Carol M. Miller

Tallahassee Community College


One of the worst riots in the history of Oxford began on February 10, 1355—St. Scholastica's Day.(1) That day, a Tuesday, was a non-lecture day. Two of the scholars, Walter Spryngeheuse and Roger de Chesterfield, went for a drink at the Swyndolnestok Tavern. Neither was a fuzzy-cheeked adolescent—they both seem to have held benefices in the west of England, which no doubt they rarely saw.(2) At any rate, these scholars did not like the wine they were served, and they complained to the taverner, John Croidon. "Snappish" words were exchanged.(3) The scholars ended by throwing their wine in Croidon's face and beating him up.


Croidon rallied his family and friends, and the disturbance spread. Town bailiffs requested Spryngeheuse and Chesterfield to make amends, but they would not. The mayor, John de Bereford, asked the Chancellor of the university, John Charlton, to arrest his wayward scholars. The mayor could not take action against them himself, because all university personnel were clerics and outside his jurisdiction. They were not arrested. Instead, the students rang the bell at St. Mary's and two hundred of them rallied around Spryngeheuse and Chesterfield, who allegedly assaulted the mayor and others. The Chancellor fled the skirmish. A university account says that the students stood fast, and the laity withdrew.(4) In this way, the first day of violence ended.


The next day, Wednesday, Mayor Bereford rode to Woodstock to lay a complaint before King Edward III, who chanced to be in residence there at the time. Chancellor Chariton began the day by ordering his scholars to keep the peace, but, according to town accounts, the scholars instead closed the gates, fired the town, robbed the homes of the Oxford people, and killed and wounded many. Townspeople responded by breaking into a disputation at the Augustinian friars' house. At dinner, when scholars went out to exercise in the fields, they were attacked with bows by 80 townsmen, who had sheltered in St. Giles Church. It seems that it was now that the first deaths of the riot occurred.


In the meanwhile, Bereford was allegedly rallying the people in the country west of Oxford with the help of Richard Forester and Robert Lardiner. Two thousand countryfolk came into town Wednesday afternoon, bearing a black banner as though the king were dead, crying, "slay, slay, havok, havok, smite fast, give good knocks."(5) The scholars held them back until they had run out of weapons; that, at least, is how the university explained their retreat.(6) The laity pursued them, shouting "bycheson cum forth" as they sacked the scholars' halls.


Thursday morning, it was Chancellor Charlton who rode to the king at Woodstock. That day, while he was away, was the worst day of the riot. The townsmen and country people sacked another fourteen halls. Scholars were hurt and killed, and some were scalped in mockery of their clerical tonsure and were thrown bleeding and untended into prison. Halls were ransacked, and the property of their tenants, including books, clothes, and more exotic items, were carried away.(7) Friars tried to calm the riot by forming a procession bearing a pyx with a consecrated host. The townspeople responded by attacking some scholars even as they clung to the pyx, and (according to university sources) throwing the host down. When it was all over, protected by Merton's walls, some of the scholar-residents of the halls remained.(8) The rest of the university fled away from Oxford.


When the riot had ended, King Edward appointed a commission of judges to investigates.(9) Both town and university surrendered their charters into the king's hands, but the university soon got its charter back. To the king, the university was a source of clerks, famous for their learning, who contributed to the direction of the state.(10) He felt that clerks and government must exist in a symbiotic relationship, for learning regulates military power, which would otherwise be a rudderless ship.(11)


Oxford's restored charter reconfirmed the rights and liberties of the university. Moreover, for the public good and to encourage them to return to Oxford, King Edward gave scholars and their servants immunity from prosecution for any felonies, robberies, arson, or trespass they had committed.(12) One thus inevitably infers that the university's people were not entirely blameless for the riot. In spite of all these concessions, students were still reluctant to return. In the summer, Edward had to repeat his assertions that the scholars would be protected, even if they had committed transgressions in those days of violence. He also had to assure students that they would be free to seek to recover their property. Slowly, students and masters returned to Oxford from Stamford and the other places where they had fled. One consequence of all this is that until the 19th century, Oxford MAs had to swear at their inception not to lecture at Stamford, or anywhere else except Oxford.(13) There would never be another dispersion, not if the university could help it.


