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POLITICS Florilegium Urbanum

Keywords: medieval Oxford government jurisdiction university police hue-and-cry borough powers petition students disturbances riot disputes judicial administration

Subject: Competitive jurisdictions
Original source: Documents now known only through Twyne's transcription of 1624
Transcription in: H.E. Salter, ed. Munimenta Civitatis Oxonie, Devizes, 1920, 87-88, 91, 126-27.
Original language: French or Latin
Location: Oxford
Date: 14th century


[1. Petition complaining of obstruction of the hue and cry, ca.1330s or 1340s]

To our lord the king, his burgesses of Oxford attest that when, as often happens in the town, hue and cry is raised because of acts committed against the peace, and the people of the community, in accordance with the law and custom of the realm, come to arrest the offenders and felons so as to preserve the peace, the Chancellor of Oxford on the pretext of his office causes those people who have come to protect the peace to become caught up in and aggrieved by coercions and censures of Holy Church, and some of them through [legal] process made before himself are banished from the town. [This acts] to the great impediment of the common people and the support of lawless elements. For which they ask a remedy.

[2. Petition for the authority to attach troublemakers, ca.1330s]

To our lord the king, his loyal subjects the mayor and community of the town of Oxford request aid. Because many homicides, assaults and other disturbances contrary to the peace are made from one day to the next in the town of Oxford by the students living there, would it please the king in his goodness for purpose of preserving the peace to grant by charter to the mayor and community that they have the power, when such things are done contrary to the peace, to have their officers attach the culprits to answer to the law before his justices and officers (as is done in other cities, boroughs and towns), notwithstanding any contradictory privilege granted to the University.

[3. The riot on St. Scholastica's day, 1355]

These are the injuries down to the mayor, bailiffs and community of the town of Oxford by the students of the university of that town.

First, on 10 February [1355], after dinner, Walter Spryngeheuse, Roger de Chesterfeld and other students came to the tavern called Swindlestock, where they took a quart of wine and threw it in the face of the tavernkeeper, John Croydon; and then they beat John with the quart [pot], without any cause. Upon which the town bailiffs came and requested them to make amends and reparation in a proper fashion. But they refused to make amends or reparation for their offence; instead they poured out of the tavern and soon after appeared at the Carfax with bows and arrows and other weapons, ready to cause trouble. The bailiffs seized the bows and arrows, but the students made a great hub-bub and were very argumentative. Consequently the mayor, bailiffs and sergeants went to the Chancellor of the University and asked him to have the troublemakers arrested and to help do his part to preserve the peace. He did nothing of what was asked him. After the mayor, bailiffs and sergeants left the Chancellor, there came two hundred or more students, armed as if for war, and they confronted and assaulted the mayor, bailiffs and sergeants, wounding some of them so badly that it is doubtful they will survive; and then they killed a child of about 14 years of age and threatened to set the city on fire. The next morning, while the mayor, bailiffs and all the good folk of the town had gone to Woodstock to complain to the king of these injuries, those students came with a force equal to a king's and with a plan in mind, seized the gatekeepers of the town, closed the gates, fought with shields and weapons, set fires in various parts of the town, broke into and robbed various houses of laymen, and wounded or killed several people. Because of which disturbance, involving fire and fighting, the people of the community rose up in support and defence of the town.


By the time of the Norman conquest, Oxford was already promising to become one of England's leading towns, the sheep-grazing lands in the area making it a natural centre for the wool trade and the cloth industry; its prosperity was furthered by the presence of consumer groups in the form of two monasteries and a sizable Jewish community. The town's natural course of development, in terms of acquiring control of its own internal affairs along the lines of other towns, was however checked by the emergence of a university by the close of the twelfth century. Formal colleges were endowed in the next century, a chancellor appointed to head the loose confederation, and the students and teachers – mostly lodging with townsmen or in houses rented within the town – became a sizable minority within the urban population. Thereafter it was the disharmonious town-gown relations that dominated the central course of Oxford's history.

The exercise of jurisdiction in Oxford was an awkward matter because the town proper and the university were competitors of about equal strength; what the university lacked in size it made up for by having the protection and support of the king, who periodically gave more powers to the university, often at the expense of the town. It was like two separate communities within the same town, each vying for dominance. The main areas under dispute were control over trade and commerce (which impacted the scholars as consumers) and jurisdiction over legal matters; the power to assess rents on houses rented by the scholars was another touchy issue.

The Chancellor had his own court, whose jurisdictional scope was resented by the town authorities. The Chancellor's privileges included the right to banish from the town those he considered undesirables, and to excommunicate those who defied his authority. His court had jurisdiction over certain cases in which a member of the university was one of the parties, thus depriving the town court of income from fines. After town-gown disputes at the end of the thirteenth century, a settlement extended this to all trespasses in which scholars were involved. One consequence of this jurisdiction was that townsmen were sometimes tempted to involve (fraudulently) scholars in their legal disputes in order to have the case tried by the Chancellor's court.

The thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries were in fact punctuated by conflicts between town and university, not infrequently erupting into violence, followed by settlements that invariably strengthened the university. Salter noted that difficulty in dating the first of the three documents above stemmed from the fact that this type of complaint was frequently being made by the town authorities, and particularly during a period of town-gown conflict towards the mid-point of the century. The second is also difficult to date; Salter suggested that 1335, a year of town-gown disturbances, might be a candidate.

If the town authorities had many complaints about interference with or obstruction of their powers or rights, the university authorities made at least as many complaints on their side. On one occasion when tempers reached boiling point, the St. Scholastica's Day riot, or massacre as it is sometimes exaggeratedly called, occurred. The document translated here of course represents the town authorities' perspective, aiming at placing blame for what happened on provocations by the students. The "resistance" of the townspeople, prompted by raising hue and cry, was organized by several leading townsmen; they recruited help from residents of the surrounding countryside, whose forces broke through the west gate, closed by the students. Over the next three days there were repeated assaults on and plundering of various university buildings; several students were killed.

The king and the Bishop of Lincoln both intervened, the latter placing the town under interdict until 1356, and the former demanding both town and university surrender their charters of liberties. The king continued to favour the university. A new charter granted to the town in July excluded from the restoration of liberties some key privileges: market assizes, investigations of forestalling or of sale of bad meat or fish, punishment of carrying arms in town, control over street-cleaning, and taxation of scholars' servants. The transfer of these powers to the university were a severe blow to local government. In addition, the king deposed the mayor, who was thrown into prison, and the bailiffs, required the townspeople to restore all possessions plundered from the university, and imposed damages of £250. In a final settlement in 1357, the mayor, bailiffs and aldermen were subjected to the further humiliation of having to attend a service in the university's church every St. Scholastica day and make an offering of 1d. each on that occasion, as a gesture of submission.

The 1355 riot exhausted the town's efforts to dominate the university and relations actually improved thereafter – or at least were more subdued; resentment continuing to find outlets in disputes, but rarely reaching the point of violence.



The centre of the town, where crossed the roads linking the four main gates into the walled city; it was also the focus of Oxford's market, and the Swindlestock tavern stood nearby.

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Created: May 27, 2003. © Stephen Alsford, 2003

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