The English universities were one of the most significant creations of Medieval England. The scholars who attended either Oxford or Cambridge Universities set an intellectual standard that contrasted markedly with the norm of Medieval England.
Oxford University came into being some 20 years before Cambridge University. The church had a major impact at Oxford. The town came within the diocese of Lincoln, yet Oxford had its own archdeaconry. It was the input of the church that led to the first recorded student/university authority clash at Oxford. The universities led to major growth in both Oxford and Cambridge as towns and both became important centres.
No-one is quite sure why Oxford was chosen as the town for England’s first university – however, the town had a number of distinct advantages. Oxford was the centre of communications within its region and both royalty and foreign scholars frequently visited the town. There were also many religious houses/centres around the town and the agricultural land was rich and farming did well at this time. Oxford was considered to be in a civilised part of England – it was near to London and getting to Europe was not necessarily a major journey. Oxford also held strategic importance, which led to the building of a castle there.
In 1167, a quarrel between Henry II and Thomas Becket led to a temporary ban on English scholars going to study in France. For whatever reason, scholars and academics gathered in Oxford to continue with their work – fifty of them. As journeying to the university in Paris was not allowed, more scholars and academics arrived in Oxford. Sometime after 1167 Giraldus Cambrensis visited Oxford and started teaching there. He taught three times a day. He took poor students for lectures; he then taught academics from different faculties, and lastly he taught knights and the likes. His clientele became larger than the ‘normal’ monastic or cathedral school.
In 1180, Prior Philip of St. Frieswade, Oxford, recorded that a scholar had left his family in York to study at Oxford. Within twelve years, the importance of a good education was clearly having an impact. In 1192, Richard of Devizes wrote
“Oxonia vix suos clericos, non dico satiat, sed sustenat.”
Richard was basically stating that there were so many scholars in Oxford that the town could barely feed them. By 1209, it was estimated that there were 3,000 students in Oxford. It was also in 1209 that students in Oxford started to migrate to Cambridge. This occurred after some students killed a woman in Oxford. At this time, King John and Pope Innocent III were quarrelling over a new Archbishop of Canterbury. Innocent put England under an interdict. With such worries, John had few thoughts for students in Oxford. He gave his permission for the execution of three students in Oxford involved in the woman’s death. However, in the delay that took pace, the students fled to Reading, Cambridge of Paris. Others followed to Cambridge and by 1284, Peterhouse College was founded.
Unlike the great university of its time – the university in Paris – Oxford was not connected to either a cathedral or a religious house. The Sorbonne was supervised by ecclesiastical men while Oxford was supervised by masters, though these were usually in holy orders. Regardless of this, Oxford developed with a degree of practical independence.
By the end of what is considered to be Medieval England, the following colleges had been created at Oxford – University College, Balliol, Merton and Exeter. In Cambridge, Peterhouse College was created.
Student life in both towns was to transform Oxford and Cambridge. The lifestyle of the students was to frequently bring both universities into conflict with the church.