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The French helped to make the Oxford we know
Oxford’s early development into a university city of international importance closely mirrors the development of England as a nation. Both evolved from established French entities: Oxford from the university of Paris, and England from Normandy, as a result of its conquest by Duke William — who paid feudal homage to the King of France for his Norman lands (though not, of course, for England).
But it sometimes comes as a surprise to learn that Oxford, despite its fame, beauty and general importance, is not really a place of very great antiquity. There are no Roman remains to speak of, and indeed the earliest mention of pre-conquest Oxford is in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for 912.
Sad to say, its earlier ‘history’ — for instance of the eighth-century St Frideswide restoring the sight of a lascivious Danish invader with the healing waters of Binsey’s holy well, and then sailing down the river to found her nunnery where the cathedral now stands — belongs in the land of legend. All the same, a nunnery did exist here; it was burned down in 1002.
By 1015, Oxford had developed into a place of sufficient size and importance for a Great Council of the kingdom to be held here — and King Canute of Denmark and England called more Great Councils to Oxford in succeeding years. St Michael at the Northgate, Oxford’s oldest building, dates from about this time. It is typical of the early 11th century, with its twin bell-openings.
After the Conquest, the Domesday Book of 1085 was able to describe Oxford as a ‘civitas’, with houses “within and without its wall” — and sections of that wall still exist today, notably in the gardens of New College. Much of the Norman castle, built by Duke William’s henchman Robert D’Oyley in 1071, survives too, in the shape of the late 11th-century crypt and tower of the church of St George (later adopted as the patron saint of England at the Synod of Oxford in 1222).
These buildings pre-date the university, the roots of which stretch back to the early 12th century, but were reinforced when Henry II’s quarrels with the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas à Becket, and with Louis VII of France, led to a ban on English scholars going to Paris University.
First came the monks and nuns to Oxford; then came the university proper. The church of St Frideswide’s Priory was re-founded in 1122; then came Osney Priory (later abbey and later still, cathedral) in 1129, of which only one small building survives; then Godstow Abbey in 1133; and finally Rewley Abbey in 1281, of which only one archway survives near the Said Business School.
By then, the friars had already arrived. The Blackfriars established the first Dominican house in England in 1222, and then the Franciscan Greyfriars three years later. But why were there so many monks, nuns and friars in Oxford? Answer: because the city already contained a rudimentary university, or ‘universitas’ — which translates as a place containing a group of people trained and licensed to teach; with the degree conferred being that licence.
As for the parallel development of England, it seems that the early Plantagenet kings originally treated the nation as a source of revenue for fighting continental battles. Only as those continental lands were lost did England emerge as a vibrant independent entity. And Oxford with it.