The History of Oxford City
By Tim Lambert
Oxford was founded in the 9th century when Alfred
the Great created a network of fortified towns called burhs
across his kingdom. One of these was at Oxford. There may
have been a village already existing there or Alfred may have
created a new town. The streets of Oxford were in a regular
pattern suggesting a new town but we are not certain. Oxford
is first mentioned in 911 when the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle,
a sort of national diary, said: 'King Edward recieved the
burhs of London and Oxford and London with all the lands belonging
Oxford probably had a market from the time it
was made a burh and it soon became a flourishing town. In
the 10th century Oxford had a mint with 4 moneyers (coin makers).
But Oxford was a fortress as well as a town. In the event
of war with the Danes all the men from the area were to gather
inside the burh. However this strategy was not entirely succesful.
In 1009 the Danes burned Oxford. (An easy task since all the
buildings were of wood with thatched roofs). However Oxford
was soon rebuilt. In 1013 the Danish king claimed the throne
of England. He invaded England and went to Oxford where 'the
people soon bowed to him and gave hostages'. In 1018 a conference
was held in Oxford to decide who would be king of England.
By the time of the Norman Conquest there were
said to be about 1,000 houses in Oxford, which meant it probably
had a population of around 5,000. By the standards of the
time it was a large and important town (even London only had
about 18,000 inhabitants). It was said at the time that Oxford
was the 6th largest town in England. Oxford probably reached
its zenith at that time. About 1072 the Normans built a castle
at Oxford. In the 11th century the towns defences were a ditch
and an earth rampart with a wooden stockade on top. Later
the stockade was replaced by a stone wall.
In the 1140's there was civil war between Stephen
and Matilda. In 1142 Matilda was at Oxford castle but her
rivals troops burned the town and besieged the castle. However
one snowy day Matilda managed to escape across the frozen
river. Oxford soon recovered from this disaster and began
to flourish once again.
The university at Oxford was founded in 1167.
During the Middle Ages there was much tension between townspeople
and students. In 1209 a woman was killed. Afterwards 2 students
were hanged by the townsfolk. Some of the students fled to
Cambridge but in 1214 they were invited back. Evidently the
merchants in the town missed their custom. In 1121 a Chancellor
was appointed with power to discipline the students. Nevertheless
further riots followed in 1228, 1236, 1238, 1248, 1272, 1298.
Tension continued because kings granted the students certain
priveleges, which harmed the merchants of the town. The tension
came to a head in 1355 when a fight occurred between them
which lasted for 3 days. Afterwards an investigation was held
and as a result the university staff and students were given
still more priveleges. Despite this the conflict between the
townspeople and the university died down.
In 1258 Simon de Monfort and 23 other rebellious
barons held a meeting in Oxford and forced the king to accept
a number of reforms known as the Provisions of Oxford.
In the 12th and 13th centuries Oxford was a
manufacturing town. It was noted for cloth and leather. In
Oxford wool was woven then fulled, that is it was cleaned
and thickened by being pounded in water and clay. There were
many tanners in the town and leather workers such as shoemakers
and saddlers. But in the 14th and 15th centuries manufacturing
declined. Oxford came to depend on the custom of students.
It became a town of brewers, butchers, bakers, tailors, shoemakers,
coopers, carpenters and blacksmiths. In the later Middle Ages
Oxford declined in importance.
In 1122 an Augustinian prory (small abbey) was
founded. It was dedicated to St Fridewide. The priory was
given the right to hold a fair. In the Middle ages a fair
was like a market but it was held only once a year for a few
days and it would attract merchants from as far away as London.
The priory charged the stallholders tolls. An Augustinian
abby, was founded in 1129. A Ciscerstian abbey, Rewley Abbey
was founded in 1280. In the Middle Ages the only hospitals
were run by the church. A hospital dedicated to St John the
Baptist opened outside the east gate in the 12th century.
It was closed in 1485. A leper hostel dedicated to St Bartholomew
opened east of the town in the late 12th century. In the 13th
century friars arrived in Oxford. The friars were like monks
except instead of withdrawing from the world they went out
to preach and help the poor. In Oxford there were Fransiscan
friars, known as grey friars because of the colour of their
habits. There were also Dominicans friars (known as black
friars) Carmelites and Augustinians.
THE 16th AND 17th CENTURIES
In the 16th century Oxford declined further
in terms of national importance though it remained a fairly
large town by the standards of the time. In the mid 16th century
it may have had a population of about 3,500. Oxford was economically
dependent on the university. The students provided a large
market for beer, food, clothes and other goods. oxford was
full of craftsmen who supplied these needs. By this time hostility
between 'town and gown' had died out. Like all towns in the
16th and 17th centuries Oxford suffered outbreaks of plague.
Severe outbreaks occured in 1603 and 1625-26.
In 1538 Henry VIII closed the abbey, the priory
and the friaries. In the Middle Ages the priory and one of
the friaries had the right to hold annual fairs and to charge
tolls. After they were closed this right was transfered to
the town. Yet both fairs declined and had virtually ceased
to exist by the middle of the 17th century. In 1542 Oxford
was made a city and was given a Bishop.
Henry's daughter Mary tried to undo the religious
changes of the previous decades and restore Catholicism. During
her reign 3 famous Protestants were tried in St Marys church
in the town. They were Thomas Cramner, the Archbishop of Canterbury,
Nicholas Ridley the Bishop of London and Hugh Latimer. All
three were condemnded to death for heresy. Latimer and Ridley
were burned in Broad Street.
In 1642 came civil war between king and parliament.
