Charting Oxford’s History Through its Pubs

Oxford’s streets have featured pubs and taverns for nearly a thousand years, and any undergraduate ordering and drinking a pint in historic buildings such as the Mitre, the Bear or the Crown join a long line of those that have come before them. The history of the city can be charted through these buildings, which to this day remain living and breathing reminders of heritage.

The site of the first known tavern in the town is now Oxford’s branch of Pizza Express in the Golden Cross arcade. Although the present building dates from the fifteenth century, its location is the same as Mauger’s Inn, which was founded along with an academic hall to house scholars in around 1193.

The Bear Inn, one of Oxford's historic pubs.
The Bear Inn (Jeremy Bolwell, cc-by-sa/2.0).

Oxford around the turn of the thirteenth century was a town on the rise. The University was growing rapidly after English students were banned from attending University in Paris by Henry II in 1167, and many modern elements of university life were taking shape. The historian Gerald of Wales is recorded as having given a lecture in 1188, the first foreign scholars arrived in 1190, a Royal Charter was granted by Henry III in 1248 and the first college to codify its statutes was Merton in 1264.

But this growth caused friction with those resident in the existing Anglo-Saxon settlement that the University was quickly colonising. The University of Cambridge was established in 1209 by academics who left Oxford following the lynching of two students by townsfolk, and these frictions reached their peak in 1355 with the St. Scholastica Day riots. This was a period when the so-called ‘town vs. gown’ rivalry was frequently deadly. The riots, which lasted several days and led to nearly a hundred deaths, began in a pub, the Swindlestock Tavern, which stood on the site of what is now Santander, on the corner of Cornmarket Street and St. Aldate’s, from 1250 to 1709. A group of students drinking in the Tavern had complained about the quality of the wine served. The landlord, and Mayor of Oxford, John of Barford was alleged to have responded with “stubborn and saucy language” leading one of the students to throw a serving jug at his head. The scuffle spread quickly around the town, igniting existing tensions to deadly effect.

Attempts to regulate the use of pubs by University students were common, much to the ire of local landlords who relied on their custom. The University authorities regularly attempted to forbid its students from drinking in alehouses and inns throughout the Early Modern period, and were successful in ordering all landlords to enclose their back gardens and walls so that no students were able to “on the sudden, leap or get over them” when Proctors visited.

Inscription showing the site of the Swindlestock Tavern, one of Oxford's historic pubs.
(Tony Holding, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons).

It might be natural to presume that ale has been the traditional product of Oxford’s pubs, yet it is also important to recognise the importance of wine through the ages. Mauger, the first recorded landlord in Oxford, was described in a census not as a brewer but a vintner, or wine-seller. The University was key in supporting the local production and trade of wine as, until the seventeenth centuries when Colleges began to maintain their own cellars, it was customary to have established relationships with local vintners in order to procure wine on feast days or other special occasions. Local taverns who produced or sold wine did so in specially marked bottles, stamped with a mark signifying where they had come from so that they could be returned and reused afterwards.

Being a pub landlord is a full-time job in the modern world, but ale-houses in the past were often one of a number of businesses owned and operated by an individual. Furthermore, pubs themselves were far less distinguishable from other buildings than they are today. Records of the poll tax taken by Richard II in 1381 show ten innkeepers, seven tapsters, three taverners and a vintner operating in Oxford, yet 32 registered brewers, who might have sold their beer through shops, to private consumers, or even simply out of their house.

The idea of the sale of alcohol being only part of a wider business persisted throughout the early modern period. One of the oldest buildings on the High Street is numbers 106 and 107, collectively known as Tackley’s Inn, now occupied by the University of Oxford Shop and A-Plan Insurance. Built in around 1329, it was the first building acquired by Adam de Browne, the original founder of Oriel College. Until the sixteenth century, undergraduates and most graduates lived not in their colleges but in academic halls scattered across Oxford, and Tackley’s Inn is one of the few relatively-unchanged surviving examples of such a hall, although it has not been used to accommodate students since it was divided into two properties in 1438, one of which was simply called The Tavern. In 1539, both buildings were sold to Garbrand Harks, a Dutch Protestant refugee. He sold books from the ground floor and wine from the vaulted cellar, which still exists today.

In 1616, King James’ efforts to reform the English system of taxation which he inherited from the Tudors, which had seen tariffs remain static for nearly a century in the face of a sustained period of inflation, extended to an attempt to prevent ale-house keepers from trading in other industries. This failed, and the century saw a significant increase in the number of licensed premises in the City. By 1678, there were an estimated 370 ale-houses in Oxford, largely concentrated on the four roads meeting at the Carfax Tower: Queen’s Street, High Street, St. Aldate’s and Cornmarket Street. It is estimated that more than a third of the buildings on the latter have, at some point in their history, been used as taverns, and The Crown, the only pub still serving on Cornmarket, claims to have been the regular residence of William Shakespeare when he stopped in Oxford on journeys from Stratford to London.

All roads lead to pubs - a 1605 map of Oxford, illustrating the huge number of Oxford pubs through history.
All roads lead to pubs. A 1605 map of Oxford, with Carfax Tower marked by the letter “N” (Source).

Oxford was granted city status as a result of Henry VIII’s Reformation in 1542, and became the seat of the new Church of England Diocese of Oxford in 1545. A religious character can also be seen in some of its pubs, most notably The Mitre. The pub, originally owned by what would become Lincoln College and taking its name from the college arms, is the only pub in central Oxford to have survived in continuous operation since the Medieval period. It was founded in 1310, and in the seventeenth century was owned by a succession of Catholic landlords, becoming well-known as an establishment frequented by recusants. Furthermore, The Crown’s landlord in the time of Shakespeare was John Davenant, academic and the future Bishop of Salisbury, who would later represent the Church of England at the Synod of Dort.

Happily, students no longer risk inciting a major riot by drinking in one of Oxford’s many pubs, nor are they required to jump over the back walls when the Proctors visit. Yet while almost all of the subjects now studied by undergraduates did not exist as degrees two centuries ago, the notion of students meeting and drinking in pubs goes significantly further into the past. These historical inns and ale-houses are part of the fabric of the City, and are key to its history. In a time when the very existence of many pubs is threatened by the current pandemic, with the recent announcement that the Lamb and Flag will not reopen, university and town authorities would do well to remember that some of these buildings have survived for nearly a millennium, and will hopefully continue to do so long into the future.

Bibliography

Chance, E. et. al.,’Social and Cultural Activities’, in A. Crossley and C.R. Elrington (eds), A History of the County of Oxford: Volume 4, the City of Oxford (London, 1979), pp. 425-441
Haslam, J., ‘Oxford Taverns and the Cellars of All Souls III the 17th and 18th Centuries’, Oxoniensia, xxxiv (1969), pp. 45-77
Panton, W.A., ‘Tackley’s Inn, Oxford’, Oxoniensia, vii (1942), pp. 80-93