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University of Oxford

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The University of Oxford located in the city of Oxford, UK, is the oldest university in the English-speaking world. Although its origins are obscure, they seem to go back to the late twelfth century. A magister scolarum Oxonie was appointed in 1201 to head the university, with the title 'Chancellor' conferred for the first time in 1214. The masters of the various colleges were formally incorporated as a university in 1231.


Oxford is a corporation of individual colleges, each of which appoints its own masters, admits its own students and fellows, and enjoys a great deal of independence. The oldest of these, Balliol College, was established in 1263 A.D. by John Balliol, father of King John Balliol of Scotland, although the college does not possess the original foundation charter. The college was given formal status by his widow, Dervorguilla, Lady of Galloway, in 1282. The second oldest college, Merton College, was established in 1264 A.D. by Walter de Merton, Lord Chancellor of England and Bishop of Rochester. Oxford also has a number of "Permanent Halls," some of which, over the years, have become colleges in their own right. The oldest of these is Blackfriars Hall, founded in 1221 A.D. Currently there are thirty-nine Colleges and seven Permanent Halls.

List of colleges

List of permanent private halls


In the academic year 2003-2004 the University supported a student population of 17,664 of which 11,119 were undergraduates. A staff of just over 7,000 maintain the central University administrative services, with a further 3,500 employed by individual colleges[1]


In the twelfth century, there was a school at Oxford though it was not in the first rank of English schools at that time.

Although the rise to prominence of the University of Oxford is somewhat obscure, documents from the late twelfth century, around 1190, identify Oxford as a "studium commune." This was another way of saying "studium generale," which was the medieval Latin term for a university.[2] Other factors attest to increasing scholarly activity at Oxford. The writer Gerald of Wales lectured to scholars there in 1188, and the first known foreign scholar, Emo of Friesland, arrived in 1190. The head of the University was named a chancellor probably from the early thirteenth century, and definitely by 1214-16, and the masters were recognised as a universitas or corporation in 1231.

The term "chancellor" suggests a similarity with the University of Paris (which also had a chancellor) and generally speaking Oxford was modelled on the Parisian example. Oxford had several important organizational differences, however. Where the chancellor at Paris was appointed by the bishop, and could (and did) become involved with university affairs, the chancellor at Oxford quickly became the representative of the guild of masters and episcopal oversight was eventually done away with entirely. Like Paris, the students associated together on the basis of geographical origins, although at Oxford they were divided into two “nations”, representing the North (including the Scots) and the South (including the Irish and the Welsh). (In later centuries, geographical origins continued to influence many students' affiliations when membership of a college or hall became customary in Oxford.) However, the nations were less important in medieval Oxford than they were in Paris. And finally, the faculty of arts was less important in Oxford than in Paris.[3]

More intangibly, the culture of Oxford differed from Paris as well. Where scientific studies seem to have been less prestigious in the medieval university of Paris, a strong tradition of scientific study persisted at Oxford (perhaps due to the early influence of the scientifically-inclined Robert Grosseteste). Where scholars with a scientific inclination were prominent at Oxford (such as the Oxford Calculators, science was usually the province of less prestigious arts masters at Paris (such as Jean Buridan). Logic was at the center of medieval university education, but different schools of logical thought developed at Paris and Oxford. Paris was where modist logic developed, and Oxford was where terminist logic originated (though both trends crossed the English Channel).[4]

As was the case with many universities at the time, the religious orders-- including Dominicans, Franciscans, Carmelites, and Augustinians-- settled in Oxford in the mid-13th century, gained influence, particularly as teachers of theology, and maintained houses for their students. At about the same time, private benefactors established colleges to serve as self-contained scholarly communities. Among the earliest such founders were William of Durham, who in 1249 endowed University College, and John Balliol, father of a future King of Scots: Balliol College bears his name. Another founder, Walter de Merton, a chancellor of England and afterwards Bishop of Rochester, devised a series of regulations for college life; Merton College thereby became the model for such establishments at Oxford, as well as at the University of Cambridge. Thereafter, an increasing number of students forsook living in halls and religious houses in favour of living in colleges, and colleges developed a more comprehensive program of lectures.

Rivalry between 'town' (residents of Oxford) and 'gown' (students) has been a predominant feature of the history of the university, with rioting in the 13th Century prompting the development of permanent halls of residence for the student population. University College, Balliol College, and Merton College numbered among the first three medieval halls, also known as endowed houses, and were founded between 1249 and 1264 A.D.

In 1355 King Edward III praised the institution for contributions to learning and the work of distinguished graduates.

Admission for women was opened up in 1878 with the establishment of female-only academic halls. Women were not entitled to become members of the University until 1920. Since 1974 all but one of Oxford's 39 colleges have opened admission to women: St. Hilda's College remains as the last female-only college.

Religious controversies

In the 1370s several academics defiantly delivered sermons in English, while John Wycliffe campaigned for the development of a bible using the vernacular against the wishes of the Papacy. The dispute continued unabated and eventually culminated in the three sets of "determinationes" of the Oxford Translation Debate (1401 to c1407).

In the 16th Century religious controversy continued, with Anglican churchmen Cranmer, Latimer, and Ridley all tried for heresy and subsequently burnt at the stake.

The 17th Century prayer meetings led by John and Charles Wesley eventually led to the formation of the Methodist Society.

During the Victorian era the Oxford Movement attempted to promote the more Catholic aspects of the Anglican Church: one of its leading figures, John Henry Newman, converted to Roman Catholicism in 1845 and was later appointed a Cardinal. In 1860 a debate between Thomas Huxley and Bishop Wilberforce at the University Museum pitted evolutionist theory against religious creationism.


  1. Oxford University, 'General Facts and Figures', (Accessed 09 July 2007)
  2. An earlier view, put forth by Hastings Rashdall, argued that Oxford was created when a number of scholars were expelled from Paris in 1167; more recent scholarship, by Alan Cobban for example, disputes Rashdall's interpretation.
  3. Alan Cobban, The medieval universities: their development and organization, (1975).
  4. William Courtenay, Schools and Scholars in Fourteenth-Century England, Princeton University Press (1987); Gordon Leff, Paris and Oxford Universities in the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries, Wiley & Sons (1968).


Oxford University (n.d.), FAQs, (Accessed 09 July 2007).
Oxford University (n.d.), A Brief History of the University, (Accessed 09 July 2007)
Britannia Biographies (n.d.), John Wycliffe (1324-1384), (Accessed 09 July 2007).