Opinion among the townspeople was probably divided but in
1642 a royalist army occupied Oxford. For the rest of the
war the king made Oxford his headquarters. By this time the
walls around the town were in disrepair so the king foced
the townspeople to erect earthwork defences. However by 1646
the king was losing the war and he was forced to flee in disguise.
Oxford eventually surrendered to a parliamentary army. Although
there was a fire in 1644 Oxford was not seriously damaged
by the civil war.
In 1651 the first coffee house in England opened
in Oxford. Coffee was a new drink at that time but it soon
became popular. Many coffee houses were opened where middle
class and upper class men could meet, have a drink, read newspapers
and talk shop. In 1659 a free grammar school was founded in
At the end of the 17th century a travel writer
called Celia Fiennes described Oxford as 'pleasant and compact.
The theatre is the highest of all (the buildings), encompassed
by the several colleges and churches and other buildings whose
towers and spires appear very well at a distance. The streets
are very clean and well paved and pretty broad. The High Street
is a very noble one, so large and of great length'.
THE 18th CENTURY
In this century Oxford remained a market town
where produce from the surrounding area was bought and sold
but most industry in Oxford was still geared to supplying
the needs of the university. The city was full of brewers,
bakers, butchers, tailors and grocers. In the 1720s a writer
described the city as 'large, strong, populous and rich'.
He was also impressed by the university buildings.
In 1708 a charity school for boys was founded.
It was called the Bluecoat school because of the colour of
the school uniforms. Hollywell Music room was built in 1748.
Radcliffe Infirmary was built in 1770. In 1772 a workhouse
was built to house the destitute. As the name suggests the
able bodied were expected to work. In the 18th century the
streets were becoming increasingly congested on market days
as the stalls interfered with traffic. So, in 1774 a covered
market for vegetables, meat and fish was built. There had
been a prison in Oxford since the Middle Ages. It was rebuilt
In 1771 East Gate and North Gate were demolished.
In that year a group of men called the Improvement Commissioners
was founded with responsibility for paving, cleaning and lighting
the streets (with oil lamps). New Road was built in 1776.
Magdalen bridge was rebuilt in 1779. In 1790 a canal was cut
to Hawkesbury near Coventry. St Giles fair began in the late
18th century. By the middle of the century Oxford probably
had a population of about 8,000. By the end of the century
it was nearly 12,000.
THE 19th CENTURY
From 1819 Oxford had gas street lighting. Warneford
hospital was built in 1826. Littlemore hospital followed in
1847. There were some drains and sewers in Oxford in the early
19th century but the sewers emptied into the river. In the
1870s a modern system of sewers was built. In the 18th century
a private company provided piped water - to those who could
afford it. In 1808 the council took over the water company
but many people continued to rely on wells. It wasn't until
the 1880s that everybody in Oxford had piped water. Despite
these improvements there were outbreaks of cholera in the
town in 1832, 1849 and 1854. The first electricity generating
station was built in 1892. A railway from Oxford to London
was built in 1844. Another to Banbury was built in 1850. In
1860 the natural history museum opened.
A martyrs memorial to the 3 Protestants who
were burned in Marys reign in the mid-16th century was built
In the 1820s and 1830s working class houses
were built at Summerstown. This suburb officially absorbed
by the city in 1889. After 150 a middle class estate was built
at Park Town. In the 1830s and 1840s a working house suburb
grew up at Jericho. In the 1870s houses were built at Northam
Manor. Oxford was made a county borough in 1889.
In the late 19th century a marmalade making
industry began in Oxford. There was also a publishing industry
and an iron foundry. Yet Oxford remained a city of craftsmen
producing things for the university not a manufacturing centre.
THE 20th CENTURY
Oxford gained its first cinema in 1910. Christchurch
memorial gardens were laid out in 1926.
The fate of Oxford was changed in 1913 when
a man named Morris began making cars in the city. In 1919
a radiator making company was formed and in 1926 a pressed
steel company which made car bodies. By the 1930s Oxford was
an important manufacturing centre. It was also a prosperous
city. Furthermore it escaped serious damage during World War
Private houses were built around Woodstock Road
in the 1920s In 1929 the boundaries of the city were extended
to include Summertown, Wolvercote, Headington, Cowley and
Iffley. In the 1930s more wre built at Cumnor Hill and Headington
Hill. Council houses were built in Headington, Wolvercote
and Cutteslowe. Oxford police station was built in 1936. In
the 1930s many new houses were built in Botley, North Hincksey
and Cowley. Hincksey park opened in 1934. The museum of the
history of science opened in 1924. Nuffield Orthopeadic centre
began life as a convalescent home in 1872. In the 1920s it
began to specialise in orthopaedics. It was given its present
name in 1931 when Viscount Nuffield gave a gift of money.
Churchill hospital was built in 1940. Oxford airport opened
In the late 1950s and 1960s a council house
estate was built at Blackbird Leys. Other council houses were
built at Rose Hill. Cutteslowe park was laid out in 1952.
St Clares college opened in 1953. The Cowley
Shopping Centre was completed in 1965. The Westgate shopping
centre opened in 1972. It was refurbished in 1986. A multi
storey car park was built there in 1974. Queen Street was
pedestrianised in 1970. The gallery of modern art opened in
1966. The College of Further Education was built in 1972.
The Museum of Oxford opened in 1975. Ferry Pool opened in
THE 21st CENTURY
Today the main industries are still car manufacturing
and making vehicle parts as well as publishing. There is now
a biotech industry in Oxford. At the present time a science
park is being built. Today the population of Oxford is 121,000.
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