The origins of the university are obscure, but it seems that the reputation of Henry I, the so-called “Scholar King”, helped attract students in the early twelfth century. The first colleges, founded mostly by rich bishops, were essentially ecclesiastical institutions and this was reflected in collegiate rules and regulations – until 1877 lecturers were not allowed to marry, and women were not granted degrees until 1920. There are common architectural features among the 39 colleges, with the private student rooms and most of the communal rooms – chapels, halls (dining rooms) and libraries – arranged around quadrangles (quads). Each, however, has its own character and often a label, whether it’s the richest (St John’s), most left-wing (Wadham) or most public-school-dominated (Christ Church). Collegiate rivalries are long established, usually revolving around sports, and tension between the university and the city – “Town” and Gown” – has existed as long as the university itself.

Exploring the colleges

All the more popular colleges have restricted opening hours – and may close totally during academic functions. Most now also impose an admission charge, while some (such as University and Queens) are out of bounds to outsiders.

One nice way to get to see the university buildings (including those that are otherwise closed to outsiders) is to attend choral evensong, held during term time and offering the chance to enjoy superb music in historic surroundings for free. New College Choir is generally reckoned to be the best, while Queens College and Merton are also good. Some colleges also rent out student rooms in the vacations (see Accommodation).

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