The St Scholastica Day Riot – 1355
Relations between town and gown have always been fractious but this set-to damaged relations between the varsity and town for centuries and the series of events triggered by a fairly trivial and localised event had serious and bloody repercussions.
John of Barford or de Bereford, who happened to be mayor at the time, was the landlord of the appropriately named Swindlestock Tavern in Oxford on a site, even more appositely occupied by a branch of the Santander banking group. On February 10th, St Scholastica day, two undergraduates, Walter Spryngeheuse and Roger de Chesterfield, visited the hostelry and complained to mine host about the poor quality of the wines being served. Consumer rights being non-existent at the time John stood his ground and responded to the complaints with “stubborn and saucy language”. In response the undergraduates reacted in the only way Oxford men know, by throwing their cups at the landlord’s head and beating him senseless.
The locals came to the aid of the stricken landlord and had the bells of St Martin’s at Carfax rung – the City church – to summon the townsmen to arms. In retaliation the University authorities rang the bells of St Mary’s in the High street – the university church – to call the undergrads to arms. Battle then commenced and both sides, according to contemporary reports, made good use of bows and arrows.
The following day the mayor went off to nearby Woodstock to summon the King’s aid while a mob of some 2,000 came from the surrounding countryside to assist the townsfolk. As they marched towards the University they shouted “Slea, slea..havock, havock..smyte fast, give gode knocks”. The locals broke into the academic halls, killing scholars. The melee continued until the 12th when order was eventually restored but by then 62 scholars had been killed and possibly around 30 of the locals.
The king, Edward III, lauched an investigation and the dispute was eventually settled – in the university’s favour, perhaps inevitably. Under the settlement the Mayor and Bailiffs of Oxford were required to attend Mass for the souls of the dead scholars every St Scholastica Day thereafter and to renew an oath respecting th eUniversity’s privileges. Such an oath had been in existence since 1213 when three clerks were murdered by townsfolk.
The mayor and bailiffs together with 62 citizens representing the scholars who had been slain would march bareheaded to the University Church of St Mary the Virgin where they were met by the Vice Chancellor, the vicar and the University proctors and registrar. The students would line the street and jeer and pelt the entourage with objects. The townsfolk were then required to hand over a penny for each scholar who died in the riot. This rather iniquitous penance, given the original cause of the riot, continued until 1825 when the then mayor refused to take part. As no action was taken against him, the “tradition” died a natural death.
In an act of reconciliation in 1955 to mark the 600th anniversary of the riot the mayor was given an honorary degree and the Vice Chancellor was made a freeman of the city. The legacy of the St Scholastica Day riot, lingered on. Cuthbert Bede’s novel, The Adventures of Mr Verdant Green, published in the 1850s, tells us that the students even then saw the day as an opportunity to confront the locals and relations between town and gown have ever since been fraught, to the extent that certain hostelries were designated no go areas for the students.