An old town famous for its ancient colleges
Published 28 June 2012 in Featured Articles
The city of Oxford is at least 300 years older than its famous university, and as far back as 879AD King Alfred built a mint there. William the Conqueror later used it as a strategic base for his consolidation of the Conquest against some intransigent natives of the region, who weren’t best pleased about having their hereditary lands confiscated.
A Norman castle was built in 1071, but all that remains of this is a tower marking the site of the chapel, with a nearby mound marking the location of its Motte. Nevertheless, Oxford is a fascinating city for history and archaeology buffs and there are plenty of old remains both on the ground and in its excellent museums such as the world-class Ashmolean. Oxford is of course most famous for its ancient colleges, and picking up cheap car rentals these days make it easy to plan a trip here and explore both the city and its surroundings.
Oxford has had a dramatic history from Anglo-Saxon and Norman times through to the English Civil War. It played a central role in the creation of the Magna Carta in the 13th century, and during the English Reformation the martyred Bishops Latimer, Ridley and Cranmer were held for a time in the Saxon Tower prior to being burnt at the stake. In 1841 a Martyrs’ Memorial was erected at St Giles to commemorate them, and in Broad Street a cross marks the site of their deaths. There’s also incidentally an excellent view across the city from this central point of Carfax (‘cross roads’ in French).
Oxford slipped into a decline during the 18th and 19th centuries, but in the 1960s there was a comprehensive programme of restoration, lasting a full decade, to clean the city up and restore it to its proud former glory, which is why it looks so neat and well cared for today.
One of the great attractions, even if you’re not especially interested in archaeology, is the Ashmolean Museum, built in 1841 and housing a fabulously rich and varied collection of artefacts from across the world, from all periods of history and prehistory. There are also many great masters represented in works by the likes of Raphael and Michelangelo, as well as a good collection of modern French paintings and Dutch still-lives. The single most important and most popular exhibit is the famous King Alfred Jewel, beautiful preserved from the 10th century and bearing a touching Anglo-Saxon inscription that leaves us in no doubt as to the identity of its royal owner: ‘Alfred had me made’.
David Elliott is a freelance writer who loves to travel, especially in Europe and Turkey. He’s spent most of his adult life in a state of restless excitement but recently decided to settle in North London. He gets away whenever he can to immerse himself in foreign cultures and lap up the history of great cities.
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