9 Little-Known Facts About Oxford

Oxford is a city that’s been written about endlessly, and the University of Oxford even more so: in articles, in fiction, in poetry and in history. Yet there are still some things about Oxford that are relatively little-known. You might have heard about Oxford’s traditions, about its famous writers, about wartime Oxford, about life as an Oxford student, and more generally about what makes it extraordinary. In this article, we’ve tried to find some facts that you might not previously have known about the amazing city of Oxford and its university.

1. There’s a secret door between Christ Church and Merton College

Image shows Merton College.

Charles I’s wife, Henrietta Maria, moved into Merton College.

The role of Oxford in the English Civil War is well-known: unable to remain in London because of the threat from the Parliamentarian forces, King Charles I fled to Royalist Oxford and set up his court there. It’s interesting to note that while Oxford was staunchly Royalist, Cambridge took the Parliamentarian side. Charles took up residence in Christ Church, while his queen, Henrietta Maria, moved into neighbouring (and rather smaller) Merton College. Unlike many marriages of state at the time, Charles and Henrietta Maria had a devoted and loving relationship, after a difficult start. Not wishing to be parted from his beloved queen, Charles had a secret gateway built so that he could meet her privately. Unfortunately for Charles, this state of affairs was not to last. In 1644, Parliamentarian forces began besieging Oxford and in 1646 the city was close to falling. Rather than be captured, Charles fled to Scotland. In 1649, he was executed by Parliamentarians for “high crimes against the realm of England”. Henrietta Maria returned to her native France and outlived her husband by 20 years – long enough to see her son, Charles II, reclaim the English throne and restore the monarchy.

2. Town and gown riots took place here into the 19th century

Image shows a painting of Oxford high street in the 19th century.

Victorian Oxford wasn’t as peaceful as you might think.

Historically, relations between the students of Oxford and the townspeople have been fractious. In probably the most famous incident, the University of Cambridge was established in 1209 after scholars left Oxford following the hanging of two students for the murder of a local woman. In 1355, town and gown violence reached its worst level in the St Scholastica Day riots, where an argument between students and a tavern-keeper spiralled into riots that left nearly a hundred people dead.

However, while town and gown violence is associated primarily with the Middle Ages, it actually continued for much longer than many people realise. In November 1867, there was rioting so bad that military intervention was required to break it up. This was sparked partly by Guy Fawkes Night on 5 November, which was at the time a traditional night for violence to break out, and exacerbated by bread shortages, where local bakers were selling their bread to the colleges at a lower price than to the townspeople. Thankfully today relations between the city and the university are a lot better!

3. Students at Oxford used to be much younger

Image shows a medieval drawing of students and their teacher.

Medieval students were often young teenagers, which may not be how we typically picture them.

Why is town and gown violence less of a problem than it used to be? There are lots of factors: we live in a less violent society in general, there’s better policing, university students enjoy fewer privileges than they once did (such as no longer operating on a separate justice system) – but one major factor is that students are literally more grown up than they used to be.

In the 14th century, when town and gown violence was at its worst, students were supposed to be at least 16 years old, and would typically study until the age of around 21. However, one student killed in the St Scholastica Day riot was just 14, suggesting that the rules around age were often ignored. With shorter life expectancies, the onset of what was considered to be adulthood was earlier in the Middle Ages, but it’s unlikely that the teenagers of the 14th century were much different in temperament to the teenagers today, even if they were expected to take on more responsibilities – and everyone would have carried a knife. With a large group of teenage boys from all over the country, antagonised by the locals and looking down on them in turn, often left to go into taverns unsupervised, and knowing that their position gave them legal privileges that could border on immunity in law, it seems unsurprising in context that violence could so often be the result.

4. Your academic dress used to depend on how rich you were

Image shows a medieval drawing of students and their teacher.

Oxford students still wear sub fusc on special occasions, but it no longer signals social class.

Sticking with the theme of lesser-known aspects of Oxford history, did you know that the academic dress you were permitted to wear used to depend on how rich you were, and as a result, how your university tuition was being funded? From the Middle Ages to the 17th century in England sumptuary laws existed, which barred people of certain classes from wearing particular colours and fabrics – but in the context of the university, this went much further, and existed even after sumptuary laws had mostly disappeared.

By the eighteenth century, Oxford was open not only to the wealthy, but also to those young men who needed to work to pay their way through university; and indeed, colleges had systems to enable them to do so. All the same, this was not a time that believed in equality between these different groups, so they were distinguished by their clothing: the fabrics they were allowed to wear (only the gentry and above were allowed to wear silk), the type of hat they had, and even the tassel on their mortarboard. Those whose clothes showed them to be from the upper classes could have every expectation that they would be treated better as a result.

5. Oxford gets fewer applications per place than many less famous universities in the UK

Image shows ORA students in St Andrews.

St Andrews is just one of the universities that get more applications per place than Oxford.

Oxford has been consistently ranked as one of the very best universities in the world, often being lauded as the very best university in the world. Yet that doesn’t always translate to having lots of applications. In fact, Oxford and Cambridge have a relatively low number of applications per place compared to other UK universities that rank lower in the league tables. In 2017, Oxford had six applications per place (and Cambridge had just five). In comparison, the LSE and Edinburgh had eleven applications per place, and St Andrews had ten.

