16 surprising facts about the UK’s oldest universities

Sean Campbell
Sean Campbell
Last Updated: 25 March 2021 • 8 min read

The UK is home to a number of extremely old universities, with some dating back almost 1,000 years. With all that history comes a flurry of surprising, interesting, zany, and downright crazy facts and in some cases, wild rumours.

Here, we’ll look not only at the UK’s oldest universities, but we’ll dive just a little deeper into some of the more outlandish facts and stories about them. 

Which is the oldest university in the UK? 

  1. Oxford University
  2. Cambridge University
  3. St Andrews University
  4. University of Glasgow
  5. University of Aberdeen
  6. University of Edinburgh
  7. University of Manchester
  8. University College London
  9. Durham University
  10.  Aberystwyth University

 

The oldest university in the UK is Oxford University. Given its prestige, that shouldn’t really come as a surprise, but just how old is Oxford University? 

Well, we don’t know for sure when its grand grounds were built, but we do know that it’s been an educational establishment since at least 1096. 

3 surprising facts about Oxford University

  • Not only is Oxford the first oldest university in the UK, it’s the single oldest university in the English speaking world.
  • Prior to the UK having its very own university, young gifted minds would go overseas to Paris, France, to study. But after King Henry II banned this in 1167 after a fall out with his Archbishop Thomas Becket, Oxford University began to flourish. If it weren’t for that seemingly innocuous rift between the two men, perhaps Oxford would never have become what it is today!
  • You may be familiar with the English slang word “snob”? It basically means someone who considers themselves of a higher class than others, and looks down upon those they consider to be below their social class. Well, the word originated at Oxford University! It stems from the Latin “Sine nobilitate”, meaning, “without nobility”.

Bonus fact: Latin, not English, was the language of academic middle-ages England. English was considered more the language of the, ahem, “common people.”

The second oldest university in the UK is Cambridge University. Cambridge University was established in 1209 after something of a fallout between the scholars of Oxford and the local townspeople. 

You see, Oxford was experiencing frequent riots between the academics and the non-academic locals. In fact, these very clashes were the basis for the English phrase “Town & Gown”, as academic scholars of Oxford wore gowns daily (there’s another two bonus facts for you).  

To escape the riots, many scholars from Oxford relocated 140km away to the town of Cambridge, where they lived under the watch (and protection )of a town master. Over the following centuries, Cambridge University grew and was eventually recognised by the Pope in 1318.     

3 surprising facts about Cambridge University

  • Cambridge University is LITERALLY the home of football. That’s right, football was invented at Cambridge University. In 1843, the “Cambridge Rules” were drafted, and the game was played. Soon after, the Football Association was created, and they took most of the rules from Cambridge. No Cambridge, no Messi vs Ronaldo, no Maradonna vs Pele, no MBappe vs Haaland. Think about that. 
  • Cambridge was the place of study of scores of famous names, but four of the most well known are Sir Isaac Newton, who discovered gravity and created Calculus, and Charles Darwin, the man who wrote the theory of evolution by natural selection -- the rule upon which modern evolutionary theory is founded. Cambrigde was also the university of theoretical physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking, as well as Florence Nightingale, the founder of modern nursing. 
  • The legendary romantic poet Lord Byron is believed to have kept a PET BEAR in his room while attending Cambridge between 1805 and 1808. Why?? Well, Lord Byron was a notorious rule-bender, and dogs weren’t allowed at Cambridge. So he got himself a bear. Really. He did. A bear. 

 

Moving north to Scotland, the third oldest university in the UK is the University of St Andrews. Recognised as one of the most beautiful and eminent universities on the planet, St Andrews was  founded by a Christian religious order known as the Augustinians in 1413. 

As mentioned above, students from Britain were often sent to Paris to study. But a religious disagreement known as the Avignon Schism drove the Augustinians from Parisian universities, and then a War of Independence drove them from English Universities. And so they went it alone. More bonus facts!

