattered all over the city. And in these institutions altogether there are roughly a hundred major departments which are categorized into four – mathematical, physical, and life sciences; medical sciences; Humanities, and social sciences. 

Teaching usually involves lectures, tutorials of small student groups, lab work, seminars, etc. Along with the normal daily courses Oxford now offers weekly classes, online courses, undergraduate, postgraduate courses, day, weekend, and summer schools. It is under Oxford University the largest University press works and they own the oldest museum. The largest academic library is also owned by Oxford University The altogether administration of the University is carried out under the chancellor, vice-chancellor, and pro-vice chancellors.


Medieval Europe whose educational system was solely dependent on the Catholic Church and monastic or cathedral schools find a need for more advanced Scholastic establishments, which resulted in the formation of small organizations of scholars under a single master. Such independent academic circles were the seed of universities. 

The case of Oxford University is not different except a stimulus, in the form of a ban on English pupils from attending Paris University, made this process faster. The Paris return scholars and their gathering at Oxford paved the way for the establishment of private halls, then colleges, and later the central University itself.

Frequently asked questions

Q: Do the British government has any authority over Oxford University?

A: Even though there is several financial help from the British government it can’t be considered as a government organization. Oxford is a non-profit organization and its governance and internal matters are decided exclusively by the Oxford University council and the congregation. The British government has no say on University administrative matters.

Q: How long does it take Oxford University to be mentioned in any of the literary works?

A: Oxford University never had to wait long to be mentioned in any literary works. And its first mention was in Chaucer’s Canterbury tales itself and it was in the year 1400! Since then many major and minor, fictional and non-fictional books had mentioned the prestigious university.

Q: what is known as Don’s on the Oxford University campus? 

A: Teaching members of Oxford University are commonly known as Dons. But the usage of such a term to indicate teaching members is currently not common in the University itself.

Q: When and where is the earliest mention of a university at Oxford can be traced in history?

A: The earliest technical mention of a university at Oxford is from 1190 in the records of two Frisian brothers, Emo and Addo, who came to Oxford for pursuing liberal arts after attending Paris and Orleans. They mention the existing Scholastic organization at Oxford as “Studium commune literarum” which means “Studium generale” which technically indicates the existence of something similar to a university.

A Brief History of Oxford University- Know More

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