On this day in 1355 the St Scholastica Day Riot kicked off in Oxford, England. The riot started, as many riots do, because the instigators had been on the drink. Things took a turn when two students from the University of Oxford complained about the quality of wine served to them in the Swindlestock Tavern, which was based at Carfax, in the centre of the town. The quarrel escalated quickly after the students began arguing with the taverner with the inn’s customers joining in on both sides. The resulting brawl turned into a riot which lasted for three days as armed gangs from the countryside rocked up to help the townspeople. University halls and students' accommodation were raided and the inhabitants murdered; there were even some reports of clerics being scalped. By the end of the riot around thirty townsfolk had been killed, while as many as sixty three members of the university also lay dead.
Now when a minor disagreement about wine turns into a three-day orgy of violence, we tend to assume that it’s probably not about the wine and that’s probably true. Violent clashes had flared up several times previously, in fact between the years 1297 and 1322 twelve of the twenty-nine coroners’ courts held in Oxford were about murders by students. Altercations between to townspeople and students was therefore pretty common. The University of Cambridge can actually thank its foundation on this violence for it was established in 1209 after scholars left Oxford following the lynching of two students by the town's citizens.
The St Scholastica Day Riot happened in the wake of the Black Death, which swept through the town in 1349. Killing an unknown but presumably large number of townspeople and around a quarter of scholars, the plague inflicted a massive hit on the finances of the town. The population was aware of the decline of Oxford's fortunes, and this coincided with disturbance and unrest between the town and university.
It is likely that the Riot only ended because the townspeople had got bored, or at least had to go back to work, while many of the university’s students had fled Oxford.
After the rioting ended both the university hierarchy and the town burghers surrendered themselves and the rights of their respective entities to Edward III. He sent judges to the town with commissions of oyer and terminer (which literally means "to hear and to determine") to determine what had gone on and to advise what steps should be taken. Four days later the King restored the rights of the scholars and gave them pardons for any offences. The townspeople were treated less kindly, with Edward fining the town 500 marks while sending its mayor and bailiffs to the Marshalsea prison in London. Apparently not content with that outcome, the Church decided put the boot in too, with John Gynwell, the Bishop of Lincoln, imposing an interdict on the townspeople, banning all religious practices, including services (except on key feast days), burials and marriages; only baptisms of young children were allowed.
On June 27th 1355 Edward issued a royal charter that secured the rights of the university over those of the town. Amongst other things, this gave the chancellor of the university the right to tax bread and drink sold in the town and the power to insist that inhabitants kept their properties in good repair. The town authorities were left with the power to take action in legal situations where it involved citizens on both sides; any action that involved a student or the university on one side was dealt with by the university. The historian C. H. Lawrence observes that the charter "was the climax of a long series of royal privileges which raised the university from the status of a protected resident to that of the dominant power in the city".Scholars were free from interference from or prosecution by the civil authorities and the chancellor's jurisdiction covered both civil and religious matters in the town; it was a unique position for any university in Europe.
When the Bishop of Lincoln’s interdict was lifted, he imposed an annual penance on the town. Each year, on St Scholastica's Day, the mayor, bailiffs and sixty townspeople were to attend St Mary's church for mass for those killed; the town was also made to pay the university a fine of one penny for each scholar killed. When each new mayor or sheriff was sworn in, he had to swear to uphold all the university's rights. The annual penance continued until 1825 when the incumbent refused to take part and the practice was allowed to drop. As an act of conciliation on February 10th 1955—the 600th anniversary of the riots—the mayor, W. R. Gowers, was given an honorary degree while the vice-chancellor, Alic Halford Smith, was made an honorary freeman of the city.
These scenes were built by Dan Harris as part of a series of models on British history. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to see them first.
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