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A Brief Timeline of Oxford University’s Development Over the Centuries
18th February 2016
No doubt that time and time again you have heard all about just how old Oxford University is – we have mentioned the fact here often enough – but have you ever wondered how the University, and the many things that have gone on there, fits into the history of Oxford itself, not to mention the UK and even the world at large?
As we have mentioned before, there is no historically agreed upon date for a formal founding of the University. Modern finds of Bronze Age barrows suggest that the first formal settlement in the area that is now modern Oxford can be dated back to 2,000-700 B.C and bu the time it is mentioned in Anglo Saxon chronicles in 912 there is evidence that some kind of formal school was in place, although whether it was already formally known as a college or university is unclear.
What is clear is that it grew quickly in 1167 when English students returned from the University of Paris on the order of Henry II and that the school took on a formal structure. Students were divided geographically, representing the ‘North’ and the ‘South’. That all changed however when the first known formal college, University College, was founded and the true, known history of Oxford University begins. And that is where we begin our timeline, a snapshot look, from the 13th century to the end of the 20th, at just how far the place has come in all of these many centuries:
1249: University College is founded, along with the Black Friars Permanent Private Hall. They are followed by Balliol and Merton Colleges in 1263 and 1264 respectively and over the next 100 years the addition of ten more colleges mean that a world beating educational institution is coming to life.
1355: St. Scholastica Day Riot – The ongoing tensions between the University and the townspeople boil over and result in the deaths of over 60 students and two dozen townspeople.
1525 – The very ambitious Cardinal Wolsey suppresses the Abbey of St. Frideswide’s and founds Cardinal’s College in his name on its lands. In 1531 the college itself is suppressed, then re-founded in 1532 as King Henry VIII’s College by the King himself. King Henry VIII then re-founds his college as Christ Church College in 1546 as part of his reorganization of the Church of England, making it the cathedral of newly created diocese of Oxford.
1555: Nicholas Ridley, Hugh Latimer and Thomas Cranmer are burned at the stake as heretics in the courtyard of Balliol College on orders of the vicious Queen ‘Bloody’ Mary I. The spot on which they died is still marked in the pavement today.
1602: The Bodleian Library opens stocked with 2,000 volumes. The collection grows so fast that expansions are required in 1610-1612 and 1634-1637.
1621: The Oxford University Botanic Garden, officially the oldest in Great Britain and one of the oldest in the world, is founded by Sir Henry Danvers, the First Earl of Danby.
1634: The Oxford University Press receives its Royal charter.
1642: Following his forced expulsion from London, King Charles I settles his Court at Oxford University, commandeering University buildings, resources and staff to serve him and his court.
1650: After his eventual triumph in the Civil War, Oliver Cromwell makes himself Chancellor of Oxford University, replacing many heads of colleges with his friends as punishment for the University’s Royalist support.
668: Christopher Wren’s stately Sheldonian Theatre is completed.
1677: Botanist Elias Ashmole donates his huge collection of curiosities to Oxford University and it is decided it will form the basis of a new museum.
1680: A successful recasting of Great Tom enables the bell to be hung in Christopher Wren’s new Tom Tower. Unsuccessful recasting attempts had occurred in 1612, 1626, 1654, and 1678-79, with the bell being too heavy for every previous housing. It is eventually a first year student who works out the proper engineering strategy to keep it in place.
1683: The Christopher Wren-designed Ashmolean Museum opens as the world’s first university museum. Among its treasures is the body of the last Dodo bird seen in Europe, which crumbles away by 1755 to just the head and a foot. This building is now known as the Old Ashmolean Building and houses the Museum of the History of Science.
1749: The Radcliffe Camera is completed. Designed by James Gibb, the now very familiar landmark was built to house the Radcliffe Science Library.
1773: The Oxford Covered Market is completed and offers extra employment for many University students. It is still in operation today and is one of the most vital and varied shopping centres to be found anywhere.
1840s: The Great Western Railway and London & North Western Railway links Oxford with London and the city expands rapidly.
1843: The Martyrs’ Memorial, designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott, is completed. This privately funded memorial commemorates the Church of England’s great martyrs: Thomas Cranmer, Nicholas Ridley, and Hugh Latimer. It is erected at the intersection of St Giles’, Magdalen Street and Beaumont Street, just outside Balliol College where the men met their terrible end.
1845: The current building of the Ashmolean Museum, designed by Charles Cockerell, opens.
1860: The Oxford University Museum of Natural History opens, representing the teaching and curatorial unification of the natural disciplines within the university.
1860: A seminal debate in the history of evolutionary biology takes place in the newly opened Museum of Natural History that is often viewed as symbolizing the defeat of creationism.
1884: General Augustus Pitt Rivers donates his archaeological and anthropological collections to Oxford University, forming the nucleus of today’s Pitt Rivers Museum.
1894: The world’s first public demonstration of wireless telegraphy occurs in Oxford’s Museum of Natural History, carried out by Professor Oliver Lodge.
1897: Edward, Prince of Wales dedicates the new Town Hall, the site of local government since 1292. Construction had begun in 1893.
1911: The Bodleian Library becomes one of five official copyright deposit libraries in Great Britain.
1931: Physicist Albert Einstein lectures while visiting Oxford. The blackboard is saved and exhibited at the Museum of the History of Science.
1939-1962: The Inklings writer’s group is founded and meets faithfully at the Eagle and Child pub. The group, which included J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, eventually moves to the Lamb and Flag pub.
1954: Oxford medical student Roger Bannister runs the first authenticated sub-four-minute mile at Oxford.
1974: Oxford University loses its historic — and controversial — right to place its own representatives on the Oxford City Council.