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Oxford University: From a fragile beginning to robust power
Like a fragile flower struggling to survive in less than fertile soil, Oxford University came into existence some time in the middle of the 12th century. But ironically, it was the riots between Town and Gown of the 13th century — which nearly destroyed it for ever — that were ultimately the making of it.
For with Crown and Church officially backing the scholars against their adversaries, the young university began to thrive, with the University Church of St Mary the Virgin as its nucleus. The prestigious degrees it conferred soon put it on a par with such established continental seats of learning as Paris, Bologna, and Padua. As well they might, since a master’s degree from Oxford could take as long as 18 years to achieve.
Education was, at first, almost entirely theological, with the university being seen by many bright boys from comparatively humble backgrounds as a way into the church and, from thence, with luck, on to jobs of real power in the government of the realm. Only during the second half of the 15th century did humanist ideas from Europe begin to change the character of the place, attracting more sons of gentry and nobility with careers in law, diplomacy or politics in mind. Early undergraduates lived in academic halls. There were 69 in Oxford in 1444, of which only St Edmund Hall still exists today. Out of these grew the colleges, with University, Balliol, Merton, Exeter, Oriel, The Queen’s College, and New College all coming into existence in the 15th century.
Originally chancellors of the university were appointed by the Bishop of Lincoln, into whose diocese the town fell until 1542 — when the Oxford diocese was created following the dissolution of the monasteries. Gradually the masters wrested control by obtaining the right to elect the chancellor, and this independence helped them weather the religious storms of the 16th century.
In the 17th century Oxford emerged from the Civil War comparatively unscathed, though some say that even to this day it is less rich than Cambridge as a result of backing the Royalists.
Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell became chancellor in 1650, which helped the university survive the rigours of puritanism; but, strange to tell, the university’s worst period of decline came in the 18th century when too much ease and comfort set in. And as the university’s reputation dropped, so did student numbers, with many grand young men preferring to take the Grand Tour rather than come up to Oxford.
A number of 19th-century Royal Commissions were set up with the intention of making Oxford mend its ways; the most far reaching, in 1877, swept away the requirement for dons to remain celibate.
In 1878 the first hall of residence for women was established (Lady Margaret Hall) and in 1972 five men’s colleges changed their statutes to allow women in — an example since followed by all men’s colleges, leaving St Hilda’s as the sole single-sex college.
There are now more than 21,000 students at Oxford; 11,750 are undergraduates. According to the University Calandar there were 3,110 undergraduates in 1890. At the start of the First World War there were 1,400; at the end only 369.
Competition for places at Oxford is today stronger than ever before, with more than five hopefuls applying for every undergraduate place. Applications have increased by more than 55 per cent in ten years, while the number of places on offer has remained about the same.
As for the University Church of St Mary the Virgin, the lovely English Baroque building we know today is at least the third church to have been built on the High Street site, but it still remains the centre of the university’s religious life.