Legendary University Anecdotes: the Undergraduate Shenanigans of the Rich and Famous

Image shows the painting 'The Roses of Heliogabalus', a depiction of a decadent party, by Lawrence Alma-Tadema.

Our university years are some of the most memorable of our lives, and most students fill these relatively care-free years with plenty of fun and laughter alongside their studies.

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But just occasionally, a student comes along whose university exploits become the stuff of legend. In days gone by, university was an experience reserved for aristocratic gentlemen, who generally went up to Oxford or Cambridge to have a jolly time. Luckily, their sometimes scant regard for the rigours of academia have left us with plenty of entertaining anecdotes of what they got up to when they were students – though we don’t recommend emulating them yourself! More recently, such eccentricity seems to be less common, and it seems to be the more worthwhile university activities for which the famous are noted; so we also bring this look at the student days of famous people up to date with some more modern persons of note.

Oliver Cromwell

Image shows a horse statue in the grounds of Jesus College, Cambridge.
Had Cromwell attended Jesus rather than Sidney Sussex, we might have wondered if this sculpture was created in tribute…

The notorious Oliver Cromwell was one of the earliest students to attend the newly-built Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, opened in 1596 and noted for its decidedly Puritan leanings at the time. Though the events of Cromwell’s time at Cambridge are little known (except that he left before gaining a degree owing to his father’s illness), one story that has survived in the oral tradition is that Cromwell used to leap out of the window of his first-floor college room onto the back of his horse. Whether or not the story is true, it seems rather ‘cavalier’ for someone who’d later lead troops into battle against the real Cavaliers! In a nod (no pun intended) to Cromwell’s student past, his head is now buried beneath the college’s Ante-Chapel.

Evelyn Waugh

Image shows the exterior of the Oxford Union.
The Oxford Union, where Waugh spent so much of his time.

If you’ve ever read Brideshead Revisited, it will come as no surprise that the early chapters detailing Charles and Sebastian’s life at Oxford University have many parallels with Evelyn Waugh’s own experiences there. Waugh admitted in a letter: “I do no work here and never go to Chapel.” What he did do, though, was give speeches at the Oxford Union Debating Society and write debate reports for the student magazines, the Cherwell and the Isis, also becoming a film critic for the latter. His Oxford lifestyle became increasingly debauched as he fell in with a new group of friends, a circle known as The Hypocrites, whose artistic and social values had a huge influence on Waugh. Waugh’s neglect of his studies led to a bitter falling out with his history tutor, C. R. M. F. Cruttwell, whose name Waugh would go on to use in early novels for unsavoury minor characters. Waugh scraped a Third in his final exams, losing him his scholarship and preventing him from completing his studies – meaning he left without a degree. While he wasn’t a shining example to future students, his experiences at Oxford doubtless shaped the writer he was to become, and provided inspiration for one of his most famous books. That most iconic of Brideshead images – Aloysius the teddy bear – was also inspired by Waugh’s own encounters at Oxford, with the poet John Betjeman.

Image is a button that reads "Browse all Student Life articles."John Betjeman

Image shows a traditional teddy bear lying on a chair.
Betjeman’s tutor at Oxford was CS Lewis, author of The Chronicles of Narnia.

The poet John Betjeman provided inspiration for Sebastian Flyte’s teddy bear Aloysius in Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited when he brought his own bear, Archibald Ormsby-Gore, with him to Magdalen College, Oxford. Archibald – or Archie, as he was better known – remained with Betjeman for the rest of the poet’s life, along with a toy elephant called Jumbo; both toys were in Betjeman’s arms when he died. In a poem entitled Archibald, Betjeman wrote:
“The only constant, sitting there,
Patient and hairless, is a bear.”
He’d had the bear since childhood, and, as an only child, drew comfort from Archie’s presence. The bear perhaps also provided comfort for Betjeman when he left Oxford without a degree – something that would trouble him for the rest of his life, in spite of his great success as a poet and broadcaster, and the affection he enjoyed from the British public.

Lord Byron

Image shows a Kodiak bear in a stream.
Byron kept the bear as more than just a prank, bringing it home with him after he left university.

Lord Byron’s exploits at Trinity College, Cambridge, make Betjeman’s toy bear seem tame. He kept a real, living bear in his rooms in college in protest at the fact that the college rules didn’t permit him to bring his beloved dog Boatswain. But there was nothing in the rules that said anything about a bear. According to J.M.F. Wright in the book Alma Mater, the anecdote ran thus: “His lordship used to parade the streets accompanied by an immense bear, following him like a dog, which bear had the sole use of the apartment in the turret.” In a letter, Byron himself had written: “I have got a new friend, the finest in the world, a tame bear. When I brought him here, they asked me what I meant to do with him, and my reply was, ‘he should sit for a fellowship.’” There are no bears in evidence on the streets of Oxford today, we’re relieved to report.

Percy Bysshe Shelley

Image shows a posthumous painting of Shelley writing 'Prometheus Unbound.'
Shelley wrote in The Necessity of Atheism, “God is an hypothesis, and, as such, stands in need of proof: the onus probandi rests on the theist.”

A friend of Byron’s, Percy Bysshe Shelley went up to University College, Oxford, in 1810. It’s said that he attended just one lecture during his entire time at Oxford (bad), but that he often read sixteen hours a day (good). And, while his lecture attendance record may have left much to be desired, it’s clear that he didn’t waste his university years altogether, for he published a subversive set of poems titled Posthumous Fragments of Margaret Nicholson, and in 1811, his second Gothic novel, St Irvyne; or, The Rosicrucian. It was another publication of his that landed him in trouble: a pamphlet entitled The Necessity of Atheism. Refusing to disassociate himself with this troublesome pamphlet when called in front of the College Fellows, he was expelled from Oxford – doubtless a politically-motivated decision, as another 1811 publication of Shelley’s, an anti-monarchy and anti-war poem entitled Poetical Essay on the Existing State of Things, makes clear. Shelley’s father intervened in the situation and Shelley was offered the chance to return to Oxford, on condition that he renounce his views; he refused, falling out with his father in the process. Nevertheless, Shelley went on to become one of the most famous of the Romantic poets.

