The St. Scholastica Day Riot

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Podcast Transcript

A common occurrence at many universities is that they have contentious relationships with their local community. 

This is not a recent development. It is something that has existed ever since universities were created. 

However, the relationship between colleges and local towns was probably at its worst in 1355 when an outbreak of violence occurred at Oxford University.

Learn more about The St. Scholastica Day Riot and its 500-year legacy on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

The St. Scholastica Day Riot was not your normal dust-up between townies and college kids at a local bar, although it did start that way. 

To understand what happened in Oxford almost 700 years ago, it is necessary to understand the nature of medieval universities and their relationships with their communities, particularly the history of Oxford.

Oxford was founded in the year 1096. It is the world’s second oldest continuously operating university, after the University of Bologna in Italy. 

As with almost all medieval European universities, the Catholic Church ran it. This gave the University a special status, more akin to a monastery or a cathedral. Lecturers were likely to have been members of the clergy in some form. 

Oxford was a rather small institution until 1127 when King Henry II forbade any English subjects from attending the University of Paris. Thus, Oxford was the only viable option in England for an education.

The university obtained corporate status in 1231 and was given a royal charter in 1248 by Henry III. From this point, it had special status with both the church and the crown. 

As the university grew, so did the city of Oxford, where it was located. Oxford was founded in the 9th century by Alfred the Great, one of the Saxon kings of England. 

It served as a military outpost and an important market town, but it really became important with the founding of the university. In fact, the university came to dominate the town. 

Despite the university being in the middle of the town, the students and faculty lived in a very different world than the rest of the townspeople. They were focused on reading, studying, and attending lectures. The students and faculty were a very insular group and, what was perhaps more important for this time period, were almost always of a higher social class than the townspeople. 

Conflicts frequently erupted between members of the University and the townspeople. This became known as town and gown, with the gown representing the gowns worn by all students and faculty at the time. This tradition can still be seen in graduation gowns today.

One of the hallmarks of these disputes is that the church and the crown would almost always side with the university in any dispute with townspeople. 

The townsfolk viewed the students and faculty as parasites and were resentful that they would legally get away with almost anything. 

Occasionally, these disputes would become violent. 

One very notable event in the town and gown conflicts took place in the year 1209. A local Oxford woman was murdered, and three Oxford scholars were accused of the murder. 

The locals knew that if they took the case to the church, the accused would probably be pardoned or found not guilty because of their association with the University. The king at the time was King John, who was losing control of the kingdom, and Oxford was in conflict with him at this time. 

So, the townsfolk took matters into their own hands and hung the three university faculty members. 

This created a state of fear amongst the faculty and students at Oxford, and many of them left for other universities. Some went to a town in England that was more hospitable to setting up a new university. The town was called Cambridge.

For five years, Oxford was a shell of its former self until the Pope intervened in 1214 and imposed heavy sanctions on the town. The university reformed and established a single leader who held the position of chancellor. 

However, this didn’t solve the problems between the university and the townspeople. If anything, the pope’s punishment only increased resentment. 

In 1248, a scholar from Scotland was murdered, resulting in severe punishments by the local bishop. 

Between 1297 and 1322, the town of Oxford conducted 29 coroners’ inquests. Of those 29, 12 involved Oxford students as suspects in murder cases. 

Not every violent incident was a town and gown incident. Sometimes, they were between different factions of the university. In particular, between what were known as northerners vs southerners. The Northerners were anyone from Scotland, Northern England, and the Midlands. The Southerners were those from Ireland, London and Wales.

In 1314, there was a riot that broke out between Northerners and Southerners that killed dozens. 

In 1349, the town was hit by the Black Plague, which quickly reversed the city’s fortunes. By then, it had become one of the wealthiest in England. A quarter of the lecturers in Oxford died of the plague that year. 

All of this should set the stage for the events that took place on February 10, 1355. The events that began that day would eclipse all the town and gown disputes that occurred before or after. 

February 10 was the feast of St. Scholastica. St. Scholastica was the sister of Saint Benedict, the founder of the Benedictine monastic order.

That day, several university students went to have a drink at the Swindlestock Tavern. The Swindlestock was in a central location in town and was a regular hangout for students. The tavern was owned by John de Bereford, who also happened to be the Mayor of Oxford. 

It isn’t known how many students were there, but two of them were Walter de Spryngeheuse and Roger de Chesterfield, both of whom were members of the clergy from southwest England. 

