Oxford has a long history of ‘town’ versus ‘gown’ tensions, but arguably the most infamous event of them all was the St Scholastica’s Day riot of 1355, when widespread violence erupted onto the streets. Although the bloodshed only lasted a few days, the events had a lasting impact on the town that was still being felt over four centuries later.
The trouble began with a fiery altercation in the Swindlestock Tavern at Carfax on the evening of 10 February (the feast day of St Scholastica) after some students were served what they considered to be substandard wine. This led to an argument with the taverner, who not only had drink thrown in his face, but was also beaten with an empty pot.
The following day, the tradesman rallied support for his cause and this soon led to the violence escalating, despite both sides appealing for calm. The first large-scale confrontation was sparked by an unsuccessful attempt by a delegation to bring the miscreants to justice. Instead of achieving their goal, they were confronted by a crowd of students, which led to a skirmish breaking out during which a number of prominent townsfolk were supposedly assaulted. Although calm was eventually restored, the flames had been stoked and the stage was set for the dispute to take on a much more sinister turn.
The order of events is not entirely clear, but those on the town side complained that scholars armed with shields and swords had gone through the streets setting fire to buildings, pillaging property and even wounding and killing some townsfolk. By contrast, the university was aggrieved about what they claimed was an unprovoked attack on some of its students, which then escalated further when a huge group from the countryside entered the town to join in the fighting. The outnumbered scholars were soon forced into retreat and whilst many fled, some managed to find sanctuary in college property. Others were not so lucky, as in the two days of violence, students were said to have been imprisoned, mutilated and murdered, whilst a number of the halls were sacked. Although there are no accurate records from the town, so the figures are likely to have been higher, the university recorded six deaths and twenty-one injuries.
There has been much discussion about what lay behind the bloodshed. There had already been some violence in the recent past, most notably within the university in 1334, which led to some emigrating to Stamford and the town authorities trying to clamp down on the carrying of arms amongst Oxonians. Nevertheless, town versus gown tensions rarely boiled over, even though tensions often simmered under the surface. One reason for the animosity towards each other was the burgeoning power of the university, coupled with a comparative decline of Oxford’s stature. The population of the town had not recovered a great deal from the ravages of the black death, whilst a greater share of the river trade was going through Henley. Another theory is that the violence had an anticlerical tone to it, as there was a stark divide between those in the halls, who were closely allied to the clergy, and the so-called ‘laity’ of the town. Yet the university’s control of trade (and especially prices) was also a constant bone of contention, so a dispute over services provided to students would certainly have struck a chord with many townsfolk.
In the aftermath of the conflict, both the university and the town surrendered their charters. Following the Crown’s inquiry, the former was not only pardoned, but had its control over trade increased, which contributed to its long-lasting dominance over the economic affairs of the local area. Furthermore, the Mayor, Bailiffs and Alderman were forced to attend a mass every subsequent year to pay 1d each, as a form of penance for what had happened. Indeed, the resolutions demonstrated, in no uncertain terms, where the power lay. As one historian put it, ‘the town won the fight, the university won the peace’.
A period of relative calm descended after the St Scholastica Day riot, but, incredibly, the annual humiliation of the town persisted for over four centuries, until the annual practice of paying reparations was eventually dropped in the nineteenth century – the same century in which a professional police force finally took over the role of maintaining law and order from the university proctors. Although tensions continued to surface from time-to-time, it wasn’t until the early twentieth century that the city’s economic reliance on the university was finally challenged. This fundamental shift in the balance of power was caused by the relocation of William Morris’ motor works to Cowley in 1912 and the subsequent arrival of related businesses. This new chapter in Oxford’s existence would not only transform the economic fortunes of the local area, but would also have a dramatic and lasting impact on the city’s physical landscape, which is still very evident today.