5 Things about Oxford that Have Stayed Constant Over the Centuries
One of Oxford’s greatest charms is its sense of continuity.
Merton College’s Mob Quad was built between 1288 and 1378, making it one of the oldest (possibly the very oldest) such quadrangle in Oxford. It’s lived through civil war, plague, rioting, seen dozens of kings, queens and prime ministers go by, had John Wycliffe, TS Eliot and JRR Tolkien walk through it countless times – and yet, with all that history, it retains its original function of being a place for students to come, to live and learn in inspiring surroundings.
Or take the tradition of the Mallard Song at All Souls. In this tradition, a ceremony is held once every hundred years where the Fellows parade around the college with flaming torches, singing the song and led by someone carrying a wooden duck on a pole. It might not sound like everyone’s idea for fun, but it is hard to think of many other places in the world where a once-a-century tradition could even become established, let alone endure.
In the past, we’ve taken a look at the various fascinating ways that Oxford has changed over its hundreds of years of existence. In this article, we instead look at 5 ways in which, just as impressively, it has managed to stay the same.
1. May Morning celebrations
The first of May – or at least a date very close to that – has been an occasion for celebration in the UK since time immemorial; it certainly dates back to before Christianity reached Britain. In two of the cultures that influenced Britain, it was a key date in the calendar: 27 April was the Roman festival of Floralia, to celebrate the goddess Flora of flowers and the spring, and 1 May was the Gaelic festival of Beltane, which marked the beginning of the summer. It’s unsurprising that a celebration around the start of May survived the Christianisation of Britain.
In Oxford, May Morning celebrations date back over 500 hundred years. The tradition is that the choir of Magdalen College sing a hymn from the top of Magdalen College Tower at dawn. That provides a possible start date for the celebration, as the tower dates back to 1509 and it’s possible that the choir first sang there to celebrate the tower’s completion. By the 17th century, it was already being described as an ancient tradition. The hymn currently sung, the Hymnus Eucharisticus, dates back to around 1673.
The survival of the May Morning celebrations hasn’t always been assured. Celebrating May Day in general was prohibited by Oliver Cromwell, though Oxford was a staunchly Royalist city. In 1688, it was noted that the tradition had been neglected because of a shortage of choristers and clerks. Since the 1980s, some students have tried to jump into the river after the singing, which given how shallow it can be caused injuries, and led the bridge by Magdalen College Tower to be shut from 2005 to 2011. It’s now open again, but with plenty of security to thwart people who plan on jumping. It has changed in one respect, though – the singing in 1749 was held at 4am, while now it’s at the slightly more civilised time of 6am.
Following the singing, there are music performances around the city, as well as Morris dancing – a form of English folk dance in which dancers with handkerchiefs, sticks and bells dance rhythmically. They usually wear colourful clothing and sometimes paint their faces. Morris dancing dates back to at least 1448, though at that point it was a courtly dance, not a street dance, so the association between Morris dancing and May Morning is likely to be more recent.
2. The stereotypes of students
Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales were written in the 1380s, which uses the device of a group of pilgrims travelling together from London to Canterbury. To amuse each other, they take it in turns to tell stories. One of the pilgrims is the ‘Clerk of Oxford’ – or to put it another way, a student.
There are two divergent stereotypes of students in modern Britain. One is of students who do more partying than studying, who write all of their essays the night before they’re due (if they bother at all), and who spend all of their money on going out and live off beans on toast. The other is of students who live in the library, with barely any time to eat, sleep or shower, who miss essay deadlines only because they were too engrossed in some other scholarship to notice the passage of time, and who spend all of their money on books and live off beans on toast.
The Oxford student in the Canterbury Tales fits very neatly into the second stereotype, even though Chaucer’s depiction of him is more than 600 years old. Both he and his horse are very thin (so the diet of a student wasn’t much better centuries ago, despite the lack of instant noodles), but he isn’t short of money, at least when he can persuade his friends to lend it to him. It’s just that all the money he has is spent on “on bookes and on lernynge”. He would much rather have “twenty bookes, clad in blak or reed/ of Aristotle and his philosophie” than expensive clothes or musical instruments; the modern-day equivalent is presumably prioritising book-buying over a Spotify subscription.
As we noted in a previous article, a pilgrimage was effectively the medieval equivalent of a summer holiday. The student gets mocked by the innkeeper for spending all of his time studying instead of socialising, which is something that many an Oxford student in the present day has been accused of when returning to the family home for holidays as well. In general, though, the portrait of the Clerk of Oxford is kindly, and Chaucer notes that “gladly wolde he lerne, and gladly teche” – which was a positive trait at a time when learning was restricted to a privileged few. Let’s hope that this aspect of how students are viewed can also continue to be preserved.
