25 Fascinating Facts About Oxford You Need To Know

Home to one of the most prestigious Universities in the world, in one of the most beautiful and architecturally stunning cities in England, a visit to Oxford is a must! Yet do you know these 25 fascinating facts about Oxford?

Wander through the twists and turns of its quaint streets. Brush past forward-thinking professors. Delve into museums full to the brim with treasures and devour the endless knowledge in Oxford’s bookshops. Experience the magic of Harry Potter. Find the door to Narnia, and with a bit of luck, you might just get lost in Wonderland with Alice for hours whilst punting down the river.

25 fascinating facts about Oxford that you need to know

There is so much to Oxford that we cannot wait to reveal to you below. Here are 25 fascinating facts about Oxford.

Oxford University is old, very old!

The University of Oxford is roughly 922 years old, making it the second oldest University in the world. It is beaten in age by the University of Bologna which is around 930 years old. In terms of University rankings however, it is currently ranked no.1 in the world in the Times Higher Education World for 2023.

This is a great reason to come and join us at Summer Boarding Courses for your Summer School experience.

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Balliol College was built as a punishment

Founded in 1263 by John Balliol, Mr. Balliol had to pay for this college to be built as a punishment for insulting the Bishop of Durham.

The good news is that Balliol College has produced 3 British prime ministers. In fact, all in all, the University of Oxford has produced 27 British Prime Ministers. 13 have come from Christ Church College, 3 from Trinity College, 2 from Brasenose College and the rest from Hertford, Jesus, St. Hugh’s (where our Oxford College Summer School is), St John’s, Somerville and University College.

Oxford is a great place to become an author

Oxford has more published authors per square mile than anywhere else in the world! Famous authors tied to Oxford include JRR Tolkien (The Lord of the Rings), Lewis Carroll (Alice in Wonderland), CS Lewis (The Chronicles of Narnia) and Mark Haddon (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time).

…and become an actor too!

Emma Watson, who plays Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter movies, studied at Oxford’s Dragon and Headington School (where our SBC Oxford and Headington Oxford Summer School is).

Tortoise Wars

Founded in 1555, Trinity College is one of Balliol College’s biggest rivals as they live in such close proximity to each other. Every College has a tortoise that they own, and every Summer in May, the colleges come together to have a tortoise race.

A circle of lettuce is placed on the ground, 8 metres wide, and spectators wait for the tortoises to come out of the middle of the circle to reach the lettuce line to win.

Balliol College currently holds the record for the fastest tortoise winning in 4 hours back in 2004. Yet on this day, when Balliol College took their tortoise out in the city to celebrate, they lost him! They firmly believed that Trinity College were the thieves, and poured washing up liquid into Trinity College’s fountain in retaliation.

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Study everything under one roof

A common misconception with the University of Oxford is that you go to a different college for a different subject. Yet, the University of Oxford is a collegiate system. This means that you can study all subjects at each college. It’s a tradition that has grown throughout the city and University system where you will have all of your accommodation, food, lessons and sports teams under the college you decide to apply to.

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Blackwells Bookshop is the largest bookshop in the entire world

Built in 1879, down in the basement of Blackwells Bookshop, you’ll find the largest bookshop in the entire world! There are 3 miles of shelving and 150,000 books. Yet next door is the Bodleian Library which stores all of the University’s books. This was made possible by the Weston family who donated 23 million British pounds to build and renovate the Bodleian library. This now stores 7 million books.

Yet the University of Oxford has many more books than this, and these are stored in various places outside of the city.

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The Museum of History of Science

The Museum of History of Science is the first ever public museum in the world, opening in 1683!

Down in the basement you can find the chalkboard that Albert Einstein wrote on at Oxford University in 1950, which has his famous e=mc2 equation on. You can also find the lantern that Guy Fawkes was holding when he was arrested for taking part in the Gunpowder Plot on the 5th November in 1605!

Religion or nothing

Up to 200 years ago, the only subject you could study at the University of Oxford was religion until the curriculum finally expanded to all subjects.

Women were forbidden

It wasn’t until 1878 that women were allowed to come and study at the University of Oxford! They were finally allowed to be awarded degrees in 1920 and it was only in 1974 that all colleges let women enter and stay. Oxford University now has roughly even numbers of male and female undergraduates. We’re happy to hear it!

Taking your exams at the Divinity School

The Divinity School, built in 1427, is the first examination and teaching hall of Oxford University. At the time, there were no written exams but oral exams where students would come for over 3 days for 7 hour blocks, answering question after question from their teacher! Local people could come and watch you take these exams if they wished too, with half of the hall reserved for them to sit down and observe.

And yes, these rooms were also used in the Harry Potter films! This location was used as the Hospital and also the Room of Requirement.

Oxford was not bombed during World War II

Oxford was very busy during the war building bombers, but historians believe Oxford wasn’t touched because Hitler wanted Oxford to be the new capital of England after defeating it.

Interestingly, Oxford was the capital of England during the English Civil War.

