10 February 1355: The St Scholastica’s Day riots

On this day in 1355, the “town versus gown” rivalry in Oxford boiled over into three days of fighting, dubbed the St Scholastica’s Day riots.

Venture into town after dark in any city with a sizable student population and you can expect to see a fair bit of carnage. But hopefully not on the scale witnessed in Oxford on 10 February 1355, the feast day of St Scholastica. No prizes for guessing it all kicked off in the pub.

Students Walter de Springheuse and Roger de Chesterfield were entertaining their mates down the Swyndlestock tavern. They called for wine, and the landlord, John de Croydon, brought it over.

But while modern-day students aren't known for their fussiness, our 14th century scholars declared the wine to be disgusting and threw it back in the landlord's face.

Cue three days of rioting, involving the students of Oxford University and a couple of thousand residents of the town, all armed to the teeth. Both sides of rioters rang their church bells to rally their supporters. Around 30 townsfolk and twice as many students were killed in the fighting.

Of course, it wasn't the bad wine that caused the riots. A deeper town versus gown' rivalry had been simmering away for a while. The town was the main supplier of goods and services to the university, and the university was the town's principle customer. Inevitably, there were disputes.

Another cause was resentment at the clergy, which manifested itself in the university. The university ran its own courts, which, if anything, were more powerful than the town's. The university even had the power to impose a curfew on the residents.

So, when the mayor of Oxford demanded the chancellor arrest the errant students, the chancellor refused. Royal authorities interceded, and came down in favour of the university.

The town was fined, its leaders imprisoned, and the mayor was ordered to attend an annual mass at the university's St Mary's church, which, surprisingly, he and his subsequent incarnations did until 1825.

Reconciliation came six centuries later, when in 1955, to commemorate the riots, the town and the university agreed to bury the hatchet. The mayor was given an honorary degree, while the vice-chancellor of the university was given the freedom of the city. Presumably, they didn't celebrate in the pub.

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