Education at Oxford and Cambridge

“I was therefore entered at Oxford and have been properly idle ever since.”  —Edward Ferrars, Sense and Sensibility

Where did clergymen of Jane Austen’s England study?

The majority of them were graduates of Oxford or Cambridge, the only universities in England at that time.  Those in southern England tended to go to Oxford, and those in the north to Cambridge.

St. John's College Oxford - 1
St. John’s College Oxford, where Jane Austen’s father and brothers studied

Jane’s father, George Austen, studied at St. John’s College, Oxford and became a Fellow. A Fellow was a university position that often involved tutoring or supervising undergraduates.  However, a Fellow could not be married, so George Austen gave up his fellowship when he got married and moved to Steventon, where he was rector. Jane’s brothers James and Henry, who became clergymen, also studied at Oxford.

Where did Austen’s characters go to university?

Her hero-clergymen went to Oxford (Edward Ferrars, Henry Tilney, and Edmund Bertram), while two of her villains went to Cambridge (Henry Crawford and George Wickham). Darcy and Bingley, being from the north of England, probably went to Cambridge as well, though it’s not mentioned.  Since Austen’s family was loyal to Oxford and there was some rivalry between the schools, having her bad guys go to Cambridge may have been her little joke!

Oxford, Bodleian Library. This door originally led to the lecture rooms for the School of Languages (Hebrew and Greek) and the School of Geometry and Arithmetic.  It is labeled in Latin, the language of most studies at Oxford in Austen’s time.
What did they study at Oxford and Cambridge?

The focus of most British education at this time was the classics. Students began learning Latin early on, then Greek, and they read the works of Greek and Roman authors such as Homer, Aristotle, and Julius Caesar.  They learned to “construe” sentences in these books, translating them word by word and explaining the grammar. At university they continued these studies, in addition to politics, morals, geometry, rhetoric, and logic, from the classical authors, and a little science.  Those who wanted to pay extra could go to science lectures on topics such as geology and chemistry.

At Cambridge, while these classical topics were included, the main emphasis was on mathematics, in order to teach logical thinking.

2016-08-31 12.29.18 Kings College chapel organ
Organ, stained glass windows, and vaulting of the enormous chapel of King’s College Cambridge
How were clergymen specifically prepared to serve the church?

Aspiring clergymen, who were more than half the students, studied the same courses as everyone else. Classics were believed to develop logical thinking and provide lofty ideals, while helping the clergyman to relate to educated patrons and others in their parish.

The curriculum included a few books that argued for the truth of Christianity based on the natural world. Those planning to become clergyman had to attend one course on theology and get a certificate showing they had attended. However, they were not tested on any of the material, and it seems that some slept through the evening lectures.

Those who could afford to continue past a Bachelor of Arts degree could study Divinity and get a master’s degree or a doctorate. However most aspiring clergymen could not afford to do this, and therefore had almost no training in theology. George Austen, continuing at Oxford on a fellowship, earned a Master of Arts and a Bachelor of Divinity. Dr. Grant of Mansfield Park presumably had a Doctor of Divinity, so he would have done much more advanced studies.

Some undergraduates studied the New Testament in Greek, as one of their “classics.” Most were required to attend daily chapel services and certain university sermons, where they might have learned from the services and the preaching.

At Cambridge, the Evangelical clergyman Charles Simeon began offering informal classes on preaching, which became very popular. Most young clergymen, however, learned to preach through reading and preaching from published books of sermons.

Graduates had to subscribe to the Articles of the Church of England, which meant that Dissenters (non-Anglicans) had to study elsewhere.  Some Dissenters started their own academies to educate their ministers.

How was the system different from American universities today?

Oxford and Cambridge Universities were (and are) made up of semi-autonomous colleges.  Students were accepted into a specific college and did most of their studies there.  Each was assigned a tutor from the college. The tutor supervised the student’s education, assigned his reading, lectured to students individually or in small groups, and sometimes even controlled their finances!  Some lectures were given by other college staff. But the tutor was key to the student’s education.

James Austen, in his publication The Loiterer, complained that many tutors were not good or caring teachers, and did not have sufficient knowledge, though others were excellent.

