55 Fun & Interesting Facts about Oxford University, England

Oxford University is perhaps the world’s most well-known academic institution. Have you ever wondered what Oxford University is known for?

Find out below with these 5 educational, interesting, and fun facts about Oxford University. First you’ll find some general facts, followed by more random interesting facts, famous graduates, and finally some historical facts about Oxford.  

General Oxford University Facts

  • Oxford University is the world’s second-oldest university in continuous operation, after the University of Bologna in Italy. Teaching at Oxford goes back to at least 1096 CE.
View of the circular Radcliffe Camera building at Oxford University
Radcliffe Camera, often considered the center or focal point of Oxford University
  • Oxford is also the world’s oldest university where English is the main language of instruction.
  • Oxford lies on the River Thames, which originates near Bristol, and flows on through London before reaching the North Sea. In Oxford it is often called The Isis, which from an older name for the river, Tamesis.
  • The University of Oxford doesn’t have a campus; the colleges and institutes are scattered around the city.
Some ducks on the River Thames in Oxford
The River Thames in Oxford
  • Oxford University consists of 39 self-governing colleges and 6 permanent private halls (PPH). The main difference between the two is that the colleges are governed by fellows (senior members) of the college, while the PPHs are each governed by a specific Christian denomination.
Ashmolean Museum's original building
Ashmolean Museum was originally housed in this building on Broad Street in Oxford.
  • Oxford University offers a collegiate system by which students can study all subjects at each college.

Random Interesting Facts About Oxford University

  • Each college or school in Oxford University is independent with its own internal structure and activities.
  • While walking around the university, many feel that they’re being watched by the eyes on the gargoyles. Some of them look humourous, while others are fearsome in appearance.
A gargoyle with a human face on the side of a building at Oxford University
Gargoyle on Magdalen College in Oxford
  • The only complete specimen of the dodo, a flightless extinct bird from the island of Mauritius, is found in the Oxford Museum of Natural History. It is called the Oxford Dodo.
  • There are two Oxfords in Canada (Oxford county, Ontario, and Oxford town, Nova Scotia), an Oxford town in New Zealand, and 21 Oxfords in the USA.
  • The Oxford Comma comes from the university’s press, where this comma is typically used.
Aerial view of Brasenose College at Oxford University
Brasenose College is named after a door knocker shaped like a nose.
  • Some colleges have unusual names like Brasenose College, which is named after a bronze door knocker that looks like an animal’s snout.
  • Grafitti on the stairs of the Great Hall of Christ Church College, says “no peel”, probably in protest against Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel (in office 1841–1846).
  • Harry Potter movies feature a lot of buildings around Oxford University.
  • All Souls College is one of the most difficult academic institutions to get admitted to. Only 80 students are allowed to apply, and sometimes only one or two are accepted.
A row of boats called punts in Oxford
Punts on River Cherwell, a tributary of the Thames in Oxford
  • Visitors to Oxford often take part in punting, wherein they sit in a boat in the river, and a guide pushes it along with a pole.
  • There’s a legend that says that the university’s Bridge of Sighs was closed to force the students to take the stairs to stay fit. This isn’t true, and actually, students take more stairs if they decide to take the bridge from the old to new quads.
  • There has been talk of Oxford University applying for UNESCO World Heritage Site status, but it has never happened.

Famous Graduates of Oxford University

Below are some of the most famous people who have graduated from Oxford University.

Politicians

Some famous politicians who graduated from Oxford University
Oxford alumni King Edward VII, Emperoro Naruhito, Boris Johnson, and Tony Abbot
  • King Edward VII and King Edward VIII of the United Kingdom are Oxford graduates.
  • 28 of the UK’s prime ministers have been Oxford University graduates. These include Boris Johnson, Theresa May, David Cameron, Tony Blair, and Margaret Thatcher.
  • Several kings, princes, and members of royal families from other countries also graduated from Oxford University. These include King Abdullah II of Jordan, King Tuanku Abdul Halim of Malaysia, King Harald V of Norway, and Emperor Naruhito of Japan.
  • Many non-English Heads of State and Heads of Government also graduated from Oxford University. These include the Canadian Prime Minister John Turner, Fijian Prime Minister Kamisese Mara, and Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott.

Religious Figures

  • Several Christian saints are graduates of Oxford University. These include John Boste, Alexander Briant, and Cuthbert Mayne.
  • 19 English cardinals and 20 Archbishops of Canterbury have also graduated from Oxford.
  • Shoghi Effendi, Guardian of the Baha’i Faith, was an Oxford University graduate.

Authors

Exterior of Christ Church in Oxford University
Christ Church college inspired many scenes Alice in Wonderland
  • Percy Shelley, Cecil Day-Lewis, and John Abbot are among the most famous poets who graduated from Oxford University.
  • Dr. Seuss, Lewis Carroll, Oscar Wilde, and JRR Tolkien are famous novelists and writers who are Oxford University graduates. Lewis Carroll also taught at the university until he passed away.
  • Lewis Carroll, the famous author, got the inspiration for Alice in his story Alice In Wonderland from Alice Liddell, whose father was the leader of Christ Church College at Oxford. Many scenes in the story are inspired by places at Oxford.
  • Dorothy L. Sayers was one of the first women to gain an academic degree from Oxford University. She also set her detective novel Gaudy Night in the all-female Shrewsbury College of Oxford.

Others

  • Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, graduated from Oxford University with a first-class degree in physics.
  • The British actor Hugh Grant graduated from Oxford University with upper second-class honors.
  • Nigella Lawson, the British food writer and TV cook, graduated from the University of Oxford.
  • Rupert Murdoch, the media mogul, studied at Oxford University.

Historical Facts About Oxford University

  • Oxford town was built around the year 900, and the name refers to a river crossing or ford for oxen. It comes from the word Oxanforda, which means cattle crossing.
  • The whole town was damaged and rebuilt after Willian the Conqueror took over England (1066).
A old wall at some Oxford nunnery ruins
Ruins of a nunnery at Oxford
  • The exact founding date of Oxford University is uncertain, but it was founded by medieval monks for teaching the clergy. There was teaching taking place by 1096.
  • The university grew rapidly in the late 1100s after King Henry II banned English students from studying at the University of Paris and many relocated to Oxford.
  • Because of some disputes with the townsfolk in 1209, some academics fled Oxford and started a new establishment, the University of Cambridge, to the northeast. It is considered the world’s 3rd oldest university.
  • After King Henry VIII founded the Church of England, he had most of the books in the Bodleian Library at Oxford burned because they talked about the Pope.
Exterior of Bodleian Library at Oxford
Bodleian Library is the main research library at Oxford and one of the oldest in Europe.
  • During the English Civil War in the mid-1600s, Oxford became the capital of England for a few years.
  • Until the 1820s, no new universities besides Oxford and Cambridge were allowed to be opened in England.
  • Women were only allowed to attend undergraduate examinations at Oxford after a law was passed by the university in 1875.
Two Oxford graduates walking under the Bridge of Sighs at Oxford University
Some graduates walking under the Bridge of Sighs
  • In the past, all exams were oral exams, where students would spend 3 days answering questions in blocks of 7 hours.
  • During World War II, Oxford University remained unharmed.
  • In 1989, Oxford University Press’ printing house at Oxford was closed, and it has been contracting out its printing work ever since.
  • In 2008, St. Hilda’s, the last female-only college at Oxford, started admitting male students.