Blue Blood: a history of the world-famous Oxbridge rivalry

The banks of the river Thames rang out again this Sunday, but who wins the rivalry race?

The banks of the river Thames rang out again this Sunday with the familiar combination of crazed chanting, warm prosecco and overly sporty sunglasses as the annual spectacle of the University boat race careered around the bend. The ever present – if vaguely non PC – Oxfordian cry of “I’d rather be a leper than a Tab” was broken only by Cambridge’s own retort “Shove your Dreaming Spires up your arse” (both sung, by the way, to the tune of “She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain.”)

The soul of the ancient Oxford/Cambridge rivalry was alive and well

Nevermind that the most animated chanters were a merry combination of Americans who’d overdressed for the occasion, and pale first year students who’d never been very good at sports but are enjoying this new-found camaraderie, especially if Sandra from the college Lacrosse team is getting into it – the soul of the ancient Oxford/Cambridge rivalry was alive and well. But in that sea of plastic beer cups and trigger-warning-prefaced verbal slurs, those gathered on the banks would do well to remember that this thing runs deep: 850 years deep, to be precise. Here’s our rundown of the bloodiest battlegrounds in the world’s oldest university rivalry.

Blue Blood: a history of the world-famous Oxbridge rivalry
Cambridge University

The Cambridge Splinter Cell

It’s sometime near the end of the twelfth century, and the University of Oxford has been doing a brisk trade in schooling the richer sons of the landed gentry for several decades. But then a couple of dons are hanged over the death of an unknown lady, and all hell (read: a few angry academics) breaks loose. Many of the city’s other dons, who had rather been gunning for a pardon on the part of the trussed up tutors, suspended all teaching in protest. A handful of them, appalled by the conduct of the town’s ecclesiastical authorities, decided to set up shop elsewhere: namely in Paris, Cambridge, and that other modern powerhouse of learning, Reading. And so Cambridge University was born – a kind of idealistic, petulant and plucky younger sibling to its western brother; born of a mutual suspicion and distaste and an unshakeable superiority complex. And the sibling rivalry has been raging ever since.

Just Not Cricket

The genteel arena of Lords, alive with the knock of leather on willow, might seem at odds with such vitriol. But the annual Oxford vs Cambridge cricket match (known as The University Match from a time when there were no others) has come to distill the mutual disdain. The historical seesaw is finely balanced, with Cambridge taking home 59 wins to Oxford’s 56. And with the stakes this high, it can be helpful to attribute any defeat to an act of God – as Cambridge did in the infamous “thunderstorm match” of 1923.

Torrential rainfall between the two days turned the pitch into a bayou, and saw a floundering Cambridge team bowled all out in two innings. But no game reeks stronger of divine inspiration than the much vaunted Cobden’s Match. On the second day of the 1870 test Oxford needed to make 179 to win. By lunchtime, they had batted their way to 175 for 7 – the match, for all money, was in the bag. But then Frank Cobden stepped up in the dying of the light, and in just six ingenious balls dismissed the final three Oxford batsmen to enact the most vicious comeback in cricketing history. The Dark Blues still wear the scars to this day.

Alumni Top Trumps

Oxford has produced 48 Nobel Prize Winners, but the labs of Cambridge have supplied 89 – a world record for any university

Blue Blood: a history of the world-famous Oxbridge rivalry
David Cameron during his Oxford days

When advertising agency Lowe wanted to stir up passions in the run-up to the 2008 Rugby Varsity game, they didn’t bother consulting the scoresheets of games gone by. Instead, the huge billboards placed around the two cities read: “PRIME MINISTERS: Oxford – 26. Cambridge – 14. It’s time to get even”. These, to even the impartial observer, seem to be the scores that matter. And though David Cameron (BA, Brasenose) and Theresa May (BA, St Hugh’s) have tipped the Premier stakes even further in Oxford’s favour, the game is still afoot. Oxford has produced 48 Nobel Prize Winners, but the labs of Cambridge have supplied 89 – a world record for any university. Similarly, Cambridge lays claim to the real stars of British science: Newton, Darwin, Watson, Crick.

Art vs. Science

Similar debate rages over the artistic clout of the two universities. Oxford, certainly, is seen as the more literary-friendly city: the quintessentially English university, and the pinnacle of a privileged education. Of the 204 novels written between 1945 and 1988 that featured British academic life, 119 depicted Oxford, whereas Cambridge was featured in just 26. As American sociologist Joseph A Soares puts it: “To judge from novels on academic life, one would surmise that England’s soul dwelled in Oxford.” But that’s only because Oxford produced dreamers while Cambridge undergraduates were getting on with things. Cambridge alumni form the backbone of the world’s scientific community, and the university’s ‘Silicon Fen’ today attracts the hard-hitting science and technology titans of the world: Microsoft’s first office outside the US was in Cambridge; ARM, Amazon and AVEVA all own sites there.

Blood in the Water

Blue Blood: a history of the world-famous Oxbridge rivalry
Oxford University

Few things stir up greater enmity, however, than the Boat Race itself. Sunday’s result brings the win tally to a precarious 82 to 80 in Cambridge’s favour – a score that stands testament to the capricious nature of the course. In 1877, the event was declared a dead heat following a remarkable Cambridge comeback, though Oxford scholars maintain that race judge John Phelps was blind in one eye and drunk “under a bush” when he cast his verdict. The 1987 Oxford crew was rocked by a munity, after the team’s four American imports declared they’d resign if one of their countrymen was dropped – “When you recruit mercenaries, you can expect some pirates” ran the headlines.

The wind-battered 2003 race saw the finest margin of victory, when Oxford nudged out Cambridge by a mere 12 inches. But perhaps the biggest controversy occurred in 2012 when a lone protester swam out between the two crews, causing the race to be paused and restarted. Oxford, who were in the lead, lost a great deal of their advantage, and a collision between the crews shortly after the restart caused an Oxford oar to snap, and saw Cambridge race away to victory. That pain will be eased greatly by Sunday’s triumph – but the fiercest rivalry in the history of academia rumbles on.

Further Reading