Oxford has played a central part in the history of England and indeed of the wider world. To understand the interplay of people and places over the centuries in the city can be enjoyable as well as informative. It is hoped that these tours will open up the heritage of the University and the city in such a way as to evoke the events of the past in the places where they happened. They are designed for individuals or groups who want to explore particular aspects or themes within the history of Oxford or of particular interest to them. The following are examples of what can be offered.

The Medieval University
Oxford,the oldest University in the English speaking world, was established during the twelfth century, being only the fourth such foundation in Europe. A self governing institution from the early thirteenth century the structures established at that time still form the basis of the University in the twenty-first century. The colleges, first established in the reign of Henry III, have come to dominate the life of Oxford as a centre of education. This tour looks at the buildings associated with both the University and with the individual colleges,as well as the town of Oxford within which these great institutions developed. It also seeks to evoke the spirit of learning and conflict which permeated the medieval town - that of the great Schoolmen and of Chaucer.

Chaucer's Oxford

Geoffrey Chaucer not only included a clerk of 'Oxenford' amongst his Canterbury pilgrims but also set one of their stories, the Miller's Tale, in Oxford, and displays in it real local knowledge.This tour looks at what remains of late fourteenth century Oxford and evokes the world of John and his wife Alison, crafty Nicholas their lodger and Absalom the parish clerk. Chaucer was also interested in scientific knowledge and wrote a tract on the use of the astrolabe for his son Lewis. The tour can include the opportunity to view what may be Chaucer's own astrolabe, as well as the largest collection of these medieval instruments in Europe in the Museum of the History of Science.

John Wyclif's Oxford

John Wyclif (d.1384) can be considered the founder of English Protestantism. Much of his life was spent in Oxford as an academic and this tour explores the colleges in which he lived and the sites and remains of other institutions he would have known. The tour also includes the Lollard movement, inspired by Wyclif's ideas, and their translation of the Bible into English and the response to their radical ideas by the Church in the decades following his death.

Oxford and the English Reformation

Oxford played a crucial part in the intellectual background to the religiousupheavals of the sixteenth century, and witnessed dramatic events,notably the trial and execution of Latimer and Ridley, and then of Cranmer, in 1555 and 1556. Under Elizabeth I it was to prove a centre of continued adhesion to Catholicism, producing many of the most notable victims of the reign, including St Edmund Campion. From Wolsey's foundation in the 1520s of what Henry VIII transformed into Christ Church to colleges founded to maintain Catholic or Protestant doctrines, the tour blends people and places to evoke and explain the part played by Oxford in this turbulent era.

Elizabethan Oxford

After her enforced residence at Woodstock during her sister's reign Elizabeth I entered Oxford in state as Queen in 1566. The city she saw is faithfully recorded on Ralph Agas' map of 1578, enabling the modern visitor to envisage in detail the city as seen by the Queen, her courtiers, the students and the townspeople. A time of upheaval in academic and civic life the reign ended with Sir Thomas Bodley's re-establishment of the University library.

Oxford in the Age of Shakespeare

Although William Shakespeare (1564-1616) was not a member of the University he does appear to have travelled through Oxford on his journeys between London and his native Warwickshire. In the years after 1602 he is known to have stayed with the Davenant family at their inn here on these occasions. This tour concentrates on what he would have seen and the character of the city and University during his lifetime.

Oxford and the King James Bible
The King James translation of the Bible of 1611 has played acentral part in the religious, cultural and linguistic life of the English speaking world ever since its publication. Much of the work of translation was done in Oxford and this tour introduces the personalitie sand places asscoiated with the work. In the spring and summer of 2011 there will be a major exhibition at the Bodleian to mark the quartercentenary of the publication, and the tour could be linked to a visit to that, or taken at other times.

Charles I and Oxford

From late in 1642 until 1646 Oxford served as King Charles I's capitalduring the Civil War. Many of the buildings which the King and courtiers occupied and saw still survive, and this tour aims to introduce them. It also aims to explore the part Oxford played in the background to the war, the personalities with the Court in Oxford, and the impact on the city and its life.

Restoration Oxford

The life of Oxford in the reigns of Charles II and James II and into the early eighteenth century. In this period Oxford was to witness the lastmeeting of Parliament outside London, the beginnings of the Royal Society and significant developments in the scientific world. It was the great age of antiquarians such as John Aubrey, Anthony a Wood and Thomas Hearne, and saw the establishment by Elias Ashmole of the first modern museum. It also saw the building of several of the city's most famous landmarks, including works by Wren, Hawksmoor and Gibbs. 

Royal Oxford

From its earliest days Oxford has had strong links to the Crown. This tour seeks to bring these to the fore, from St Frideswide and the legendary foundation of the University by King Alfred, through events such as thedeath of King Edmund II, the flight of the Empress Matilda from the castle, the births of King Richard I and King John, royal visits and the foundation of colleges down to the student days of King Edward VII and King Edward VIII and other royal figures.

Arthurian Oxford

Geoffrey of Monmouth whose writings, notably The History of the Kings of Britain, played a central part in the transmission of the Welsh legends of King Arthur to the wider world of medieval and later Europe, lived in Oxford in the years 1129 to 1151. This tour looks at the places he can reasonably be assumed to have known and their remains today. It also looks at the nineteenth century retelling of the Arthurian legend in the murals in the Old Library of the Oxford Union, when members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood decorated what was then the Society's debating chamber. It was at this time that William Morris met and married his wife here in the city. 