The group was served wine by the tavern’s winemaker, John de Croydon. 

The Oxford students complained that the wine was poor and wanted a new glass of wine. De Croydon responded rather forcefully and used fowl language in reply. 

An argument ensued, and eventually, de Chesterfield threw his wine in de Croydon’s face. 

What happened next depends on whose side of the story you believe, but de Chesterfield either threw his cup at de Croydon’s head or broke a jug over his head. 

From there, in the words of the great Ron Burgundy, things escalated quickly.

Within the tavern, both students and townsfolk began brawling with each other. 

Within the hour, the tavern fight had turned into a riot and spilled into the streets. Locals rang the local church bell to rally support, and students at the university rang the bell in the university church to do the same. 

Rioters on both sides began to organize, gathering weapons.

The university chancellor came out to try and de-escalate the situation, but the townspeople shot arrows at him. 

Despite the violence that day, at this point, no one is believed to have died. 

The morning of the next day, February 11, the university chancellor and the town’s magistrate urged both sides to lay down their weapons and stop fighting. 

However, other town officials, particularly the town’s bailiffs, were doing the opposite. They were encouraging the townsfolk to get weapons and they began paying people from the surrounding countryside to come help. 

The townspeople found several university personnel and killed them. The bells of both churches rang again, calling for support, and the university staff and students eventually barricaded the town’s gate to prevent outsiders from entering. 

Late on the 11th, an estimated 2000 people from the surrounding area entered the city through the town’s west gate. The students barricaded themselves in their university buildings. The mob ransacked five inns and guest houses, killing whatever students they could find inside. 

Things got even worse on the 12th, the third day of the riots. Representatives from the university went to the town of Woodstock, which was 8 miles or 13 kilometers northwest of Oxford and happened to be the location where King Edward III was staying.

Edward issued a proclamation ordering the violence to stop, but it was ignored. 

The mob continued to attack students. They looted and burned 14 more inns and guest houses and killed everyone from the university they could find. Bodies were desecrated, and they supposedly scalped any church officials they could find. 

By the end of the third day, much of the town had been burned to the ground, and most everyone associated with the university had fled the city.

The death toll was estimated to be 30 townsfolk and 63 students and faculty.

The reactions to the events that took place were predictable, considering how past incidents were handled. 

The King sent in officials to conduct a special inquiry. A few days later, the king pardoned everyone associated with the university. All of the punishments were reserved for the people of Oxford. 

The mayor and bailiffs were all sent to prison, and the citizens of Oxford were ordered to elect a new mayor. The king issued a fine to the city, equivalent to about 330 pounds, which was a substantial amount at the time. The Bishop of London put an interdict on the town, which prevented all religious services other than infant baptism.

That June, King Edward issued another royal charter for the university, this time explicitly stating its rights over the town. This included the right of the university to tax beverages and bread sold in the community, the right to set weights and measures for Oxford and other privileges.

However, there was one punishment bestowed upon the city, which was to last for almost 500 years. 

Every St. Scholastica’s Day thereafter, the Mayor and Bailiffs of Oxford were required to attend a Mass for the souls of the deceased and to swear an annual oath to uphold the University’s privileges. Attending with the mayor and city officials were to be 63 citizens of the town, one for each member of the University that was killed, and the city had to pay one penny in penance for each person killed. 

This annual penance became a tradition and was conducted every single year. 

In 1575, Queen Elizabeth dictated that the oath taken by the local officials should be the following:

You shall sweare that trulie you shall observe and keep all maner of lawful liberties and customes of the said University, the which the Chancellor, Masters, and Schollars of the said University have reasonably used, without any gainesaying, saving your fidelilty to the Queen’s Majestie. “So helpe you God.”

The annual penance, which basically involved the mayor humiliating himself in front of the university community, continued until 1825, when the mayor simply refused to participate. Other mayors had tried that in the past and were fined heavily. 

By 1825, however, everyone was ready to just put the entire incident behind them.  The university dropped the matter.

In 1955, on the 600th anniversary of the riot, both sides took steps to bury the hatchet. The university bestowed upon the mayor an honorary doctorate, and the city declared the vice-chancellor of the university an honorary freeman of the city.

There were continued conflicts and disputes between the university and the town of Oxford for centuries, but nothing ever approached the events that took place in February of 1355. 

To this day, it remains the nadir of relationships between universities and their towns all over the world.