In the first decade of the 13th century, England (like much of Europe) was embroiled in conflict between church and state. Some of this conflict was academic in nature with power struggles unfolding between sovereign rulers and religious leaders. For example, King John was in a heated dispute with the Pope over his appointment of a new Archbishop of Canterbury, an act that led to his excommunication. Some of this conflict, however, was more physical in nature. For example, ruing interference from the secular world, the church incited angry mobs to turn on society’s objectionable minority groups (gays, lepers, Jews; the usual suspects).
~What I imagine 13th century angry mobs were like~
In 1209, against this backdrop of civil unrest, an Oxford University student reportedly killed a local woman. In revenge, the angry townsmen formed a violent lynch mob and hanged not only the culprit but also several other students who were entirely innocent. The King, siding against the then church-run university, backed the townsmen in their actions and rioting broke out between Oxford’s townsfolk (townies) and scholars (gownies). [Note that townies and gownies can still be seen going fisticuffs on most Saturday nights in Oxford’s George St].
~13th century Oxford Gownies – ripe for a good beating, really. ~
To escape the rioting, and looking for a fresh start, a number of scholars fled into the countryside, eventually settling in the marshy fens of Cambridge. Despite the numerous patent problems they had experienced at Oxford’s University (and in what can only be described as a sheer lack of creativity), these Oxonian refugees established a new University in Cambridge that, for all intents and purposes, was exactly the same as that which they had just left.
~ Oxford (left) / Cambridge (right) ~
Oxford and Cambridge universities are both at the top end of the higher education ladder. They share a common collegiate structure, a three-term academic calendar, and a privileged system of tutorial teaching. Both universities own most of land within their respective cities They both have well-regarded publishing houses, botanical gardens, debating societies, science parks, business schools, and more museums than you can poke a medieval sword at. The two cities share a common architectural style, a profusion of fields and meadows and both are entirely overrun by bicycles. They also both boast a picturesque river flowing through the center of town, and a love of punting down it in the springtime. In fact, Oxford and Cambridge are so alike that you can refer to them both with a single word: Oxbridge.
Unsurprisingly, the two cities also look incredibly similar.
[ Can you guess which photo is which city]
As a visitor, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the blatant similarities between Oxford and Cambridge reflect a deep underlying harmony and unity between them. But oh how wrong you’d be.
Like most cities (and even nations) that have more in common than they’d like to admit, there is a fierce and long-standing rivalry between these two cities. Although they have yet to resort to the juvenile name-calling antics that typify other inter-country enmities (G’day to all the sheep-shagging Kiwis reading this – feel free to ‘shear’ this post on Facebook), rivalry between Oxford and Cambridge is a phenomenon going back many centuries. It even has its own Wikipedia entry.
~ Look fierce boys, there you go ~
The rivalry is principally academic. Oxford lays claim to having produced an astonishing 26 British prime ministers and over 30 international heads of government. But for overall academic excellence, Cambridge currently has bragging rights (in 2012 it ranked second in the world, compared to Oxford’s 6th place). Cambridge prides itself on being a world leader in pioneering science (having produced Newton, Darwin, Rutherford, and both Crick and Watson) and has produced 89 Nobel Laureates, to Oxford’s comparatively paltry 59. However, a look at a list of famous alumni reveals that across all faculties Oxford has at least double Cambridge’s celebrity count.
Oxbridge rivalry holds just as strongly on the playing field as in the academic arena, however. Varsity matches – or Battles of the Blues – are major sporting events in Britain, with millions of people turning out or tuning in to watch the annual boat race and rugby match. It is really no surprise why – the teams could not be more evenly matched: Cambridge has 87 boat race wins and 61 rugby wins compared to Oxford’s 83 and 56 wins (now don’t get excited Cambridge supporters, that isn’t even close to being statistically different).
As cities go Oxford is larger and more vibrant, and is clearly the preferred tourist destination (9.5 million tourists visit Oxford each year, while just 4.1 million bother to see Cambridge). Cambridge feels like an overgrown market town, and has the dubious honour of having a higher rate of bicycle theft than Oxford. But it is cute and cosy, far less industrial and incredibly picturesque.
With such a neck and neck race, which then is better? Oxford or Cambridge?
As a relative outsider, I could take the high road and say that the answer is both. Both cities and universities are special in their own way, and excel in uniquely different ways. But, I won’t, because when it comes to geographic sibling rivalries home loyalties are all that’s important (even if they’re only three years in the making), and Oxford has my vote.
So how can we resolve the Oxbridge rivalry objectively and impartially once and for all?
Let’s leave it to “Googlefight”
So there you have it folks – Oxford is better (just).