The St Scholastica Day Riot, 1355
Like the rioting at the University of Paris, the St Scholastica Day Riot all began with a day of celebration, and an altercation in a bar. On the 10th February 1355, the town was celebrating the feast day of the patron saint of school, books, and reading. A group of students were drinking in the Swindlestock Tavern, but complained to the proprietor that the wine was of poor quality. The landlord, John of Barford, also Mayor of Oxford, responded with ‘stubborn and saucy language’, and a student unwisely threw a drinking vessel at his head. Things then escalated quickly.
As at the University of Paris, there was great resentment between the Town and Gown, chiefly over the students’ behaviour, wealth, and clerical immunity from prosecution, whereas the students resented high rents, harassment, and inflated prices. The townsfolk rang the bell of Carfax Church to summon the town to arms, and the university rang its own alarm bell at nearby St Mary’s Church, and all converged on the Swindlestock Tavern. A large battle took place between town and gown, with both sides making liberal use of bows and arrows. The fight lasted all day, until everyone was tired.
Unfortunately, this wasn’t the end of the matter. The university owned vast amounts of land across the county, and as a landlord was hated by many. Thus, when word spread to the outlying districts, the university’s rustic tenants rose up and arrived in the city in a 2, 000-strong mob, chanting ‘slea, slea…. havock, havock…. smyte fast, give gode knocks’. They broke into colleges and killed every scholar they came across. By the end of the day, 62 students had been massacred, along with 30 townsmen. The university’s retribution was swift, and its effects are still felt to this day.
King Edward III’s investigation decided entirely in favour of the university. The Mayor of Oxford, his bailiffs, and 62 townsmen had to march bareheaded to attend a Mass for the dead every St. Scholastica’s Day thenceforth at the university church, and to pay a 63 pence fine for each of the 62 students (plus one for good measure) killed every year on the same day. It was traditional for the penitent procession to be baited and pelted by the students, and even in the nineteenth century St Scholastica’s Day remained an opportunity for disgruntled students to settle scores with townsfolk.
Moreover, every year the humiliated group of townsfolk also had to swear an oath of allegiance to the university’s privileges. This reasserted the university’s independence and actually increased the institution’s power over trade in the area. Although the Mayor refused to honour the obligation in 1825 and no one cared enough to force him or his successors to comply in future, the University of Oxford continues to be the financial powerhouse in the city. It owns vast amounts of land and property, for which locals have to pay often exorbitant rent. The town won the fight, the University the aftermath.