3. The dreaming spires
Possibly the most obvious thing that has endured in Oxford is the architecture. That’s partly down to Oxford being lucky to face very little damage during the Second World War, unlike so many other of Britain’s medieval cities. Where, for instance, the medieval centre of Coventry was almost completely destroyed, Oxford survived.
The other reason is that the style of architecture that we now see as being so characteristic of Oxford – those delicate spires reaching into the pale blue sky – has been popular at key points in history. Oxford’s spires reflect the Gothic style of architecture, which was popular in England from the late 12th to the early 16th century – a period in which no fewer than 14 of Oxford’s 38 colleges were founded.
The Gothic became unfashionable for a couple of centuries, but from the 1740s up to the early 20th century, it underwent a revival. Neoclassical styles (think Queen’s College, with its columns and precise symmetry) fell out of fashion in favour of lancet windows, tracery, buttresses and, crucially, spires. This meant that when the city and the university expanded in Victorian times, the architectural style that was preferred was in line with the existing medieval buildings. When those buildings fell into disrepair, the mood was not to replace them with something brand new and different, but to honour the medieval style.
Magdalen College demonstrates this tendency towards preservation perfectly – there’s the tower, which is 600 years old, and then the buildings alongside it leading towards the gate, which are only a little over 100 years old, but look perfectly harmonious. The Victorians believed in building new Gothic Revival buildings, but also in restoring existing Gothic buildings. This restoration has been criticised at times for going too far, and eroding other architectural styles, but in Oxford it has resulted in a city that despite its considerable growth, is still recognisable from its medieval past. The fact that many of Oxford’s buildings are constructed from the same Headington limestone adds to this impressive of harmony and continuity.
4. The meadows
At the heart of Oxford is Christ Church Meadow, and a little out of the city centre is Port Meadow. Christ Church meadow is an area of floodplain by the college of the same name, which is now home to picnicking students, tourists with ice creams, and lots of overfed squirrels. The college was founded in 1524, and the meadow actually pre-dates it; it was donated to Christ Church Cathedral by Lady Elizabeth Montecute in order to fund the maintenance of the chantry chapel that houses her tomb.
Christ Church meadow – at least when not entirely packed with students, tourists and squirrels – can be a haven of tranquility in the middle of the city. But in the 1960s, it was very nearly lost when plans were tabled to create a sunken relief road to help solve Oxford’s traffic problems, which would have run straight through the meadow. There was a public outcry and the plans were abandoned. Our desire to preserve green space now makes such an idea unthinkable.
Even older than Christ Church meadow is the ancient common land of Port Meadow, to the north-west of the city. These 300 acres of meadow have not been ploughed for at least 4,000 years, and have most likely never been ploughed at all. In the Domesday Book in 1086, the right of the Freemen of Oxford to graze their animals on the meadow for free was recorded, and that is a right that has been exercised for nearly a thousand years.
Because the ground has been so little disturbed, Port Meadow is a treasure trove for archaeologists, with remnants of Bronze and Iron Age settlements, as well as fortifications dating from the English Civil War. At various other times, it’s been used for horse-racing and outdoor parties. Despite the pressure for building land in Oxford, Port Meadow’s rich and ancient history is likely to ensure its survival.
5. Tea and coffee shops
Oxford has many varied and lovely cafes, whether it’s the ones in which students can set up with laptops and make a single pot of tea last all morning, or where visitors to the city can try out a traditional afternoon tea including a generous helping of scones with jam and clotted cream. But this tradition may be older than you realise. The first coffeehouse in western Europe was established in Venice in 1629, and by 1652 the concept had reached Britain, with the very first coffeehouse in England being established in Oxford. You can almost still visit it today; the Grand Cafe on the High Street occupies the same location. Opposite it, Queen’s Lane Coffee House similarly can trace its history in a roundabout way to a coffeehouse established in 1654.
Those early coffeehouses were extremely popular. Charles II even attempted to ban them in 1675, with the justification that they were “places where the disaffected met and spread scandalous reports concerning the conduct of His Majesty and his Ministers.” For many people, that was presumably also central to their appeal. Coffeehouses weren’t solely places to enjoy a warm drink, but also began to take on lots of other social functions. One coffee house in London listed stock prices in a practice that evolved into the London Stock Exchange. Others were frequented by people from different professions, so that they became a kind of relaxed extension of their offices – for instances, auctions took place in salesrooms attached to coffeehouses. Unlike other places to meet, they were open to men of different social classes (women were sadly not allowed) and different religions, allowing people to meet and speak more freely than they might be able to under other circumstances.
In Oxford, as in many university cities, the tea and coffee shops retain a version of this in that they can act as extensions of tutorials and study groups, where academic discussions can continue under more relaxed surroundings – even if those taking part don’t realise quite what a venerable tradition they’re participating in.