Strategically placed at the confluence of the River Cherwell and the Thames (called the Isis here, from the Latin Tamesis), Oxford was a key Saxon town heavily fortified by Alfred the Great during the war against the Danes.
By the 11th century the Augustinian abbey in Oxford had begun training clerics, and when Henry II banned Anglo-Norman students from attending the Sorbonne in 1167, the abbey began to attract students in droves. Whether bored by the lack of distractions in the tiny town or revolted by the ignorance of the country folk we’ll never know, but the new students managed to create a lasting enmity with the local townspeople, culminating in the St Scholastica’s Day Massacre in 1355. Thereafter, the king ordered that the university be broken up into colleges, each of which then developed its own traditions.
The first colleges, Balliol, Merton and University, were built in the 13th century, with at least three more being added in each of the following three centuries. Newer colleges, such as Keble, were added in the 19th and 20th centuries to cater for an ever-expanding student population. Old habits die hard at Oxford however, and it was 1877 before lecturers were allowed to marry, and another year before female students were admitted. Even then, it still took another 42 years before women would be granted a degree for their four years of hard work. Today, there are 39 colleges that cater for about 16,500 students, and in 2006 the last all-female college, St Hilda’s, historically voted to allow male students and academics onto its grounds.
Meanwhile, the arrival of the canal system in 1790 had a profound effect on the rest of Oxford. By creating a link with the Midlands’ industrial centres, work and trade suddenly expanded beyond the academic core. However, the city’s real industrial boom came when William Morris began producing cars here in 1913. With the success of his Bullnose Morris and Morris Minor his Cowley factory went on to become one of the largest motor plants in the world. Although the works have been scaled down since their heyday, new Minis still run off BMW’s Cowley production line today.