Oxford City Council

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Top Ten Astonishing Facts

Oxford is celebrated the world over as a prestigious centre of learning, but here are our top ten astounding facts that you never knew about our illustrious city.

  1. The bell in the tower of Christ Church Cathedral is called the Old Tom which strikes a unique 101 times at 9.05pm every evening. Originally, this was the curfew time for students in the city and the bell rang to signal their return back to college - things have obviously changed but the tradition lives on.

  2. The University of Cambridge was actually founded by Oxford students who were fleeing Oxford following riots that erupted in 1209 between students and townspeople. Violent confrontations between townspeople and students have erupted in Oxford at various times throughout history. On this occasion, trouble began following the murder of a local townswoman by students. Oxford University is the oldest English speaking university in the world, dating back to the end of the 12th century.

  3. The St. Scholastica Day riot of February 10, 1355, is another notorious example of the 'Town and Gown' rivalry. The dispute took place in The Swindlestock Tavern (now the Santander Bank on Carfax) between townspeople and two students of Oxford University. Insults grew into armed conflict and local citizens attacked the University which left 63 scholars and many locals dead. The dispute was eventually settled in favour of the university. Every year on St Scholastica's Day from then on, the Mayor of Oxford had to pay a penny to the University for every life lost and attend a Mass for the souls of the dead scholars. The penance continued for 470 years, until the mayor refused to take part in 1825.

  4. On Broad Street in the centre of Oxford, there is a cross built in to a cobbled patch of the main road outside Balliol College marking the location of the site where the protestant Oxford Martyrs (Bishops Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley (16 October, 1555), and later Archbishop Thomas Cranmer (21 March 1556)) were burnt at the stake for heresy. When the Catholic Mary I succeeded her brother, the Protestant Edward VI, as Queen of England in 1553, she went about returning England to the Catholic religion. During her reign, she had almost three hundred religious dissenters executed and as a consequence became known as Bloody Mary.

  5. Oxford was once the capital of England during the English Civil War when Charles I held his court here from 1642, following his expulsion from London by the Parliamentarian forces lead by Oliver Cromwell. Oxford itself supported the Parliamentarian cause, but the University was a strong supporter of the king. From 1642 to 1646 King Charles stayed at Christ Church College.

  6. In North Oxford, there are two roads about two miles apart, running parallel to each other, that connect Woodstock Road and Banbury Road. Confusingly, the northernmost road in Summertown is called South Parade and the southernmost road is called North Parade. This is because during the English Civil War when Oxford was being besieged by Oliver Cromwell, North Parade represented the King's Northern Front, while South Parade was Cromwell's Southern Front.

  7. The Ashmolean Museum in Oxford was the first museum in the world to open its doors to the public when it officially opened in 1683. It's treasures include the lantern that Guy Fawkes had when he was arrested for his part in the Gunpowder Plot on 5th November 1605. It was given to Oxford University in 1641 by Robert Heywood, son of a Justice of the Peace who had been present at the arrest of Guy Fawkes when the Gunpowder Plot was foiled.

  8. Sir Roger Bannister was the first person in history to break the sub four minute mile barrier at Oxford's Iffley Road sports ground in 1954. He was just 25 years old. He was competing for the British Amateur Athletic Association and completed the race in 3:59.4. Within a month, the Australian runner John Landy had broken Bannister's record, but Bannister had already made history as the first to break the unbreakable record.

  9. Oxford has more published writers per square mile than anywhere else in the world. Best selling authors with links to Oxford include:

  • Lewis Carroll, 1832-1898 - author of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and its sequel Through the Looking-Glass as well as the poems The Hunting of the Snark and Jabberwocky.
  • JRR Tolkein, 1892-1973 - author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy.
  • CS Lewis, 1898-1963 - author of The Chronicles of Narnia. CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien were close friends and both were Dons at Oxford University. They were also part of the Oxford literary group known as the 'Inklings' who could commonly be found discussing literature in the Eagle and Child and Lamb and Flag pubs on St Giles during their time in Oxford. 
  • Colin Dexter, 1930-Present  - introduced the world to the character of Inspector Morse in 1975. A hugely successful television series followed, produced between 1987 and 2001. Dexter himself makes a cameo appearance in almost all Morse episodes.
  • Philip Pullman, 1946-Present - author of the His Dark Materials trilogy.
  • Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford is also the home of the world famous OED. The First Edition began publication in 1884 and it currently provides authoritative definitions of over 500,000 words. The most common English nouns found in writing around the world are 'time', 'person' and 'year'.

  10.   Oxford University has educated 26 British Prime Ministers including:

  • Sir Robert Peel, (Tory), Christ Church, 1805-1809 - famous for landmark social reforms such as the Factory Act of 1844, which limited working hours for children and women in factories and the repeal of the Corn Laws.
  • Herbert H Asquith, (Liberal Coalition), Balliol, 1870-1874 - famous for taking Britain into World War One.
  • Clement Attlee, (Labour), University, 1901-1904 - famous for introducing the British National Health Service, nationalising one fifth of the British economy, and granting independence to India.
  • Anthony Eden, (Conservative), Christ Church, 1919-1922 - his term as Prime Minister was overshadowed by the Suez Crisis in 1956 and he resigned after little more than 18 months in office.
  • Margaret Thatcher, (Conservative), Somerville, 1943-1947 - famous for the privatisation of state-owned industries and utilities, reform of the trade unions, lowering taxes, reducing public expenditure and reducing inflation at the cost of a dramatic rise in unemployment. Her popularity increased after the victory in the Falklands War in 1982 but following the introduction of the poll tax and her opposition to closer integration with Europe, she resigned in 1990. 
  • Tony Blair, (Labour) St John's, 1975 - famous for devolution in Wales and Scotland, peace in Northern Ireland, mixed success in attempts to reform public services and the war in Iraq.

For a full list of Oxford Educated British Prime Ministers, visit the University of Oxford's Prime Ministers website page.

Page last updated 1 May 2014


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