The Oxford Movement

The Oxford Movement of 1833 remains of crucial significance to the life ofthe Church of England and to that of the Roman Catholic Church both in this country and worldwide. A story of a group of idealistic men,played out against the backdrop of the dreaming spires, and, ultimately, of the choices they made. This tour seeks to explain theOxford Movement both in its own terms and in the context of nineteenth century English life, and to visit colleges and churches associated with Keble, Newman, Froude and Pusey and their followers.

The Oxford of Newman

John Henry Newman (1801-1890) was one of the most remarkable religious thinkers of the nineteenth century. His contributions to theology, church life and educational thought, and his literary impact remain ofoutstanding importance. This tour looks specifically at places associated with John Henry Newman in the city centre. It can be adapted to visit the houses he occupied in what are now the suburbs of the city and a visit to Littlemore with the church he built and the college,where he was received as a Catholic in 1845. With the impending beatification of the Cardinal in 2010 these tour options have an added interest and relevance.

Catholic Oxford

This tour aims to introduce the Catholic heritage of the University andcity. It ranges from the middle ages through the reformation and downto the Catholic revival of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Awalk through the centuries to meet, amongst others, Roger Bacon, Duns Scotus and William of Ockham, Cardinal Wolsey, St Edmund Campion and St Nicholas Owen, John Henry Newman, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Ronald Knox and Evelyn Waugh.

Victorian Oxford

The reign of Queen Victoria witnessed the transformation of the University of Oxford froma sleepy Barchester-like world to being at the intellectual heart of a world-wide empire. The reforms of the mid-century led to the emergenceof the University very much in essence as we see it today. Many of ourcontemporary images of Oxford are a product of the late Victorian world. The tour includes nineteenth century college and University buildings, some of the personalities who created and used them, and theexpansion of the city in response to a changing world.

John Betjeman's Oxford / Evelyn Waugh's Oxford / Oxford in the age of Brideshead
Evelyn Waugh (1903-1966) and John Betjeman (1906-1984) both studied in Oxfordin the 1920s. Their books and poems record not only that world but also form a significant portrait of English life over much of the twentiethcentury. These tours, adapted according to the interests of the participants, follow the Oxford lives of these two writers and their friends.  

Literary Oxford in the Twentieth Century

Twentiethcentury Oxford has produced a rich crop of writers in a wide variety ofgenres - T.E.Lawrence, Max Beerbohm, T.S.Eliot, Evelyn Waugh, John Betjeman, W.H.Auden, Dorothy L.Sayers, C.S.Lewis, J.R.R.Tolkien, Charles Williams, Ronald Knox, John Wain, Iris Murdoch, Graham Greene, J.I.M.Stewart (Michael Innes), Edmund Crispin, Robertson Davies  - to name but the better known. This tour takes in their colleges, pubs and other haunts.

Tours outside Oxford - medieval Cathedrals

If you are staying or based in Oxford I can also provide guided visits to some of the medieval cathedrals and abbeys which can be reached from Oxford. So if you have the time and would like to visit the cathedrals at Winchester, Salisbury, Worcester or Hereford, or Tewkesbury Abbey, or explore the history and legends of Glastonbury, Evesham or Reading, contact me and we will see what we can arrange.

Organising a walking tour

These are examples of some of the tours I have given. They can be adapted to suit particular individual and group interests. If there is a tour illustrating some other aspect of the history of the University or city you would like to arrange please enquire if I am able to organise it for you. As the tours are organised to suit your timetable they are not tied to fixed hours or dates, or only available on pre-arranged days. This places the choice with the customer.

The walks are suitable for private groups,societies, summer schools and conferences. They can be adapted to fit with the themes and subjects of educational courses. They are an idea way to intoduce Oxford to students on visiting programmes.

If you are organising a conference in Oxford why not contact me to see if I can provide a tour that is tailored or related to the theme under discussion, or that will provide an informed leisure activity or introduction to the city and university?


I always seek, whenever possible, to adapt the length of these tours to suit the individual requirements of the group. Thus if you want a brief introduction within a busy schedule, or want to spend a whole day on a single theme I will try to provide the tour you want.


Fees on application. As a guide the basic cost for an average small party would be £50. The price can vary with the size of the party or the length of time involved in a walk.

Contact for further information and booking

Telephone: +44 7470 296743
E-mail: jrwhitehead2000@yahoo.co.uk

Who I am...

John Whitehead is a member of Oriel College. A freelance tutor in History he has lectured widely on local history both in Oxford and elsewhere. He is the author of both a book and several articles on aspects of the history of Oxford. His particular interests include medieval and church history, on which he is working for a doctorate, and in that of the Catholic Church and the Oxford movement.

To find out more about him please visit his blog: Once I Was A Clever Boy

...and who has walked round Oxford with me

"I have been giving tours of Oxford since 1994. That summer I gave a weekend course of lectures and tours to The Oriel Society on the medieval University of Oxford. Since then I have given many conducted tours of the college and university for visiting academic groups and others, including Northern Illinois University, Michigan State University, the Tübingen “Ars et Scientia” Graduertienkolleg/Oxford European Humanities Research Centre, the Collège de l'Europe, Thomas More College, St Bede's Hall, the English Speaking Union (annually from 1994 to 1999), the 1995 and 2001 Oxford Newman Conferences, the CIEL 2006 Conference, on several occasions for the National Art Collections Fund, for the 2008 conference to mark the 175th Anniversary of The Oxford Movement, for the 2009 Young Milton conference, for Oxford Civic Society, for the Brothers of the Birmingham Oratory, for Forward in Faith, the Furniture History Society, the Oxford Newman Society, the Oxford University Betjeman Society and the Oxford University Heraldry Society."