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The Bad Beer Brawl: St. Scholastica Day Riot

On the south-west corner of Carfax, in Oxford, a small, inconspicuous inscription on the side of an old building marks the site of one of the bloodiest pub brawls in history. Before this building was sold to the Abbey National Building Society, it was occupied by the Swindlestock Tavern, a popular watering hole among Oxford University’s students and the townsfolk alike.

On 10 February 1355, the entire town was celebrating the feast day of Saint Scholastica. Some students were drinking at Swindlestock Tavern, when two of them complained about the quality of the wine served. The landlord and the tavern’s owner, who also happened to be Mayor of Oxford at the time, allegedly responded to their complaint with “stubborn and saucy language”; whereupon a student threw his drink on the owner’s face, followed by the empty wine jug that landed straight on the tavern owner’s head.

St. Scholastica Day Riot

A fight erupted and other customers present in the tavern, both locals and students, joined in and soon the fight spilled out of the tavern and onto the streets. Somebody rang the bell at the town's church to summon assistance, and the students rang the bells of the University Church in response. When the Chancellor of the University tried to intervene, arrows were fired at him and he had to retreat.

The next day, about eighty townsmen, armed with bows and other weapons, ambushed the St Giles' Church in the north part of the town and killed at least one student and badly injured several others. The students attempted to close the town's gates to prevent outsiders from coming to the aid of the townsfolk. But by afternoon, some 2,000 men from the countryside had broken through the gates. The men raided all hostels and inns and either killed or maimed any student found. The carnage continued the next day. Clerics and scholars were scalped and their corpses buried in dunghills, left in the gutters, dumped into cesspits or thrown into the river.

By the evening of the third day the passions of the townspeople had been spent, but not before some ninety-odd people were dead. The students suffered the most with more than sixty dead, although some historians put the figure at forty. Casualties among the townspeople was no lesser. About thirty or so may have been killed.

The town’s mayor paid the price for the violence—he was sent to the dreaded Marshalsea prison. Four months after the riot, the King issued a royal charter that not only secured the rights and privileges of the university but vastly extended them. For example, the university was allowed the right to tax bread and drink sold in the town, and the power to assay the weights and measures used in commerce.

St. Scholastica Day Riot

Swindlestock Tavern stone, Oxford. Photo: Tony Holding/Wikimedia Commons

While this might sound like an unfair amount of privileges for an educational institute, one must understand that medieval universities were very different than they are now. Scholars were akin to a religious order, and when a university took residence in a town, the chancellor negotiated favorable terms on their behalf for facilities such as lodging and lecture halls. The universities received monetary benefits from the Catholic Church, and this financial freedom from the municipality in which they reside gave universities considerable independence from civil authority. The Catholic Church made sure that scholars’ rights were protected, and in many disputes between townsfolk and the students, the Church always took the side of the universities.

The townsfolk resented the scholars and regarded them with disdain. Some students openly encroached local laws with impunity knowing they are immune from civil authorities.

Violent confrontations between “town and gown” were commonplace in university towns, and Oxford was no stranger to riots. In 1209, two Oxford scholars were lynched by the town's locals following the death of a woman. A fight ensued and several scholars were forced into exile. Some of them settled in Cambridge and they started what is now the University of Cambridge. Eventually, tensions developed between the scholars at Cambridge and the townspeople forcing the king to grant special privileges and protection to Cambridge University, which helped enormously in the survival and future success of the university.

St. Scholastica Day Riot

“Ending the St Scholastica Day riot” by Howard Davie

Again, in 1248 a Scottish scholar was murdered by the citizens, and King Henry III fined the town's authorities. Between 1297 and 1322, twenty nine counts of violence was recorded between the town and the students. Of these 12 arose due to murders committed by students. Many of these went unpunished by the university. In one incident, in 1298, a citizen was murdered by a student and in response the townspeople also killed one student. The townsfolk responsible for killing the scholar were excommunicated and the town was fined, but no punishments were given to the students.

The St. Scholastica Day Riot was by far the worst, but the consequences of it were predictable. The town was punished and the students were pardoned. The King even went so far as to humiliate the new mayor and the bailiffs into an annual penance where they were required to attend the town’s church for mass on each St. Scholastica day and swear to uphold the university’s rights for ever. This ritual continued for an astounding 470 years until it was repelled in 1825.

By the mid-15th century, things started to change when it was realized that universities were growing too powerful. An effort was made to end student power within the universities. Papal legates were ordered to reform the universities and restrict student boycotts and strikes. Over the centuries, the relationship between town and gown improved. Eventually, towns began to take pride in their universities rather than look upon them as adversaries.

References:
# Stephanie Jenkins, St Scholastica’s Day Riot, Oxford, 1355, http://www.oxfordhistory.org.uk/mayors/government/scholastica.html
# Sean Munger, It started with a bad glass of wine: the St. Scholastica Day riots., https://seanmunger.com/2014/02/10/it-started-with-a-bad-glass-of-wine-the-st-scholastica-day-riots/
# Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St_Scholastica_Day_riot
# Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Town_and_gown

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