A Town vs Gown Showdown

Imagine this. There’s no tiers, no restrictions, no pre-booking tables at pubs, no Corona. You’ve had a long day of studying in the Old Bod and so decide to give up on your essay deadline and go for a pint. After a text debate surrounding whether to hit Turf Tavern or The Bear you’re all moved by the extremely convincing argument that “the Turf’s a classssssssic.” So you walk from college to the pub with your mates and get a table outside; it’s cold but at least there’s some heating. No need to browse at the menu, you know what you’re all gonna get: a beer for Lizzy and Isaac, a glass of red wine for Athena and a gin and tonic for yourself because it’s that kind of spenny night. The bartender whips up the drinks and you slurp them up as fast as you can say “St Scholastica Day” when suddenly you turn to the table on the left and all hell is breaking loose.

“I’m sorry but this wine is just not up to scratch” cries out that archetypal Etonian accent. “It was clearly watered down or made with something cheap. I didn’t realise I was drinking Lidl wine!”
The bartender is at a loss, trampled by this student’s dissatisfied taste buds, forcing the owner of the bar to come over and break up the row. “Is everything alright mate? Can we just try and turn down the switch a little. This is a city pub, not a student night.”
Enraged with the severity of the injustice, the tweed wearing teen strikes a strong punch at the owner followed by a man, that guy who works at the local Tescos, returning the punch with ease before they’re all kicked out.

Now, in a non-Corona 2021, this may have ended there. The student may have been suspended by college, and most certainly would have been forever banned from the Tavern, whilst you probably would have filmed it on snap or insta to prove to other mates that you too had witnessed this fight. However, when this situation did occur – in 1355 and not in 2021, at the Swindlestock Tavern and not at the Turf – it did not end with a pub ban and a bruised face. Rather, it developed into a city dweller vs student three day riot.

Present-day Carfax tower, the site of the old Swindlestock Tavern, the site of the town vs gown showdown.
Present-day Carfax, the site of the Swindlestock Tavern (Motacilla, CC BY-SA 4.0)

These 1355 Oxford students, however, looked quite different to Oxford students today and symbolised something much deeper to the town’s people. The University of Oxford was one of many institutions that emerged throughout Western Europe in the late Middle Ages, promoting theological learning and secular studies. Although it started teaching in 1096, from the 1200s the University received a royal charter to train members of the nobility to aid the central Church. As more and more scholars flocked to Oxford, they did not simply adjust and assimilate into the local city but in fact caused many tensions with the locals.

Now, if you think Oxford students are privileged today, that’s nothing compared to royal privileges of the fourteenth century. The scholars were free from lay jurisdiction, had subsidised prices on goods and were, most, importantly exempt from paying any sort of tax on account of the city. Like today, students could reap every benefit of the city but unlike today, they had their own set of conduct and laws. Thus, when this argument between the students Walter Springhouse and Roger Dechesterfield and the Taverner John Croyden occurred, it was not just about wine but rather symbolised a broader conundrum: the town vs gown tension.

Following that first punch, other scholars joined their fellow students and the town dwellers rose to arms. Despite the Mayor pleading the Chancellor to arrest the students, the scholars’ own laws kept them exempt. Over the next three days, approximately 200 armed people from all over the countryside were encouraged and paid by the city bailiffs to make the journey to Oxford in order to participate in this fight. Friars tried to appeal to the mob’s religious morals but to no avail. The townspeople raided accommodation blocks and the scholars raided buildings, people were killed with some clerics even being scalped! Around 30 town dwellers and up to 60 students were murdered. Imagine you’re settled in bed with a cup of water and your New Testament reading when suddenly a villager comes in shouting “slay, slay, havoc, havoc” and murders your suite mate.

An artistic recreation of the town vs gown riot of St Scholastica Day, as depicted on a 1907 postcard.
The St Scholastica Day riot depicted on a 1907 postcard (Source)

Whilst the riot came to an end, the tensions lived on. Although the scholars may have complained about the wine, it was decided by King Edward III’s commission of dwellers that the town was responsible in many ways for instigating the riot so not only excused any scholars involved but in fact curtailed the remainder rights of the town and delegated the assessment of taxes, bread, ale and countless other privileges to the university. The town was additionally fined 500 marks, the Mayor and Bailiffs were arrested, and an interdict imposed on Oxford banning many religious practises and ceremonies besides from children’s baptisms! On 27th June 1355, the King officially ensured the greater rights and responsibilities of the university over the town, even decreeing that control over commerce, and any situation where a scholar was involved in a brawl, was the responsibility of the university. The punishment, however, did not end there and then. Due to the annual penance, a mass with required attendance that recalled the scholars who’d died, the town were reminded of the brawl all the way until the 19th century when the Mayor finally refused to pay the penance.

It’s safe to say that this controversy did not begin and end with wine, but symbolised the much greater questions surrounding the growth of these institutions. Some historians argue that the riots symbolised a fierce anticlericalism whilst other historians, such as C.H Lawrence, believed it was more about “the climax of a long series of royal privileges which raised the university from the status of a protected resident to that of the dominant power in the city.” Universities and emerging educational institutions were changing the fabric of towns, and this undeniably had repercussions on the local population. This was not the first town vs gown brawl and certainly wouldn’t be the last.

My family recently watched the movie ‘Riot Club’ in which a secret society at Oxford is so boisterous at a town pub that the locals end up leaving. The taverner, however, prioritises them but almost ends up getting murdered by the knife of their “scholarly” elitism. 666 years on, towns are still suffering from the pretentious presence of students. Although the university does own an extortionate amount of land, many of us are, similar to those scholars, temporary residents of Oxford, here to learn in a city where others make their lives. What I’m trying to say is, for the sake of the city, next time you’re out with your mates when the pubs finally open again, do us all a favour and keep your mouth shut if you don’t like the wine….


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