While at Oxford, I had the pleasure of entertaining many visitors from abroad. In this endeavour, I developed and refined a tour for my visiting friends. Below is a summary of what I would say:
The university itself is difficult to date, not in a small part due to the fact that it developed over time. The layout of the city of Oxford is typical of the time of King Alfred, who is understood to have had intellectual leanings. As such, we have reason to believe that scholarly pursuits in Oxford date back to the 800s. In port meadow, a common grazing ground to this day, there are still remenants of older Anglo-Saxon civilizations:
By the mid 13th century, the town was well established, and the "university" was already a strong presence. At this time, the monestaries were a strong presence in midieval Europe, establishing a near monopoly on the provision of priests to local parishes. The university served as a challenge to the monestaries. It was literally a guild for people pursuing an education in theology outside of the monestaries (the term "university" derives from the late Latin term, "universus," a term for a guild). This guild was loosely based, as it used the ability to relocate as a bargaining chip in negotiations with local government. In fact, one significant use of this strategy was in the year 1214, when the university disbanded and relocated to the Fens, to found Cambridge University. Thus, Oxford is effectively older than Cambridge, but Cambridge was officially "founded" first.
University College: Legally, the oldest one
In the year 1249, William of Durham died and left money to the university to buy property to fund the scholarship of trainee theologians. The money was squandered. Seeing this, Robert Merton left his money to trustees to manage independently for the same purpose when he died in 1264, and the executors of Durham's will realized their mistake in giving the money directly to the university. As a result, they confiscated the money and the buidings bought with the funds in order to manage the property themselves. One building was the "great hall of the university," from which the name, University College, derives. Since then, many benefactors have refused to leave money to the university, instead creating their own institutions, which we now know as colleges.
The current location of University College, or "Univ," is not the original location of the great hall. Brasenose College now inhabits the original location of the great hall. Brasenose is named after the brass knocker that used to adorn the entrance to the great hall. Supposedly, the college was started when a theological row erupted in University College, causing a portion of the fellows to leave and create their own college, taking the knocker with them.
Univ, instead, is located on the high street. Its most recent claim to fame is as the home of Bill Clinton when he was at Oxford. His portrait hangs in one of the reception rooms in college. Supposedly, on hearing that he would have a portrait in college, President Clinton excitedly suggested an artist for the task. Only after the portrait was finished did the college realize that the artist was a charicturist.
Another famous alumnus of Univ is Percy Shelley, who was expelled, or "sent down," for publishing a treatise on the benefits of athiesm. Upon his death, a monument was built for his grave. Unfortunately, the monument was too big, and the executors of the estate donated money to the college for it to be placed there. Not wanting to reject the money, the college was forced to erect a monument to a student who had left on unfriendly circumstances.
Pembroke College: Named After a Crook
The other college whith which I have had a close relation is Pembroke, another college with a controversial foundation. Previous to its foundation, it was known as Broadgates Hall, and specialized in the training of lawyers, rather than theologians. As the university viewed law as a subject of lower status, it refused to grant Broadgates collegiate status. However, when the minor stipulations on a bequest made to another college were not met, the executor of the bequest was given dispensation to donate the money to another institution of his choosing. The money went to Broadgates to use for its purchase of a college charter from the Chancellor of the University, the Earl of Pembroke, who also happened to be the executor of the will. In gratitude, the college took his name.
J.R.R.Tolkien started his academic career at Pembroke and spent roughly 20 years there. In fact, his first book, The Hobbit, was written during his time at Pembroke. While the college is currently in the planning stages of erecting memorials to him, there is a piece of artwork he dontated to the college on display in the Senior Common Room.
More recently, the college has been known for its success on the river and its monetary troubles. The latter are no longer an issue, as demonstrated by the new complex of buildings on its south side, with a beautiful modern bridge arching over the old city walls.
The River: Don't Call it the Thames
From Pembroke, it is only a short walk to the river. While it is the same river as the one running through London, it is known in Oxford as the Isis. Rowing is a big deal at Oxford. In addition to the Boat Race against Cambridge in London every year, the colleges compete against each other in two main events each year. As the stretch of river heading through town is too narrow and windy to allow crews to race side by side, Oxford has developed a type of racing in which crews race single file, with the aim of hitting, or "bumping," the boat in front before being hit themselves by the boat trailing.
Each division races once a day for four days, and a bump on one day leads to switching places in the lineup for the next day. The crew at the head of the top division on the final day is given the title of "head of the river," and traditionally burns a boat in a quad in the college.