A Tale of Two Cities and Two Traditions: Sporting Showdown Defines Academia's Ancient Rivalry

By Johnson, Gordon | The Independent (London, England), March 26, 2005 | Go to article overview
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A Tale of Two Cities and Two Traditions: Sporting Showdown Defines Academia's Ancient Rivalry


Johnson, Gordon, The Independent (London, England)


THE INTENSE rivalry between Oxford and Cambridge reaches its annual climax tomorrow when the calm of the Thames will be shattered by the plash of oars, the shouts of coxes and the whoops of quarter of a million people along the river banks as the boat-race crews battle against each other, the wind, the current and the tide to see which is the faster in a contest lasting barely 20 minutes.

At the end, one crew celebrates glory and the other plunges to despair; until next year, when all will be repeated. Oxford and Cambridge have been at it, on and off, since 1829.

Ferocious competition between the universities has been the norm since a crackdown on antisocial behaviour by Oxford students in 1209 drove some to flee. Barely stopping at Northampton and Stamford, either of which might have become a university town, they sought the safety of the Fens and the protection of the Bishop of Ely in Cambridge. Since then, the institutions have vied with each other.

Oxford and Cambridge have a similar purpose: to promote learning and research, and to educate the young for the benefit of society. And they have continued to adapt as newer universities in Britain have taken their place alongside them. But Oxford and Cambridge continue to occupy a special place.

Every supporter of Oxford knows it is a serious city with close links to London, the Royal Court and Parliament. It was always a big place, thinking well of itself and taking pride in its metropolitan connections and its industrial activity. Cambridge is out of the way, perched on the edge of a flat and watery country, home of dissidents, and of Chivers jam and Unwins seeds, a market town along a sluggish river, which scholarly refugees came to dominate and to provide the main business.

Oxford has always claimed a higher profile, especially in affairs of church and state. Every university-educated prime minister of Britain since Churchill has been an Oxford graduate. But in the 20th century, Cambridge can claim only Balfour, Baldwin and Campbell- Bannerman.

Cambridge graduates have tended to be civil servants, lawyers, teachers and humbler professional people, powers behind the throne, less flamboyant than Oxford contemporaries perhaps, but quietly influential.

In matters ecclesiastical, both universities had a bloody reformation, but Cambridge was more puritanical in its theologies, resistant to the policies of Archbishop Laud in the 17th century. Oxford tended to be royalist in the Civil Wars; Cambridge had Oliver Cromwell as a favoured son.

The great stirring of religious conscience at the end of the 18th century, the revulsion at secularism, and dismay at the creeping authority of the state in church affairs in the next century found expression in Oxford in the agonising of John Henry Newman and the vigour of the Oxford Movement.

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