The town did not fare so well at the king's hands. Unlike the university, the town had no standing as a provider of rudders for the state, and clearly it had been the aggressor, at least at the height of the riot. When Oxford received its charter back, and there is some question when it actually did recover its charter,(14) its privileges had been curtailed. Many of the responsibilities which once had pertained to town government would henceforth be assigned to the university.(15) A major acquisition was control of the assizes of bread and ale, a job which the university had previously shared with the town. The university would also keep streets clean and repaired, a job seemingly neglected when it had been left to the town. The university would assess taxes not just for scholars, but for servants, bookmakers, illuminators, and other dependents associated with the university. Its powers in keeping the peace were extended, if necessary, by confiscating arms. Beyond these political losses, the town was fined £250, over and above the restitution of the goods stolen during the outbreak. John de Bereford, who was in prison at the time for his part in inciting the riot, was to be released on bail to oversee to the equitable levying and collecting of that sum.(16) Although the town as corporation suffered substantial losses, it is not clear that anyone was actually executed for the outrages. Bereford himself was out of prison by 1356 and died a prosperous and loyal son of the church.


The king punished the town of Oxford quickly; the Church, in the person of the Bishop of Lincoln, also struck promptly. Oxford was under an interdict for over a year. It was finally lifted in 1357.(17) As penance, the mayor of Oxford and sixty-one other leading citizens were required to attend a Mass each year, on the anniversary of the riot, to pray for the souls of those killed. During the Mass, the citizens each offered a penny; 40p went to scholarships, and the rest to the curate of St. Mary's. A pence a day would feed a poor scholar in the fourteenth century. After the Reformation, the Mass became a homily, but the penance continued. Around 1800, one mayor became mulish about this tradition. He refused to pay his 40p, and the university sued him for 100 marks, which the university maintained was the original sum fined.(18) Not until 1825 was the town released from this annual humiliation and allowed to forget that, while the laity had won the riot, the university had won the grim aftermath.


So run the accounts of the riot and its consequences. It is easy, very easy, to lose sight of how traumatic these three days must have been when the historian's sources are lengthy Latin jingles or Middle English exclamations. Archaic trappings of the sources obscure the deadliness of the violence; in terms of proportion of population involved, the St. Scholastica riot ranks with a modem urban American riot. Three days in 1355 would govern relations between Oxford University and Oxford town for centuries afterward. It seems worthwhile, then, to ask just why matters should have come to such an impasse in 1355.


To most it seems clear enough. Medieval people generally, and students particularly, were violent. As one eminent historian of the medieval university remarked, "there is probably not a single yard of ground in any part of the classic High Street that lies between St. Martin and St. Mary's which has not, at one time or another, been stained with blood. There are historic battlefields on which less has been spilt."(19)


This may very well be true, but all that spilled gore was normally spilled by student fighting student, or some sort of combination of student and townsman attacking some other sort of combination. For instance, in 1306, two clerks and two lay people acting together began a tavern fight; they were led by a townsman.(20) Around twenty years before the St. Scholastica's riot, there had been a minor dispersion of the university after a riot between northern and southern nations within the university. Such outbreaks between north and south seem to have been endemic at medieval Oxford. Student regulations at Oxford halls have much to say about preventing fights, but the transgressions which are fined--bearing a knife unsheathed to dinner, or making disparaging remarks about another's place of origin, for instance--speak of the fear of violence between student and student, not between student and town.


Granted, townspeople had early learned to associate students with disorder. Like many modern universities, Oxford had its share of shady types who slept serenely during the day when they should have been attending lectures, only to sally forth at night to pick tavern fights or rob the luckless wayfarer. The problem was aggravated because, in the first years of the university's existence, all one had to do to claim to be a student was to shave a tonsure on the crown of his head.


This, however, is precisely why matriculation was required in 1231--that those claiming to be scholars should sign themselves on the rolls of a master who was to ensure their attendance at lectures and to superintend their behavior. This was an early attempt to provide control; later efforts depended more upon controlling students through their lodgings.


It is true that most students in fourteenth-century Oxford did not live in college. There were only six secular colleges in 1355, and these were primarily intended to give masters, not students, a place to live and study. Probably the number of students accommodated in colleges was well below 100."(21)


However, halls were common at this time. Halls began as cooperative housing: students pooled their resources and rented a house. The affairs of the hall were put in the hands of a principal, who saw first to financial arrangements--collecting rent from lodgers and then paying it to the hall's owner, often a local religious house. As hall life developed, the principal might take on responsibility for organizing communal life. Obviously, the degree of discipline maintained varied from hall to hall, and the halls suffered from the disadvantage of impermanence. Yet generally, halls were recognized as a way of exerting some control over Oxford scholars.(22) The third housing choice, and the one least favored, was to rent a room in the home of a town resident. These people who lived apart in lodgings were known as "chamberdeacons" and frequently were pseudo-students. This living arrangement was officially frowned on, and in 1411 all students were required to live in either college or hall, thus eliminating the chamberdeacons.