T.E. Lawrence

Image shows a Crusader castle in Syria.
Krak des Chevaliers castle (also known as Qal’at al-Ḥiṣn) in Syria.

You may know him as Lawrence of Arabia, but long before he gained this epithet, T.E. Lawrence studied history at Jesus College, Oxford. During his summer vacation in 1909, he embarked on a three-month walk across the Middle East, visiting Crusader castles in Ottoman Syria. He covered a distance of 1,000 miles – all of it on foot – and used the research he conducted during it as the basis for his thesis, which was entitled The influence of the Crusades on European Military Architecture – to the end of the 12th century. It gained him a First Class Honours degree, and was the start of his long association with the Middle East that would, quite literally, make his name.

Hugh Laurie

Image shows the boats just after crossing the line in the 2007 boat race.
Cambridge have won the boat race 81 times; Oxford, 78.

Actor Hugh Laurie followed in his father’s footsteps to attend Selwyn College, Cambridge, where he studied Archaeology and Anthropology. Rowing was Laurie’s big occupation at first; he did it competitively, achieving a Blue (an accolade awarded to those competing in sport at the highest level while at university) in the 1980 Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race, even though Cambridge lost by five feet. The eight hours a day he was spending training during that time must have had an impact on his academic studies, but he was forced to give up rowing when he suffered glandular fever. Instead, he pursued acting by joining the famous Cambridge Footlights, and it was there that he met two very important people: Emma Thompson and his future comedy partner, Stephen Fry. The rest, as they say, is history.

Stephen Hawking

Image shows Stephen Hawking in a NASA zero gravity flight.
Stephen Hawking flying in zero gravity.

Stephen Hawking initially had a tough time at university, going up to Oxford at the tender age of 17 and finding himself lonely, and younger than many of his fellow students. It didn’t help that he found the work “ridiculously easy”; but his boredom and social difficulties melted away when he joined his college boat club, becoming a cox – a move that increased his confidence and allowed him to flourish into a popular and lively student. Indeed, he became known as something of a daredevil on the river, taking his rowing crew through risky routes that led to him damaging the boat. Academically, Hawking’s university experience continued to be underwhelming. He himself estimates that he put in only around a thousand study hours in the three years of his undergraduate degree, and when it came to his Finals exams, he evaded his lack of concrete knowledge by opting to answer only the theoretical physics questions. His aim was to go on to graduate study at Cambridge, pursuing his interest in cosmology, but he needed a First at undergraduate level in order to do so. His results turned out to be on the border between first and second class, and in the resulting viva, Hawking played on his reputation as a difficult student and described his future plans thus: “If you award me a First, I will go to Cambridge. If I receive a Second, I shall stay in Oxford, so I expect you will give me a First.” In fact, as his tutor Robert Berman noted, the examiners “were intelligent enough to realise they were talking to someone far cleverer than most of themselves” – and he was awarded a First. As you are no doubt aware, Stephen Hawking is now one of the world’s most famous scientists.

Michael Palin

Image shows animation in the style of Monty Python.
Monty Python pioneered surreal humour in the UK.

One of the best-loved Pythons, Michael Palin set out on the course that would lead him to worldwide fame when he was reading modern history at Brasenose College, Oxford. At a university Christmas party, he and fellow student Robert Hewison performed some comedy material they’d written for the first time. The performance was attended by none other than Terry Jones, who subsequently began writing with Palin and Hewison and also performing with Palin in an Oxford comedy group called the Oxford Revue. It was the start of a partnership that would grow in number and would eventually see Monty Python’s Flying Circus brought to our screens to great acclaim.

Emma Thompson

Image shows Emma Thompson in 2009.
Emma Thompson at the César Awards in 2009.

We’ve mentioned her already in this article, but she definitely deserves a section of her own. Celebrated actress and screenwriter Emma Thompson was studying English at Newnham College, Cambridge, when a “seminal moment” occurred: she discovered a book that “changed her life”, The Madwoman in the Attic. Examining female writers and the identities they took on in order to write in a male-dominated world, the book turned Thompson into a feminist as well as sparking her interest in performing – an interest encouraged by the fact that she was, as she puts it, “surrounded by creative people” while at university. It seems hard to believe now, but Thompson as an undergraduate cultivated a “punk rocker” image, sporting cropped red hair and a motorbike. She aspired to comedy, and was the first female member of the famous Cambridge Footlights, the comedy sketch troupe in which she met Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry – who nicknamed her “Emma Talented”. As Vice-President, she co-directed the troupe’s first all-female sketch and helped the Footlights win Edinburgh Festival Fringe’s Perrier Award – surely a sign of things to come in what has turned out to be a hugely successful acting career.
From eccentric frivolity to political subversion, the earlier figures on this list aren’t always the best examples upon whom to base one’s own behaviour at university, however entertaining their undergraduate escapades might be. But many of our more recent examples of famous undergraduates show how making the most of your university years has the potential to lead to a glittering career. The takeaway point for you is: throw yourself into university life, get involved in things that interest you, and you’ll be well on your way to establishing a solid foundation on which to build a successful life.


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Image credits: banner; horse; Oxford Union; teddy bear; actual bear; Shelley; castle; boat race; Hawking; Monty Python; Thompson