Rioting over wine led to 90 deaths

3:23pm Wednesday 17th August 2011

By Chris Koenig

Once upon a time a comparatively small town of about 5,000 inhabitants was the scene of riots that saw 90 people killed. That town was Oxford and the occasion was the famous fracas known as the St Scholastica’s Day Riot of 1355.

For many centuries, rioting — including bloodshed, looting and burning — was so frequent that it seems that violence was perpetually simmering away just beneath the surface of Oxford’s schizophrenic Town and Gown personality. As early as 1209, for instance, two clerics of the University were hanged after a student had killed a woman, either intentionally or accidentally; and several of their colleagues — the begowned hoodies of their day — fled to Cambridge where another university may or may not have already been founded, in order to escape further revenge from townsmen.

In 1238, the papal legate was forced to flee to Wallingford from Osney, and his brother was killed, in a riot there; and more trouble erupted in 1248, 1263, and 1272, with death on both sides. But the Crown usually sided with Gown after each outbreak of violence, and gradually the authority of the University’s Chancellor became stronger and that of the town’s mayor proportionately weaker.

In 1290, the Mayor complained to Edward I of the Chancellor’s autocratic rule, but the king reaffirmed the University’s right to try all crimes in which students or academics were involved, except murder and mayhem.

In 1335, scholars again felt that Oxford was too hot for them, and many again fled away, this time to Stamford in Lincolnshire. But Edward III ordered them back and gave them further rights and privileges in the town. But among things left behind in Stamford was the door knocker of Brasenose College. It was not returned to Oxford until 1890 when the college bought the house in which it had hung for 550 years. Now the bronze knocker, with a grotesque face in its design, is kept safely in the great hall of the college.

The knocker was important in the context of riots since any suspected wrongdoer being chased during a ‘hue and cry’ could claim sanctuary by holding on to the knocker — the face of which acquired the brazen nose after which the college is now named.

On the Gown side, resentment bubbled away about rents and the perceived high prices that tradesmen charged for food and (in particular) drink. Huge amounts of wine were at that time brought from Bordeaux, then an English possession, and in addition there were dozens of breweries in Oxford.

Drink sparked off the St Scholastica’s Day Riot that began on Tuesday, February 10, 1355, and continued for three days. Some students complained about the quality of the wine served at the Swyndlestock tavern, on the corner of Queen Street and St Aldates, and “snappish words” passed between them and the innkeeper — which ended with the students throwing the wine at the innkeeper’s head. In the scuffle that ensued the townsmen rang the bell of the town church of St Martin’s (at Carfax; now only the tower remains) to summon help, and the students rang the bell of the University church of St Mary to summon help on their side; and battle commenced. About 30 townsmen were killed and 63 gownsmen.

The mayor rode to Woodstock, where the king was residing, to seek his support, but to no avail. Indeed, the University’s privileges were extended. It was given powers to regulate the drink trade. Most humiliating of all, though, the Mayor and corporation were required to attend a mass at the University church every St Scholastica’s Day thereafter and to swear an oath to recognise the privileges of the University forever. They also had to pay the University 63 pence (5s 3d) each year, one penny for every scholar slain. The ritual continued until 1826 when the then Mayor simply refused to comply.

But that was by no means the end of town and gown riots in Oxford, which continued even into the 20th century, particularly on Guy Fawkes Night. In Cuthbert Bede’s 19th-century novel The Adventures of Verdant Green, students regarded St Scholastica’s Day as a splendid opportunity for a punch-up.

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