Find the door to Narnia

Close to the University Church of St Mary the Virgin, if you look hard enough, you will find the door to Narnia. Bold and undoubtedly eye-catching, with a fiery lion reaching out to you from the centre of its wooden core, this is the ‘Narnia Door’. CS Lewis was a tutor at the Magdalen College and would have walked past this door every day. No doubt he gained his inspiration for his young characters to step through the wardrobe door into a magical land because of this particular building. The famous street light is just a couple of metres away on this small Oxford street too!

Oxford has the first ever coffee house in England

The first ever cups of coffee in England were served in The Grand Café in Oxford.

Oxford and Cows

The meaning of the name ‘Oxford’ comes from the old word ‘Oxanforda’ which is a ford in the river where cattle can cross safely.

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How fast can you run a mile?

Roger Bannister, a medical student at Oxford University, was the first male to run a mile in less than four minutes! He ran a mile in 3 minutes and 59.4 seconds at the Iffley Road track.

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Burnt books at the Bodleian Library

Do you remember our infamous King, Henry VIII? He wanted to get a divorce from his wife who was Catholic, which was very difficult under the Catholic religion at the time! He sent his trusted right-hand man Cardinal Wolsey over to the Vatican to ask for a divorce, but the Pope refused.

In rebellion and to make sure the divorce happened, Henry VIII made his own church, the Church of England. Suddenly all of the University of Oxford’s books were out of date – as the Pope was at the top of the books and Henry VIII wasn’t. Tragically, as a result, all of the books were taken out of Bodleian library and burnt.

Thankfully, Thomas Bodleian donated all of his collection to the library to try and restore it – but only 3 of his books survive today in this collection. The University of Oxford has since then replenished the library and it is very much thriving.

A fortunate death?

Wolsey had to come back and break the news to Henry VIII that the Pope had refused his request to divorce. Henry VIII called Cardinal Wolsey to come and see him from Oxford in London to discuss this. Luckily for Cardinal Wolsey, he died on his way to see Henry VIII from a stomach virus. This is a far better death than what was most likely waiting for him. Henry VIII was well-known for torturing people!

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The Great Hall in Harry Potter is not here!

Warner Brothers wanted to film in Christ Church but they could not fit the four House’s Tables in Christ Church. Unfortunately they could only fit three.

Instead, they mapped out the entire college and built their own version in London. However, plenty of tourists still flock here believing they will see the exact halls! The good news is that you can see the Great Staircase here as well as the cloisters the students walk through in the film.

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Radcliffe Camera doesn’t have a camera

‘Camera’ is latin for Chamber. Hence, there are no technical properties in the Radcliffe Camera, but many history books! All the books are available online so not many students venture in, but there is a tunnel with a conveyor belt that connects the Bodleian library to the Radcliffe Camera. If you need one of the books, it will come from the library to where you are.

Oxfam is from Oxford

Oxfam, the Oxford Committee for Famine, was founded in Oxford in 1942 and the original building is still an Oxfam store on Broad Street.

Alice in Wonderland nearly never existed

Alice was a real child called Alice Liddell, whose Father was the leader of Christ Church college. The writer, Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll), was a professor of Mathematics and Logic, who spent time entertaining Alice whilst he taught at the University of Oxford. He made up his story about her but refused to write it down as he was a respected Mathematician and didn’t want to be associated with childrens’ books.

However, 20 years later as a wedding present for Alice, he wrote the whole story down and gave it to her in a book. Thankfully, she managed to convince him to publish it by encouraging him to choose a pen name. He chose Lewis Carroll and the book is now a cherished story. Make sure to venture into Alice’s Shop on 83 St Aldate’s.

True love

Alice in real life actually fell in love with Queen Victoria’s son Leopold, who was studying at the University of Oxford at the time. He asked Alice to marry him, but Queen Victoria refused because Alice wasn’t a princess. The lovers were separated and did not see each other again, but Alice had a son and called him Leopold and Leopold had a daughter and called her Alice.

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All Souls College

All Souls College is by far the most prestigious academic institution in the world. And getting in is extremely difficult! Only 80 can apply per year and only 2 students get in: sometimes just 1.

You will have already have to have done an Undergraduate degree and a Masters and the entrance exam is known to be the hardest University exam in the world. The answers are not a simple ‘Yes’ or ‘No’. Instead, applicants must very much creatively think out of the box and argue their answers well, in order to stand a chance of entering.

If you are lucky enough to get in, you can stay as long as you like! You are given 1400 British pounds per month along with accommodation and food.

Lawrence of Arabia was one of the lucky applicants to gain a place at All Souls College, and of all the things he achieved in his life, on his gravestone says one thing: ‘Fellow of All Souls College’.

The Bridge of Sighs

Replicating the Bridge of Sighs in Venice, northern Italy, one of Cambridge University’s famous bridges is the Bridge of Sighs. Being rivals, Oxford University wanted their own Bridge of Sighs and therefore built their own in 1913.

Keep out of the city walls

In the twelfth century, all Jews were banned from the city centre and from burying their dead within the walls. England was not doing well economically at the time and the Jews were accused of taking all the wealth by running such successful businesses. As a result, they had to carry their dead to London where there was a graveyard for them – and do it within 3 days according to the Jewish faith.

Oxford’s Botanic Garden is the oldest in the world

Founded in 1621, Oxford’s Botanical Garden is not only the oldest botanical garden in the world but it also where the old Jewish cemetery is too.

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