Written in history: Famous writers from Oxbridge

Oxford and Cambridge have been home to some of the foremost literary minds in history. But some are much better known than others.


Charlie Bowden

9/5/202311 min read

Among the many famous faces that have attended Oxford and Cambridge are some of the most famous writers in the UK, and indeed the world. Playwrights, poets and novelists have long trawled the ancient halls of Oxbridge colleges, some as students, and some as lecturers and professors. Together, Oxford and Cambridge can lay claim to many of the greatest literary minds of the English language. Here are just a few of them.

Christopher Marlowe. 1564-1593. Playwright and poet.

Christopher Marlowe was the foremost dramatist in Elizabethan London until his mysterious death at the age of 29. He is said to have greatly influenced the work of William Shakespeare, and indeed, it is sometimes alleged that some of Shakespeare’s works were actually written by Marlowe. His most famous works are the highly influential and much-imitated Tamburlaine, inspired by a fourteenth-century Turco-Mongol emperor, and the tragedy Doctor Faustus, believed to be the first dramatized version of the Faust legend. His use of blank verse in his plays became the standard for later Elizabeth drama.

Marlowe began attending Corpus Christi College, Cambridge at the age of 16. He was studying on a scholarship with the expectation that he would go on to become an Anglican priest. He received his BA in 1584 and did not continue theological training. During his studies he mastered Latin by reading and translating the works of Ovid, a classical poet. Marlowe was a leading member of a loose association of university-educated Elizabethan playwrights known as the University Wits who set the stage for England’s theatrical Renaissance ahead of Shakespeare.

John Milton. 1606-1674. Poet.

John Milton is best known for his 1667 epic poem Paradise Lost, exploring the biblical story of the fall of man. Having gone blind in 1652, Milton composed the poem entirely through dictation, and suffered numerous bouts of illness during the writing process. In addition to his poetry, he worked as a pamphleteer and publicist, being appointed Secretary of the Foreign Tongues by Oliver Cromwell after the English Civil War. He wrote propaganda pieces for the republican regime and composed foreign policy correspondence in Latin.

Milton began studying at Christ’s College, Cambridge in 1625, and received his BA in 1629, ranking fourth of the 24 honours graduates at Cambridge that year. He stayed on at Cambridge to receive his MA in 1632, having intended to become an Anglican priest. It is rumored that Milton rusticated (was suspended) from Cambridge in his first year for quarrelling with his tutor, Bishop William Chappell. However, he may have merely been sent home because of the plague.

William Wordsworth. 1770-1850. Poet.

William Wordsworth is credited with kick-starting the Romantic movement of the late 18th and early 19th centuries through the publication of Lyrical Ballads with Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1798. His most famous poem was an autobiographical epic which he worked on throughout his life and was published in 1850 three months after his death. He never named the poem, but his widow Mary give it the title The Prelude. Wordsworth was appointed Poet Laureate of the UK under Queen Victoria in 1843, serving until his death.

Wordsworth matriculated at St John’s College, Cambridge in November 1787 and received his BA in January 1791. According to the college’s exhibition celebrating the 250th anniversary of his birth, he did not enjoy Cambridge’s mathematical curriculum, and instead focused on general reading and studying Italian. His marks steadily dwindled across his degree, and he ended up graduating without honours.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge. 1772-1834. Poet.

Wordsworth’s creative partner and co-founder of the Romantic movement is best known for his poems too. Particularly, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Kubla Khan. The former, included in the Lyrical Ballads, recounts the supernatural experiences of a cursed sailor. The latter was inspired by one of Coleridge’s dreams, and is one of the most anthologised poems in the English language. He was also an influential literary critic, and coined many well-known phrases, such as “suspension of disbelief”.

Coleridge attended Jesus College, Cambridge, from 1791 to 1794. While there in 1792, he won the university’s Browne Gold Medal for an ode he wrote attacking the slave trade. In December 1793, Coleridge left Jesus College to join the army under a false name. However, he was discharged after just a few months and was readmitted to the college. Nevertheless, he never received his final degree certificate from Cambridge.

Lord Byron. 1788-1824. Poet.

George Byron was a leading figure in the Romantic movement well known for his narrative poems Don Juan (a satirical version of a Spanish legend) and Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (the first major expression of the melancholy of a Byronic hero). However, Byron became arguably even better known for the many romantic pursuits he had during his life. His only legitimate daughter, Ada Lovelace, was a pioneer in the early history of computer science. He died of a fever contracted while fighting the Ottoman Empire in the Greek War of Independence. He later became a celebrated folk hero in Greece for his military service.

