The City of Oxford: Introduction

Pages 1-2

A History of the County of Oxford: Volume 4, the City of Oxford. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1979.

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Oxford lies c. 60 miles west of London at the confluence of the rivers Thames and Cherwell, in a semi-circle of hills running from Wytham in the north-west to Headington in the east. To the north the ground between the two rivers rises gently towards the uplands of north Oxfordshire, while around the city lies the rich farming country of the Thames valley and central Oxfordshire. The town developed on the gravels of the Summertown-Radley terrace; there was some early suburban expansion on alluvial land to the west, but otherwise building activity in Oxford was restricted until the later 19th century by the wide flood plains of the Thames and Cherwell. (fn. 1) To the east, across the Cherwell, the small suburb of St. Clement's was established in the early Middle Ages, but it was not taken into the city until 1835.

Before it became a university town, 'the city of dreaming spires', and eventually a centre of the motor industry, Oxford was an important Anglo-Saxon and medieval town. It was a royal foundation on the ancient demesne, and its position as the county town was well established by 1086. (fn. 2) In the 11th and 12th centuries its inhabitants were sometimes called citizens, (fn. 3) but from the 13th century they were always called burgesses and the town was described as a vill or borough. (fn. 4) More significant than its title were its extensive privileges: (fn. 5) the burgesses were granted the fee farm in 1199, and from the early 13th century Oxford was governed by a mayor; the town's liberties, based on those of London, became the model for those of several other towns. (fn. 6)

With the creation of the see of Oxford, first at Oseney in 1542 and then at Christ Church in 1546, Oxford became a city. From 1889 it was a county borough and from 1974 a district, retaining its lord mayor and the title of a city. (fn. 7)

By the mid 14th century the university had acquired extensive powers not only over its own members but over the town in such matters as the regulation of trade and the policing of the streets. Gradually its buildings replaced and overshadowed the houses of the townspeople, who remained economically dependent upon the university until the rise of the motor industry. So dominant was the university in Oxford that the place-name without qualification was assumed usually to mean the university. Few places, if any, have been the subject of so many books, (fn. 8) but only a handful of the novels, reminiscences, travellers' tales, and histories relate to the town or its people.

The present volume describes the history of the city and its institutions, but the complex and sometimes violent relationship between town and gown is central to its theme. The institutional history of the university is treated elsewhere. (fn. 9) The area described in this volume is first the medieval town and its liberty, whose boundary was the city boundary until 1835, and then the area of the city as extended in 1835, 1889, 1929, and 1957. (fn. 10) The history of parishes brought into the extended city is treated mainly from the date of their incorporation, but the building up of East Oxford is described as part of the development of the city. The earlier history of the parishes belongs to that of the hundreds in which they lay: St. Clement's, and parts of Cowley, Headington, Iffley, and Marston in Bullingdon hundred, (fn. 11) Wolvercote and Cutteslowe in Wootton hundred. (fn. 12)


  • 1. Geol. Survey Map 1", drift, sheet 236 (1972 edn.).
  • 2. V.C.H. Oxon. i. 389, 396.
  • 3. e.g. Mat. Paris, Chron. Majora (Rolls Ser.), vi. 29-30; Oseney Cart. iv. p. 86; Ogle, Royal Letters, 4-5.
  • 4. Ogle, Royal Letters, 5-36; A. Ballard, Brit. Borough Charters 1042-1216, 32.
  • 5. See below, Medieval Oxf. (Town Govt.).
  • 6. Ballard, Brit. Borough Charters, 8, 9, 31-2, 34.
  • 7. See below, Early Modern Oxf. (City Govt. Charters), Modern Oxf. (City Govt. 1889-1939, City Govt. since 1939).
  • 8. D. Merry and E. Cordeaux, Bibliog. Oxf. Univ. and Bibliog. Oxf. City; S. F. Hulton, Clerk of Oxf. in Fiction; Oxf. Mag. lxxvi. 212-14.
  • 9. V.C.H. Oxon. iii.
  • 10. See below, Boundaries.
  • 11. V.C.H. Oxon. v.
  • 12. Reserved for treatment in a later volume.