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(History of Oxford V)


Economic decline and the Reformation

In the 14th century there came a decline in prosperity and the Black Death (1349) dealt a heavy blow to what was, until then, an expanding population. One of the consequences of this decline was a surplus of land which was quickly bought up and used for the foundation of further University colleges in the 14th century. There followed a rapid building programme and massive reorganisation of the university structure, which brought a measure of isolation from the town where scholars were previously hosted in private houses. Teaching was now to be in the hands of the individual colleges.

Another social and religious upheaval was to have a remarkable influence on the development of the University, namely the Reformation. With Henry VIII came the dissolution of religious institutions and in Oxford this meant that the property held by the religious congregations was to pass into the hands of the colleges. This, of course, favoured the University. Christ Church, for example, was built upon the site of St Frideswide's (1546), then followed Trinity (1555), St John's (1555), Gloucester Hall (1560, which later became Worcester College).

However, there was also a negative aspect to this upheaval. Most of the scholars and lecturers were clerics and this meant a serious disruption of academic activities and a decline in the number of students. They were also dangerous times and perhaps the spread of radical ideas even more dangerous. These factors were enough to deter many from attending the University. During the reign of Mary I it was in Oxford that the Protestant martyrs Cranmer, Latimer and Ridley were burned in what is now Broad Street. As a consequence of the reorganisation of the church in England Henry VIII created the new diocese of Oxford and it was during his reign and precisely in 1542 that Oxford was granted the status of a city with its cathedral at Christ Church.

The decline and prosperity of the University always brought in its wake a corresponding decline in the prosperity of the town which provided scribes, bookbinders, and other craftsmen connected with the academic world. These were hard times for Oxford, the very existence of the University that gave the town wealth and prestige was passing through a precarious stage in its development.



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latest update: 9/3/03