Out of Town

The story of the Oxford vs Cambridge rivalry

When British people talk about our most prestigious universities, they refer to them simply as Oxbridge. Because these institutions are so equal in standing, status, and reputation, we tend to amalgamate them into an amorphous mass of higher education.

However, to a student of either school, placing them on equal footing would be a transgression close to blasphemy. For centuries, Oxford and Cambridge have continued a healthy rivalry that has brought the two closer together in its own strange way.

From the boat race to the University Challenge, competition has helped Cambridge and Oxford to push their limits and produce some of the most important students in the world. Let’s learn a little about the history of these two amazing universities.

Founding a legacy

things to do in oxford

Oxford is clearly the older of the two universities. Though it has no official founding date, teaching at Oxford was recorded as early as 1096. The masters teaching there were officially recognised as universitas in 1231.

The official rivalry began when, in the late 12th century, a mass of Oxford masters fled from the town. The story goes that two scholars were hanged by the townsfolk without trial following the mysterious death of a local woman.

Looking for a safe haven, the scholars found themselves in Cambridge and decided to continue their practices there. Fast forward more than eight hundred years, and the two universities continue to be recognized as among the best in the world.

The best of the best

Oxford College

Between them, Oxford and Cambridge have produced some of the most influential and celebrated alumni in the world. Which is more eminent? Well, we’ll let you decide for yourself.

In June 1661, a young, aspiring academic named Isaac Newton matriculated into Trinity College Cambridge to study for his Bachelor of Arts. In those days, teaching focussed mostly on the works of Aristotle, although the young man supplemented his studies with reading from modern philosophers and astronomers.

Sir Isaac Newton would change the very foundation of science with his work on Mathematics, Optics, and Physics, becoming one of the greatest academics ever to live.

In 1878, an immaculately-dressed young man was called into the Chancellor’s Court in Oxford. The university had furnished him with 14 packs of playing cards, an abundance of Venetian glassware, several travelling cases and innumerable haircuts.

The young gentleman had finally been called in to pay his debts. Much later, he would be known to the world as Oscar Wilde – one of the world’s greatest writers and poets.

Aside from Wilde, Oxford University has also graduated Bill Clinton, C.S. Lewis, Aldous Huxley, Lewis Carol, Tony Blair, Emma Thompson, and J.R.R. Tolkien.

On the other hand, Cambridge has seen Charles Darwin, Alan Turing, Stephen Fry, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Bertrand Russel, and John Cleese pass through its doors. Which roster do you think is more impressive?

The Boat Race

Boa Race Oxford

Perhaps the very height of Oxbridge’s competitiveness, the Boat Race is an annual rowing race on the River Thames in London. In the long-standing men’s race, Cambridge edges out Oxford by 82 wins to 81 – a startling lead, to be sure.

The final score

Oxford and Cambridge are rated among the world’s top six universities. The UK’s national university league tables almost always put Oxford and Cambridge in the number one and two positions. Which university is in the top spot appears to be a matter of the winds as much as anything else. However, you can be sure that their students know the true score.

Check out our day tours from London if you want to visit Oxford or Cambridge. We know you’ll have a wonderful time whichever you choose to visit.