Therefore, most students could be controlled in some way, either because they lived in college, because they lived under a principal, or because they lived under religious discipline, and roughly a fifth of the scholars were members of the regular clergy.(23) It is worthwhile to emphasize these forms of discipline, because some still conceive of students as an entirely undisciplined adolescent rabble which routinely picked fights with sober burgesses. Actually, university employees, such as manciples, were a more likely source of disorder.(24) Townsmen, too, were subject to corporate discipline through their guilds and through the mayor and his bailiffs. To repeat, when that discipline failed, violence was more likely a criminal clash between individuals than war between the two corporations of town and university. The normal state of affairs between university and town was one of peaceful co-dependency.(25)


A perhaps useful gauge of the magnitude of what happened on St. Scholastica's Day can be gained by comparing it with earlier town-gown conflicts. In 1248, one Scottish scholar was killed; the university suspended lectures. In 1298, a scholar and a citizen were killed; the perpetrators were excommunicated and the town was fined £200. Yet the traditional total of those killed in the 1355 riot was not two, but forty; it is certain that at least six scholars were killed, plus an unknown number of townspeople.(26) What began on St. Scholastica's day, then, was far from being just another town-gown spat. It was in fact unprecedentedly bloody.


Several particular causes could be suggested to explain the abnormal ferocity of the riot. One theory is that the town Oxford blamed the university for its decline. Oxford had reached a peak, economically, about 1200, even as the university was taking shape. As one historian remarked, the university found Oxford a "busy, prosperous borough, and reduced it to a cluster of lodging houses." It is certainly true that Oxford's prosperity visibly declined after 1250. Properties were left vacant, and gardens replaced some structures. It seems unlikely that the university could be blamed for Oxford's depression, though. In fact, the university may have grown in Oxford in part to fill a vacuum left as the weaving industry left town, because there would have then been cheap lodgings available. In the fourteenth century, many lodgings were owned by religious houses, but prosperous townspeople frequently rented out halls as well.(27) All of the town and much of the countryside could profit in some way or another by providing scholars and masters with their food, drink, and other supplies. If the university had not been there, Oxford's financial straits would have been desperate indeed.


It is unlikely, then, that some townspeople did their best to extirpate the university in three giddy days, because they thought that would bring glory days back. The best explanation of the riot is the simple one--the riot began because scholars were displeased by the quality of the wine served them. The university was in the unhappy position of being captive in a seller's market. Like other medieval universities, Oxford had long made it a goal to control the price and quality of living in the town as much as possible. That included oversight of weights and measures in the market, specifications of the quality of goods sold there, and jurisdiction over breaches of the peace involving those associated with university. As early as 1214, the university, still wet behind the ears, was complaining about prices. The chancellor also claimed some jurisdiction over the morals of the people of Oxford, which in particular meant suppression of prostitution. This is why the university insisted on a separate women's prison in the early 14th century.


Even as the university pressed for more control of market conditions, prices were declining in the fourteenth century. The university's population declined too--a shrinking enrollment already apparent in the early 1300s. There was demographic and economic contraction, therefore, well before the Black Death hit. It is difficult to assess precisely the plague's effect on Oxford. A modern treatment concludes that about a third of the townspeople died.(28) I will assume that this significant population loss was accompanied by some psychological trauma and by abruptly worsening conditions in an economy that was already soft. The university may have been an obvious scapegoat to blame for hardships that were beyond anyone's control, and this may be why the country people were persuaded to join in. Country people, after all, would have cared nothing about a random beating of a townsman by scholars. Because rural people supplied the markets of Oxford, though, any sign of further intrusion in the market by the university, even if it was simply a case of students vehemently protesting bad wine, may have been considered as an act of war. In any event, it is a war the town lost, because all the riot accomplished was the complete transfer of market control to the university.


It may be worth noting that Cambridge had a town-gown riot during the Peasants' Revolt of 1381.(29) The anti-university crowds there aimed particularly at university charters granting special privileges. After peace had been restored by troops sent by the local bishop, the king transferred the assize of bread and ale and oversight of weights and measures to the university. Like Oxford, Cambridge was a captive market which defended itself with the king's special patronage.


