A Thousand Years of Oxford

Canterbury to London to Oxford by westbound trains, and here I am in another ancient English city.

The Saxons settled it due to its strategic location on the Thames (oxford=a place where oxen could ford the river). A century later those pesky Vikings burned Oxford, and kept raiding other parts of England, so in 1002 English King Aethelred ordered the killing of all Viking men in Oxford. The back-and-forth destruction continued until the Norman invasion of 1066.

I’m staying in an apartment about 3 minutes from the Thames, steps away from Folly Bridge. It’s named after the 13th-century philosopher-theologian-linguist Roger Bacon, who had a workshop nearby. Locals thought the genius scientist (and philosopher and statesman and jurist) a kook, and so called the bridge nearby “folly.”

I spent the day touring Oxford University, which involves touring the individual colleges. These semi-autonomous colleges were founded at various times starting in 1096; business really picked up when English students were banned from the University of Paris in 1167.


Each college includes a chapel, dining hall, student residence quads, and an enormous green area. Apparently each college spends a fortune keeping up their English gardens and lawns, and are quite competitive about it. In fact, it seems these colleges are competitive in every way possible—croquet, rowing, and of course drinking.

In New College (14th century), one side of the enormous lawn is bounded by what’s left of the original city wall. In Merton College, the chapel is an astonishing achievement of at least six different carved woods.


I also went to some of Oxford’s more famous buildings—the Bodleian library, the Ashmolean museum, the Museum of the History of Science. In the latter I saw astrolabes, Chinese perfume clocks (different incenses burn at different rates–it’s jasmine o’clock!), Einstein’s calculation of the size of the universe (on a chalkboard stolen by students when he was here in 1931), and a then-newfangled camera used by Lawrence of Arabia.


The streets and alleyways here are just a riot of medieval and Renaissance buildings, all Gothic arches, yellow sandstone and gargoyles with not-so-hidden meanings–all seasoned with the occasional 300-year-old pub.

Today students at Oxford are expected to work harder than their aristocratic ancestors, who mostly sat around and even had servants carry their books. They dress in modern- day clothes—except when taking their annual exams, when they’re expected to wear their robes. There are even periodic oral exams when mentors grill students in front of their peers. There are, blessedly, no recorded instances of complaints of micro-aggressions or lack of safe spaces. These are, after all, descendants of the people who kicked Viking butt.

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