3 (more) surprising facts about the University of St Andrews

  • A royal love story: The famous royal couple, Prince William and Kate Middleton met and started dating while attending the University of St Andrews. In case you were wondering, Kate (now the Duchess of Cambridge) studied History of Art, while Prince William studied Geography. 
  • St Andrew’s was Scotland’s first university to allow women to enrol and study on an equal footing with men. In 1895, Agnes Forbes Blackadder became the first woman to graduate from the university with an MA. She went on to have a successful career as a medical doctor, leading the way for women to continue smashing it in STEM.
  • Now for some horrible history: in 1528, a religious reformist by the name of Patrick Hamilton was sentenced to death for his controversial beliefs. He was burned alive on the grounds on St Andrews. Today, the initials PH are embedded in the cobble stones upon the place he burned. According to reports, he cursed the entire area as he died. Students avoid stepping on the stones as they walk by to avoid bad luck or bad exam results! 
  • It’s stepping away from “fact”, but St. Andrew’s has a whole host of scary stories from days gone by. Read all about them in our article about the most haunted universities in the world

And the rest: 7 more surprising (and shocking) facts about the UK’s oldest universities

2 surprising facts about the Durham University

  • Durham University is the UK’s luckiest university for love. According to some fascinating statistics, around 70% of Durham University students marry one another. For comparison’s sake, that percentage is around 20% at other UK universities. 
  • Durham University is also something of a sporting hub. 92% of students at Durham participate in sport. They particularly specialise in fencing (that one that’s kind of link sword -fighting), rowing, and cricket. Indeed former England cricket captain Nasser Hussain was at Durham University.

2 surprising facts about the Edinburgh University

  • Edinburgh University, the UK’s 6th oldest university, has an astonishing list of medical and scientific achievements. The Edinburgh Medical School created antiseptic to sterilize surgical tools. They discovered a form of anesthesia (that thing that puts you to sleep for surgery), Oxytocin (the hormone associated with love), and they also developed a vaccine for Hepatitis B, and helped develop the treatment for Tuberculosis. On the scientific front, Alexander Graham Bell, who created the telephone, was an alumnus of Edinburgh. 
  • Edinburgh University has a pretty great literary heritage too. Sherlock Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a student here, while Robert Louis Stevenson, the writer of Treasure Island and Kidnapped was also here. In fact, Stevenson created the UK’s oldest student magazine, aptly called The Student, while at the university in 1887.

3 surprising facts about the University College London

  • University College London, which is the 8th oldest university in the UK, became the very first university in the UK to admit women in 1878 (even before St Andrew’s in Scotland). 
  • University College London  has also featured in some extremely famous movies including Gladiator, Inception, and Batman Begins. The front quad was used as a model for Ancient Rome in the Gladiator, while both Inception and Batman Begins filmed scenes in the portico and the main library. For Batman superfans, you may also recognise the university’s National Institute for Medical Research, which was used as Arkham Asylum, while the courtroom trial scene in the movie was filmed in the Thomas Lewis Center.

And finally, one more horrible history for you, this time again from the University College of London:

  • A UCL philosophy professor by the name of Jeremy Bentham asked that upon his death in 1832, his body would be taken care of in a rather strange way. His head was removed and mummified, while his skeleton was put on display to the public. You can see it there today -- he is seated on a chair in a glass case, fully clothed, with a wax model of his head on top, looking very calm and friendly. As for his actual head, well that’s been kept preserved too, in a climate controlled room. 

 

“Why???” I hear you thinking, “Why would he do this?”. 

Well, Bentham was an odd fellow by all accounts. Apparently, he wanted it to be possible for his body to be wheeled out at social gatherings, just in case his old friends and colleagues missed him! 

Here’s hoping these facts about the UK’s oldest universities have piqued your interest in studying abroad in the UK. If you’re thinking about studying in the UK, check out the amazing range of courses provided by our partner universities.

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Sean Campbell
Written By
Sean Campbell

Sean is a writer, copywriter & editor from Ireland.


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