Economic relationships were at the root of the violence, but another factor may have played a role as well. The king's charters speak of town and university, but Latin poems deriving from the university consistently speak of the townspeople not as townspeople, but as laity; the university is the clergy. One of Oxford's first charters, that awarded by a papal legate in 1214, clearly stated that the university was a special, privileged, clerical enclave within the town, and the members of the university were not to be subjected to lay jurisdiction. Oxford was much more ecclesiastical in character than Cambridge. While many of the university folk were clergy only in a minor sense, they had a corporate sense of clergyhood as opposed to the laity of the town, which is clearly apparent in university accounts of the riot. Thus university accounts boast of the nobility of the students, even though in fact most students come from what we would call a middle class background. The lack of respect which the rioters showed for the host with which the friars tried to stop the violence, and the tonsures which the laity scalped into their victims, could be signs of the sort of anticlericalism, which is the hallmark of European radicalism through the Reformation. That all clergy should be annihilated, from the Pope right down to the little students, is one of the items of a more extreme continental program.(30)


/Oxford had nothing to match that ferocity, but it did provide fertile ground for the growth of Lollardy's cradle only a few decades after the St. Scholastica riot. While Lollards certainly were not in favor of annihilating the little students, they did condemn clerical privileges. In a time of financial difficulty, such as the mid-1300s, the university's dominant position as an ecclesiastical institution may have been all the more difficult to endure because of unformed skepticism about clerical privileges generally.


In 1955, on the 600th anniversary of the riot, Oxford gave an honorary degree to the Mayor, and the Vice-Chancellor of the University was made an honorary freeman of the City. And so, 600 years later, the lion lay down with the lamb, as one Oxford scholar put it--though he then coyly remarked that he would not venture to say which was which."



Professor Miller received her Ph.D. from Cornell University in 1984. Her dissertation is entitled, "An Edition and Translation of Uthred of Boldon's Monastic Treatises." She taught two years at St. Thomas University in Miami before going to Tallahassee Community College, where she has taught the last four years.



1. Accounts of the riot are to be found in Charles Edward Mallet, History of the University of Oxford, Vol. I (New York: Longmans, Green, 1924-28); H. Rashdall, The Universities of Europe in the Middle Ages, ed. F. M. Powicke and A. B. Emden, Vol. 3 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1936); A History of the County of Oxforde, ed. Alan Crossley, Vol. 4: The City of Oxford (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979), in the Victoria History of the Counties of England; and in W. A. Pantin, "The St. Scholastics Day's Riot," in Oxford Life in Oxford Archives (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972), 99-106. There are certain variations in these sources, which I have tried to harmonize in my account; in the interests of space, these differences are frequently left unnoted.

2. A. B. Emden, A Biographical Register of the University of Oxford to A.D.1500, 3 vols. (Oxford, Clarendon Press,1957-59), s.v. Spryngeheuse and Chesterton.

3.Anthony Wood, quoted in Rashdall, Universities of Europe, 96.

4."Planctus universitatis," in Collectanea, 3rd series, ed. Montagu Burrows (Oxford: printed for the Oxford Historical Society at the Clarendon Press, 1896), 172.

5. Ibid., 173; Pantin, "St. Scholastica," 100. Other documentary evidence is in J. E. T. Rogers, Oxford City Documents. Financial and Judicial, 1268-1665 (Oxford: printed for the Oxford Historical Society at the Clarendon Press, 1891), and in Medieval Archives of the University of Oxford, ed. H. E. Salter, Vol. 1 (Oxford: printed for the Oxford Historical Society at the Clarendon Press, 1917).

6. "Planctus," 173.

7. Mallet, History of the University of Oxford, 160.

8. Rashdall, Universities of Europe, 99.

9. Oxford City Documents, 267_68.

10. Medieval Archives, 148.

11. Ibid., 152.

12. Ibid., 153.

13. Oxford City Documents, 246.

14. Ibid., 253-57.

15. The university received its privileges back in a charter of June 27, 1355, contained in University Archives, 152-57.

16. Medieval Archives, 159-60.

17. Oxford City Documents, 259-67.

18. Ibid., 247.

19. Rashdall, quoted in Oxford Life, 102.

20. J. I. Catto, "Citizens, Scholars, and Masters," in The History of the University of Oxford, Vol. 1, The Early Oxford Schools, ed. J. I. Catto (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984), 168.

21. Oxford Life in Oxford Archives, 104.

22. On halls, see especially Catto, "Citizens, Scholars, and Masters," and Alan B. Cobban, The Medieval English Universities: Oxford and Cambridge to 1500 (Aldershott: Scolar Press, 1988), 145-59.

23. Cobban, Medieval English Universities, 319.

24. Ibid., 343-44. It is perhaps worth noting that Bereford got his start working for the university: "Planctus," 171, and Catto, "Citizens, Scholars, and Masters, 160.

25. "Cano, "Citizens, Scholars, and Masters," 168.

26. History of the County of Oxford, 18.

27. Catto, "Citizens, Scholars, and Masters," 159-61.

28. History of the County of Oxford, 19.

29. Cobban, Medieval English Universities, 264-67.

30. Norman Cohn, Pursuit of the Millennium (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970), 121.

31. Oxford Life in Oxford Archives, 99.


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