Friday, February 10, 2012

Oxford—Town and Gown, Longbow and Cudgel

A depiction of the St. Scholastica's Day Riots so fanciful, it even gets the year wrong.

If you “went away” to college and lived on a campus, you are probably familiar with Town and Gown rivalries—the tensions that inevitably arise between students and the residents municipalities that host the school.  Almost all schools have local lore that includes fist fights, pranks, virtual gang fights, and other blips in harmony.  Frequently the local’s are offended when male students “take our girls” or when students get rowdy in off campus bars. 

Some towns, like Carbondale home of Southern Illinois University, used to have annual riots in which cars were overturned, business windows smashed, and sometime buildings torched.  Halloween was the excuse down there. 

On the other hand, local jocks and rednecks have been known to prey on students they consider weak when they find them off campus.  Physical and sexual assaults, even murder have been reported.

Most of the rivalry doesn’t rise to that level.  But, oh, the stories that are told!  

I went to school in tiny Mount Carroll, Illinois, lo those many years ago the home of even tinier Shimer College.  To say that there was a cultural gap between the students back then, many of them sporting long hair, facial hair, hippie attire, and regularly engaging in-ahem-mind expanding substances and the hard working, short haired, patriotic, church going locals.  

But the most violent episode in my era came in a bar fight Poffenberger’s, a favorite watering hole of students and townies alike.  One night my good buddy Bill Delaney, a Marine Corps Vietnam veteran got into an altercation with a local.  According to legend, the fist fight spilled out of the tavern into the street with the two combatants locked together rolling around on the ground choking and eye gouging.  At some point Bill evidently bit either the nose or the ear off the other guy—the particular anatomical part lost in the mists of legend.  Believe it or not, Bill went on to graduate and to have a long and distinguished career as a prosecutor and then a criminal defense attorney back in his home state of South Dakota.  He’s retired now and riding his motorcycle around New Orleans.  And I still would get in a bar fight with him.

But I digress.  All of this is prelude to relate to one of the greatest Town/Gown battles of history, the St. Scholastica’s Day Riots that erupted in Oxford on February 10, 1355.

To celebrate the feast of the good Saint, the Italian founder of a Nunnery and sister of St. Benedict, some students and masters from Oxford University went to the Swindlestock Tavern in town.  If you are thinking of downy cheeked youths, disabuse yourself of the notion. Both masters and students were, by the charter of the school, tonsured clerics.  Many of the young men came from the gentry and lower nobility, usually younger sons who had to make their way either as clergy or soldiers.

Any way, this group was very annoyed with the quality of the wine served them by the landlord, John Croidon.  Two of the students, Walter Spryngeheuse and Roger de Chesterfield, who had probably either been testing the quality for some time or who arrived well lubricated from another establishment, complained loudly.  Croidon was equally loud in his defense and refused make satisfaction, whereupon the two students threw the contents of their tankards in his face and beat the man.

The students escaped to campus and Croidon appealed to the Mayor, John de Bereford for assistance.  They mayor had no authority on campus which was chartered to the Church.  He appealed to the Chancellor for justice and to have the students arrested and make restitution.  The Chancellor ignored the pleas. 

In the mean time the bells of two St. Mary’s Churches, one in the town and the other on campus, rang to rally their prospective sides.  Mayor Bereford at the head of a large body of men carrying cudgels and knives marched to the gates of the college.  Two hundred students rallied to meet them.  Bereford and several others were beaten and the residents retreated back to town.

The next day, a Wednesday, Mayor Bereford rode to nearby Woodstock to lay a complaint before King Edward III, who was in residence there. By the account of the Town, disputed to this day by the University, students poured out of campus, locked the gates of the town and began sacking shops and stores, setting fires, assaulting the burgers murdering some.  

Towns people retaliated by attacking the Augustinian Hall, beating the Friars in residence and setting the place on fire.  When other students went out from their halls after dinner for exercise, they were surrounded by 80 men who loosed arrows on them causing the first deaths on the student side.

Meanwhile men from the surrounding countryside, several hundred strong, under the leadership of  Richard Forester and Robert Lardiner rallied to march to the defense of the town,  They marched on the college behind a black banner chanting, “slay, slay, havok, havok, smite fast, give good knocks.”  Students met them in the streets and defended themselves and kept the mob at bay with their own volleys of arrows until their quivers were emptied.  They retired to the safety of the solid stone buildings on campus.

As the mob continued to besiege the campus on Thursday, it was the turn of the Chancellor to appeal to the King.  While he was away attending that errand, the laity as the locals were known as opposed to the Clerics of the University, breached the gates of the school.

Then the mob poured into the University.  They sacked 14 more halls.  Students were killed where they were found or beaten insensible.  Some were actually scalped to remove the distinctive tonsure required of servants of the Church.  Survivors were thrown into captivity without medical attention, food or blankets and held for days.  

Surviving students and their masters fled for their lives to Stamford and other havens. 

The exact death tolls for the three days of violence are a matter of some controversy.  Generally, it is believed that 63 scholars and 30 townsfolk were killed outright and scores on both side maimed.

The King, as authorities always do, ordered a commission to investigate while suspending the Charters of both the Town and the University.  The King quickly restored the Charter of the University, which had special protection of the Church.  The Town did not fare so well.

After receiving the report of his commission, the King issued a blanket pardon of a scholars, masters, and University employees who may have committed crimes.  The Town has held to blame in the deaths of the students and the property loss and damage and fined heavily. Its Charter was restored only with limitations and many of its duties, including maintaining the streets and controlling the assizes of bread and ale (collecting the lucrative tax) were given to the University.  More over the Mayor, Board of Aldermen, and leading citizens were ordered to make public contrition at annual special Masses then to march to the University to present and annual penance of one penny for every scholar killed, a total of 5 shillings and 3 pence, usually paid in penny coins.

The heavily one-sided verdict was due not only to the political and spiritual power of the Church, but to the King’s reliance on graduates of the University.  Learned, literate men were hard to come by.  The Barons and Knights by whose arms the King maintained his throne were largely illiterate and unfit for the routine tasks of governance—record keeping, levying and collecting taxes, keeping courts of justice, sending and reading important communications between the King and his vassal lords.  In short, the king needed the graduate scholars of Oxford to provide the middle-management of government—the Clerks.  And in addition to training clergy, that would be the continuing mission of Oxford University through the centuries.

On February 10 of each year for more than 400 years, the Mayors of Oxford made that humiliating trip. 

In 1817 a mayor refused to pay the fine.  The University sued him for 100 Marks, an obsolete unit of coinage long replaced by the Pound Sterling.  In 1825, the town was finally released from the obligation.

On the 600th anniversary of the St. Scholastica’s Day Riots, the Town and University ceremonially mended their breach.  The Mayor of Oxford was awarded an honorary Doctorate and the Vice-Chancellor of the University was proclaimed a Freeman of the Town.

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