The Loiterer Sophia Sentiment article
The Loiterer. James Austen published this weekly periodical satirizing life at Oxford in 1791-2.  Some have speculated that this article by “Sophia Sentiment” might have been written by Jane Austen, though the author may have been one of her brothers.
Did students take tests and exams?

Students were expected to write and present papers in Latin. For example, James Woodforde gave a paper on whether or not a wise man ever changes his mind (he said yes). They also wrote Latin themes on topics (Woodforde wrote on a Latin phrase meaning “Extreme justice is extreme injustice”) and participated in debates, also in Latin!

Exams were given in various subjects, but students could memorize the appropriate responses from little booklets called “schemes” beforehand.  They were also examined on three classics of their choice, at least one in Greek and at least one in Latin. Some included the Greek New Testament in their choices.

Exams were oral, usually lasted less than an hour, and very few failed.

However, in the early 1800s, exams began to be taken more seriously and became more standardized. Cambridge began to give written mathematics exams in 1790, and their top students, called “wranglers,” were chosen from these exam results.

How did they pay for their education? Did students at Oxford and Cambridge take student loans?

No, not unless some friend of their family’s lent them money privately to go to school.

The highest levels of students, noblemen and gentleman-commoners, paid the highest fees and were not required to do much work; they received an honorary M.A. after a certain period of time, without examinations. Edward Ferrars was doubtless a “gentleman-commoner,” and so could be “properly idle” at Oxford.

Commoners, the next level, paid regular fees and were required to take examinations.

If they had good connections (usually through their family or their “public school,” an expensive private boarding school like Eton) or if they did well in their studies, they might receive scholarships. Those with scholarships were called scholars or foundationers. Austen’s father and brothers were scholars at Oxford.

Battelers and servitors were the lowest level at the university, socially. They essentially worked their way through school, serving upper-class students or doing other tasks.  George Whitefield, who became a famous preacher and evangelist, was a servitor at Oxford.

At Cambridge, these levels had different names, but the idea was the same.  Their lower levels were sizars and subsizars; Isaac Newton went to Cambridge as a subsizar in the 1600s.

Could women go to the universities?

As children, Jane and her sister Cassandra lived for a time in Oxford, where they were tutored by the widow of a principal of one of the colleges. But they had no opportunity to go to university as their brothers did.

When Jane Austen’s cousin Eliza visited Henry and James at Oxford, she wished she could be a student there too, saying, “I was mightily taken with the garden and longed to be a Fellow that I might walk in it every day; besides I was delighted with the black gown and thought the square cap mighty becoming.”

However, women were not admitted to the universities until many years later. Women’s colleges opened in 1869 at Cambridge and in 1879 at Oxford, but women did not become full members of either university until the twentieth century.

Most clergymen graduated without having a solid foundation in the Bible, or any specific training in pastoring and preaching. How is this likely to have affected their ministry, and the church as a whole? Do you think the benefits of having the same education as other educated men of their society outweigh the disadvantages of not being specifically trained for their calling?

Partial List of Sources and Further Resources to Explore

Jane Austen and the Clergy, by Irene Collins, chapter 3, “The Parson’s Education.”

The Loiterer Issue 58, March 6, 1790.

Quote from Eliza is from chapter 3 of Jane Austen: Her Life and Letters by William Austen-Leigh and Richard Arthur Austen-Leigh, 1913.


Brock, M.G. and M.C. Curthoys, eds. The History of the University of Oxford. Volume VI: Nineteenth-Century Oxford, Part 1. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Sutherland, L.S. and L.G. Mitchell, eds. The History of the University of Oxford. Volume V: The Eighteenth Century.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986.

Terms such as tutor and rusticate:  Oxford

Introduction and History

The History of Women at Oxford


Gascoigne, John. Cambridge in the Age of Enlightenment. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Special terms: Cambridge

Chambers, Suzanna. “At Last, a Degree of Honor for 900 Cambridge Women.” Independent, May 31, 1998.

The History of Mathematics in Cambridge

The Georgian/Hanoverian University




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