Town, Gown, Down: Oxford Fights Oxford

Town-and-gown relations is a term I didn’t even know about until I was already well under way in college. The importance of a college or higher university being a good neighbor to the city or town hosting it had simply never dawned on me. I guess that I figured that each group sort of existed in their own bubble, oblivious to the happenings and people of the other. This was not the case in a small town in central Pennsylvania, and it was certainly not the case in medieval England.

I worked as a tour guide in college, and part of our training was of course learning how to answer questions that parents might wonder about, but would never cross the minds of nineteen year olds making minimum wage.

“Hey buddy! Yeah, you heard me! I said learning how to learn is not a marketable skill!”

At one such training they taught us about “town-and-gown,” and how to skirt around the fact with nervous mothers that our college had not always been a good neighbor. We had apparently moved fast and broken things, which would today secure us $75 million in seed funding, but a decade ago only served to make the college an enemy of the locals.

This could lead to glares and even scuffles at the local watering holes, but rarely any serious trouble. Frankly I don’t blame these folks for not really caring for a bunch of kids from the tri-state area using their parents’ credit cards to buy a dozen Sex on the Beaches (Sexes on the Beach?). The issues that trickled down to actually affecting the students were minor and rare. We knew there were far worse situations at other schools.

My friends, let me weave you a brief tale about Oxford University in the Middle Ages and their issues with the locals. Oxford is older than the Aztec civilization, and is the oldest university in the English-speaking world (just call it 1096 A.D.). Students came from around the country in these early days, sometimes funded by generous gifts to the University, but an awful lot were middle class. Kings relied on this flow of skilled workers and clerks, so Oxford University gradually acquired more royal protections over the years to preserve this pipeline, which did not help their relationship with their hosts.

The University students and faculty have had to deal with Oxford (city) residents (and vice versa) for longer than almost anybody else, but this sort of arrangement was still relatively new back then.  I’m sure that as I write this there is a pub in downtown Oxford where a few descendants of minor barons and knights are insisting that they only had fifteen room temperature Jolly Bulldog Courage Ales, not the nineteen that the bartender has charged them for.

Anyone who has ever gone to college in a remote area knows that they’re in a seller’s market, and businesses can sometimes charge unfairly. This led to problems in Oxford. The people of the university and city of Oxford had clashed before. Students had been killed in various tavern fights and other disagreements, usually over run of the mill grievances like the prices of food and booze.

(L to R) Future Cambridge University prof, local Oxford tough (ca. 1209)

Side note – England’s other top university is Cambridge, which incidentally was founded as a result of some Oxford profs fleeing the town in 1209 due to fears over violence with the locals. They just plain decided that starting their own damn university beat getting picked on by the locals, which I’m sure is something that ensuing centuries of Oxford students haven’t held over the heads of the kids at Cambridge whatsoever.

On February, 10 1355 (St. Scholastica’s Day), Oxford would experience violence unlike anything either the townspeople or the university’s faculty and students had ever seen. It all started, as most trouble does, with a couple of University students drinking in a bar on their day off. They got into a beef with the tavernkeeper (who was, uh, also the mayor) over the quality of the wine, threw it in his face, beat him up, and stormed out.

Oxford’s residents were at first just annoyed and angered over this disruption of what had been a pretty peaceful period. They marched down to the university, and the mayor demanded that the University chancellor bring the two scholars to justice. He refused to turn them over to the mob, someone raised the alarm, and two hundred students poured out. A massive brawl erupted between townspeople and scholars, and the two students who had started all of the trouble beat up the mayor (slash bartender) of Oxford.

The townspeople went home that night enraged. The next morning more than 80 armed themselves with bows and ambushed a group of scholars who were exercising in a field, likely killing a few of them. Soon, two thousand more townspeople came behind them, marching under a black banner and chanting “Slay! Slay!” as they slammed into the students. Punches and kicks flew as the two mobs brawled back and forth until the students finally retreated to the safety of the university for the night.


Thursday dawned, and the fighting had not calmed down. The  townspeople swirled into the grounds of the university, ransacking buildings as blood continued to spill. Dozens of people fell, both dead and injured, until finally the university scholars fled the city, with only a few staying behind and barricading themselves inside the walled Merton College until peace was restored after three days of riots. Casualty figures vary, but at least 60, and maybe as many as over 90, people lay dead in the streets of Oxford. The beleagured mayor/bartender was arrested, along with 150 other residents.

These places all still mostly exist, btw. This is Merton College of Oxford University, the site of medieval combat and the alma mater of Roger Bannister, the first man to run a four minute mile. The tavern, sadly, no longer stands.

King Edward III, the monarch of England, was livid. The peace had been broken, and his pipeline of skilled, educated workers had been disrupted. To “solve” the problem, he granted Oxford scholars immunity for all crimes short of murder. Fines were levied, mostly on the city of Oxford. The mayor of the city was also required to pay one penny to the university for each person killed in the riots every year on the anniversary of the chaos. Finally, in 1825, the mayor at the time simply refused to abide by this tradition anymore, and almost half a millennium of humiliation drew to a close.

So what can we learn from the St. Scholastica Riot? First off, nobody should ever really trust college students with anything, and it’s really a wonder we let kids go off to school in the first place.

Sometimes both sides in a grievance have a valid argument, but act equally stupid. Oxford scholars were tired of being charged exorbitant prices for food and drink, because they were stranded. Meanwhile, city residents were sick of entitled scholars, and many blamed the newish university for turning their town from a bustling city into a bunch of dumpy student housing rentals. The violence in 1355 perhaps escalated due to these factors, but it was really started thanks to a couple of drunk guys at a bar who refused to make amends, and chose to light a powder keg instead.

Further Reading/Bibliography:

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