Byron began studying at Trinity College, Cambridge in 1805. Initially, he was disappointed that he was at Cambridge rather than Oxford, but soon began indulging in a lavish lifestyle. While there he formed a connection-and suspected affair-with the young chorister John Edleston. He famously brought a bear into college after he was told he could not keep his bulldog as a pet. He received his MA in 1808 and left Cambridge for London. Two decades after his death, a statue of Byron was installed in Trinity’s Wren Library.

Percy Bysshe Shelley [sic]. 1792-1822. Poet.

Another major Romantic poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley, gained recognition for his poem “Ozymandias”. Inspired by the Egyptian pharaoh Rameses II, the poem was written as part of a competition with fellow poet Horace Smith. He was part of a literary power couple with his second wife Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein, who edited and promoted his poetry. However, they were only married for six years before he died in a boating accident at the age of 29.

Like many other figures in the Romantic literary movement, Shelley’s rise to fame was thwarted by his moral and political radicalism. Shelley began studying at University College, Oxford in 1810, having already published his first novel. He was expelled in March 1811 after refusing to disavow his commitment to a treatise he wrote on The Necessity of Atheism. Oxford remained an explicitly Anglican institution until 1871. During his time there he attended few lectures and instead spent his time reading and developing a close friendship with fellow student Thomas Jefferson Hogg, who nurtured Shelley’s radical anti-Christian views. In 1893 the Shelley Memorial, commissioned by his daughter-in-law Jane, was installed at University College in spite of his expulsion.

Lewis Carroll. 1832-1898. Novelist and poet.

Lewis Carroll is best known for his children’s novels Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, as well as his nonsense poem “Jabberwocky”. He came from a family of Anglican clergy, his father being a parish parson, and intended to follow this path himself.

Carroll joined Christ Church, Oxford, his father’s college, in May 1850. He was exceptionally gifted but, by his own admission, found it difficult to focus on work. He obtained first-class honours in Mathematics in 1854 but failed an important scholarship exam the next year. Despite this, his sheer mathematical talent won him the Christ Church Mathematical Lectureship in 1855 which he held for the next 26 years. During that time he became friends with Alice Liddell, the daughter of the Dean of Christ Church, who was the basis for the character of Alice in his novels. Though Carroll became an ordained deacon in 1861, a requirement to continue teaching at Christ Church, he never became a priest. The success of his novels allowed Carroll to retire from teaching early but he remained at Christ Church in various capacities until his death.

Oscar Wilde. 1854-1900. Playwright, poet and novelist.

The Irish author was best known for being a proponent of the aesthetic movement and for his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray. The content of the book was used as evidence in his conviction for gross indecency for consensual homosexual acts in 1895, for which he was sentenced to two years’ hard labour in Reading Gaol. He died of meningitis in 1900.

Wilde studied Classics (then called Greats) at Magdalen College, Oxford from 1874 to 1878, having previously been a student at Trinity College, Dublin. At Oxford he joined the Freemasons and became interested in Catholicism but didn’t convert to it. He became well-known at college for his dress sense, floral room decorations, and scorn of ‘manly’ sports. He was once physically attacked by four students but managed to fend them off. By his third year he began to lean into the mystique surrounding himself and was rusticated for one term after returning to Oxford late from a holiday. He won the 1878 Newdigate Prize for his poem “Ravenna”, inspired by his visit there the previous year. He graduated with a double first to the shock of his tutors.

J. R. R. Tolkien. 1892-1973. Novelist.

John Ronald Ruel Tolkien was best known as the author of the influential high fantasy books The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings and is known as the father of modern fantasy. He was a brilliant linguist and invented several languages for his fantasy works. Many of his writings and notes on Middle-earth were published after his death by his son Christopher.

Tolkien began studying at Exeter College, Oxford in October 1911, initially studying Classics before switching to English Language and Literature in 1913. He graduated with first-class honours in 1915. After fighting in the Battle of the Somme during the First World War, Tolkien became an academic and returned to Oxford in 1925 as the Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon, which came with a fellowship of Pembroke College. He had begun tutoring Oxford students privately in 1919, most notably those from the women’s colleges Lady Margaret Hall and St Hugh’s College. As a married man, Tolkien was seen as a more suitable tutor for the young women than academics who were bachelors. In 1945 Tolkien moved to Merton College as the Merton Professor of English Language and Literature, where he remained until his retirement in 1959. Tolkien completed The Hobbit while at Pembroke and The Lord of the Rings while at Merton.

C. S. Lewis. 1898-1963. Novelist.

Clive Staples Lewis is best known as the author of The Chronicles of Narnia but was also an influential Christian lay theologian. He was close friends with Tolkien, a fellow member of the Oxford English faculty, and they were both members of the informal literary group the Inklings.