Why the disparity? The reason is simple: students filter themselves out much more when applying to Oxford and Cambridge. The process is so competitive, only the very best bother to attempt it. For lower-ranked universities, a larger number of students have a chance (though for the universities mentioned above, getting in is still competitive and requires top grades) so more students chance applying. Don’t be misled into thinking that less competition is the same thing as it being easier to get in! That said, these numbers suggest that perhaps more students should be giving it a go than currently are; so if you think there’s a possibility you might be Oxford material, why not give it a shot?

6. The Oxford English Dictionary doesn’t tell you how to speak or write

Image shows a row of volumes of the Oxford English Dictionary.

The Oxford English Dictionary records language; it doesn’t dictate it.

One of the most famous things Oxford produces, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), is also often misunderstood. The misunderstanding is very simple: it’s based on the belief that the OED tells you what’s right or wrong in speech and in writing; that if a word is included in the OED, that means it must be “good English” and therefore acceptable to use. However, that’s not how the OED is intended to work. It’s not prescriptive, it’s descriptive, so it’s not supposed to be an authority on right and wrong.

Instead, it aims to record faithfully how the English language is used by the people who speak it. Whether a word is defined a particular way depends, as far as the OED is concerned, on whether it’s used a particular way. For instance, the word “literally” is often used (or misused) as an intensifier, rather than to mean that something is true in fact. If that misuse becomes common enough that “literally” could be understood either way, then the meaning as an intensifier even for things that are not entirely true (“she was so angry, her head literally exploded”) would be included in the definition.

7. Oxford isn’t just notable for academic success

Roger Bannister ran a mile in under 4 minutes in Oxford.

It’s easy to fall into stereotype and assume all Oxford people are ivory-tower academics, disdaining anything that isn’t to do with the life of the mind. An exception in the popular imagination might be comedy, but that too can have intellectual associations. But it would be wrong to assume that Oxford is only noteworthy in academic fields; its success is actually much broader than that.

Take sport, for example. You might know that the Iffley Road track in Oxford is where Roger Bannister famously became the first person to run a mile in under four minutes, and you might also be aware of the rowing prowess demonstrated by the Boat Race between Oxford and Cambridge every year. But did you know that Oxford people also have a long record of Olympic success? Oxford alumni from around the world have won 160 Olympic medals.

Or what about music? Oxford’s music scene might not be that well known, but it’s produced bands including Radiohead, Supergrass and Foals. And we’ve previously written about how Oxford is also in the middle of a hub that’s notable for motorsport. It all goes to show how much more there is to the city than you might expect.

8. Christ Church retains its own time zone

Image shows the stairs to the hall in Christ Church.

Christ Church time provides a handy excuse if you’re late for a lecture.

A lot of things that puzzle visitors about Oxford are the consequence of Oxford staying the same while the world changed around it. For instance, the unexpected pronunciation of Magdalen College – as “maudlin” – dates from how the word would have been pronounced when the college was founded in the mid-15th century. While the pronunciation changed in the rest of the world, Oxford maintained the original pronunciation.

Another example of this is Christ Church time. The bell at Christ Church, Old Tom, tolls at 9.05pm every evening; the reason being that it’s a 9pm curfew, based on Oxford time. Before the railways connected Britain’s towns and cities, everywhere operated on its own time, and travellers would need to update their watches as they arrived in a new destination. Oxford time was five minutes and two seconds behind Greenwich Mean Time. But after railways were introduced, the demands of timetables meant that the country had to synchronise to the same time zone. Some industries and areas held on to their own time longer than others, but standardised time was accepted almost everywhere by the start of the 20th century. But one exception, maintained to this day, was Christ Church, where even now seminars and meetings that are advertised as starting at, say, 2pm, will in fact start at 2.05pm GMT, and 2pm Oxford time. Even the dean finds it confusing.

9. Oxford is home to a battery that’s mysteriously lasted for 175 years

Image shows the exterior of part of the Clarendon Laboratory.

Visit the Clarendon Laboratory to see the Oxford Electric Bell.

In Oxford’s Clarendon laboratory is the Oxford Electric Bell, an experimental bell first set up by 1840, possibly earlier, and ringing nearly continuously – approximately 10 billion times – ever since. It’s powered by an early kind of battery, called a “dry pile” battery, and it’s not recorded exactly what the battery is made of. It’s lasted this long because only a very small charge is needed to keep the bell ringing, and it’s thought that the clapper that makes the bell ring might wear out before the battery runs out of charge. There’s little enough voltage left that the ringing is no longer audible, but if you look very closely you can still see the clapper vibrating back and forth between the brass bells.

Of course, scientists are wildly curious about what exactly the dry piles are made of that has caused them to last this long, but that would ruin the experiment to see how long the batteries will last if left untouched. The bell has already made it into the Guinness Book of World Records, and it may still have many years to go.


Image credits: Victorian Oxford; medieval students; sub fusc; Oxford English Dictionary; Roger Bannister; Clarendon Laboratory.