Nobody really knows for sure when Oxford was established, but we do know that teaching was going on there all the way back in the late 11th century. In those days, most wealthy Englishmen seeking higher education went to the University of Paris (now better known as the Sorbonne), but in 1167 the University of Paris closed its doors to foreigners, and the English students settled down at Oxford, which expanded enormously during that period. It
welcomed its first known foreign student, Emo of Friesland, in 1190, started calling the head of the university Chancellor around 1201, and the masters were recognized as a corporation in 1231. In 1209, disputes between students and the townspeople of Oxford led some academics to flee to Cambridge, where they established another pretty well known university.
In the early days, students organized themselves geographically, splitting into the “northern” students (which included the Scots) and the “southern” students (including the Irish and Welsh). Geographical origins continued to influence students’ affiliations with particular colleges and halls in later centuries. Around the mid-13th century, religious orders settled in the area and maintained houses for students, as did private benefactors who included William of Durham (who endowed University Collge in 1249) and John Balliol, father of a future King of Scots. Walter de Merton established Merton College as well as a series of regulations for college life that were later adopted by other colleges and the University of Cambridge.
During the Renaissance period, the method of teaching at Oxford changed from the medieval Scholastic method to adapt Renaissance teaching and learning methods. The university received a charter securing privileges for its press in 1636 (courtesy of Chancellor William Laud, archbishop of Canterbury, who also codified the university’s statutes and made
significant contributions to the Bodleian Library).
During the English Civil War, the University sided with the Royalists, while the town identified with the Parliamentarian party, which must have made things seriously awkward. After that, Oxford took less of a role in political matters.
The University continued to flourish and adjust to the times. Oral examinations were replaced with written entrance tests during the 19th century, a time that also saw the establishment of four women’s colleges (although women weren’t admitted as full members of the university and given the right to take degrees until 1920).
Today, Oxford is one of the oldest and most famous universities in the world (it’s the oldest university in the English speaking world). It has the second largest library in the UK (after the British Library), the oldest university museum in the world (the Ashmolean Museum, founded in 1683), the oldest botanic garden in the UK, and the third-oldest scientific
garden in the world. Its alumni include prime ministers, world leaders, kings, saints, archbishops, explorers, and some of the most celebrated scientists, composers, economists, philosophers, and writers in history.