Lewis joined University College, Oxford on a scholarship in 1917 and quickly joined the university’s Officers’ Training Corps with hopes of joining the army. Within a few months of his arrival at Oxford, he was shipped off to France to fight in the First World War. He fought in the Battle of the Somme but returned to England after he was wounded by a British shell. He restarted his studies in December 1918 and graduated with a first in Greats (Classics) in 1922 and a first in English in 1923. He became a Philosophy tutor at University College in 1924 and a year later was appointed a Fellow in English Literature at Magdalen College. He spent 29 years at Magdalen before joining Magdalene College, Cambridge as the first Professor of Medieval and Renaissance Literature in 1954. Despite this he retained close connections with Oxford and often visited the city on weekends.

Ted Hughes. 1930-1998. Poet, playwright and novelist.

Ted Hughes is frequently ranked among the best writers of the twentieth century. He was a successful poet, translator and children’s novelist. His most famous and acclaimed poetry collection, Birthday Letters (1998), marked the first time he discussed his relationship with fellow poet Sylvia Plath, which had ended in her suicide 35 years earlier. He died mere months after the publication of the collection.

In 1948 Hughes won an open exhibition to study English at Pembroke College, Cambridge, but chose to do his national service first. He began studying English in 1951 but switched in his third year to Anthropology and Archaeology. He did not excel academically and only received a third-class grade in the first part of his tripos exams. In 1956 he met and married Sylvia Plath who was studying at Cambridge at the time.

Sylvia Plath. 1932-1963. Poet and novelist.

Sylvia Plath is best known for her novel The Bell Jar, informed by her own life experiences, and for her poetry including the likes of “Daddy” and “Lady Lazarus”. She is credited with making confessional poetry popular in both America and the UK. Her Collected Poems, published in 1981, won a Pulitzer Prize in Poetry in 1982 and made her only the fourth person to win the award posthumously.

Born in Massachusetts, Plath graduated from Smith College in 1955 before winning a Fulbright Scholarship to study English at Newnham College, Cambridge, one of two women-only colleges at Cambridge at the time. She met Ted Hughes at a party in February 1956 and they married four months later. In June 1957, after completing her second year at Newnham, Plath and Hughes moved to the United States.

Seamus Heaney. 1939-2013. Poet and playwright.

Seamus Heaney is one of the most acclaimed and best-known poets of the modern age. His first collection, Death of a Naturalist (1966), was a major critical success and won him the Eric Gregory Award. Studying English Language and Literature at Queen’s University Belfast, Heaney was Poet in Residence at Harvard University from 1988 to 2006. He held academic positions at several other universities, including Queen’s University Belfast and the University of California, Berkeley. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1995.

Heaney was elected Professor of Poetry at Oxford in 1989. Since the chair did not require residence in Oxford, Heaney divided his time between Ireland and the United States. He held the position for a five-year term until 1994. The Professor of Poetry is not a typical academic position, only requiring that the holder delivers one poetry-related lecture per term, judges numerous poetry prizes at the university, and generally encourages the art form of poetry at Oxford. It is one of the most prestigious positions within the poetry sphere and has been held by both practising poets like Heaney and academic critics.

Philip Pullman. 1946-today. Novelist and playwright.

Sir Philip Pullman is best known as the author of the His Dark Materials trilogy, as well as The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, a fictionalised biography of Jesus. He is regularly listed in discussions of the most influential modern British writers. His Dark Materials is partially set in Oxford and Pullman created a fictional college, Jordan College, for the fantasy novels. The 2019 television adaptation used St John’s College to represent Jordan College.

Pullman began studying English at Exeter College, Oxford, in 1965. He did not enjoy the course and graduated with third-class honours in 1968. He remained in Oxford as a middle school teacher and then a teacher training college teacher for the next few decades. He co-judged Oxford’s Christopher Tower Poetry Prize in 2005 alongside Gillian Clarke, soon to become the National Poet of Wales.

Douglas Adams. 1952-2001. Novelist.

The English author and humourist Douglas Adams is best known for writing The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which originally began as a radio play before he developed it into a “trilogy” of five books. He also wrote episodes of Doctor Who and a sketch for Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

Adams began studying English at St John’s College, Cambridge in 1971 after being awarded an exhibition for an essay on religious poetry. He joined the Footlights, an invitation-only comedy troupe which he later became president of. Other alumni of the Footlights who went on to become famous writers include Germaine Greer, Stephen Fry, Salman Rushdie, and Natalie Haynes. He graduated in 1974 with a 2:2, having not done much work. He once recalled that he had completed three essays across his three years at Cambridge.