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'To lick a Lord and thrash a cad': Oxford 'Town & Gown'

By Mark Davies
BBC Oxford contributor

The Adventures of Verdant Green
The Adventures of Verdant Green were published in 1853-57

1209 was an important year in the histories of both Oxford and Cambridge.

For Cambridge, it was when its University was founded.

For Oxford it marked the first recorded incident in what would become a regular event: bloody 'Town and Gown' disputes.

These were disputes between the citizens of Oxford and the perceived parasites of the University. The two events are intimately connected.

In 1209, two Oxford clerks (i.e. scholars at one of the increasing number of religious halls) were hanged by some townsmen for a murder of which they were apparently innocent.

The scholars, fearing for their safety, dispersed to, amongst other places, Cambridge, where some settled permanently.

Violent times

Oxford remained a no-go area until 1214, when the Pope imposed severe penalties on the Town and the University emerged as a stronger force, better organized and with a recognised leader: the Chancellor.

The Pope's intervention did little to ease the friction, however, and throughout the remainder of the century there were numerous accounts of fighting, imprisonment, arson, and slaughter - though these were in any case violent times, of course, and the disputes were not solely between scholars and townsmen.

The general pattern, however, was that the University's powers tended to increase at the expense of the Town. This became increasingly true after the events of St Scholastica's Day 1355, after which the penalties imposed on the Town had implications which lasted some 500 years.

Accounts of this incident vary, but there is no doubt that it began at the Swyndelstock tavern at Carfax, where two scholars, Walter Spryngeheuse and Roger de Chesterfield, on finding the wine substandard, threw it at the taverner, John Croidon, and then hit him on the head with a quart pot.

Croidon complained to the Mayor, but the bailiffs' subsequent attempt to arrest the two men was resisted by some 200 scholars, who assaulted the Mayor and other townsmen, and in the ensuing ruckus slew a child of 14.

Scholars killed

The next day, the scholars sealed the gates of the town and ran riot, ransacking buildings and setting them on fire, and wounding many people.

At least, that is what the municipal records state; the University records maintain that the some 80 townsmen launched an unprovoked attack on some scholars who were walking in Beaumont fields.

In the afternoon, the Town's forces were augmented by some 2,000 men from the west of the county. Nearly twenty halls were sacked in the next 36 hours, and many scholars killed.

As a result, some leading Oxford townsmen found themselves imprisoned in the Tower of London, and the University's privileges (for example, on the price and quality of bread, ale, and wine) were increased.

Most humbling of all, on every subsequent St Scholastica's Day (10th February) 63 citizens (including the Mayor) were obliged to attend Mass at the University church of St Mary, and to pay a penny each in penance. It was a ritual which continued until 1825.

But the problems continued. The University deduced that the source of the friction was that many students lived in lodgings, scattered about the town, meaning that disciplinary and moral supervision became difficult.

Chaucer's Miller's Tale, set at the end of the 14th century, paints an unedifying, but no doubt reasonably accurate, picture of an undergraduate lodger residing with a wealthy townsman.

'Robbery and homicide'

The story can be considered Oxford's earliest piece of fiction, and it set the trend for countless later Oxford novels, in that it is the plucky and resourceful scholar who inevitably triumphs over the dull-witted townsman!

Soon after, in about 1410, the University decreed that all scholars must live in academic halls and not in the houses of laymen, in order to prevent them from "sleeping by day and haunting taverns and brothels by night, intent on robbery and homicide".

This remained the norm for many centuries, but disputes continued, often as a result of sporting activities (despite the University's efforts to prohibit them) such as football, bowls, cards, dice, skittles, shuffle-board, and billiards.

Separation brought its own tensions, however, manifested during the late 18th and most of the 19th centuries in regular confrontations between the young, uneducated working men of the Town and the annual intake of often arrogant undergraduates from usually privileged backgrounds.

The Oxford Arms
The Oxford Arms shows a rare public display of 'Town and Gown' unity

The city's suburban growth put the University on the defensive, and elicited comments such as this from 1824: that the "pastry-cooks who had made fortunes by cheating members of the university should retire to the dunghills on which they were spawned ... and not pollute the magnificent entrances to the most beautiful of cities in the kingdom".

The mutual bitterness reached a peak during the exceptional 'Town and Gown' disturbances of early November 1867, when military intervention became necessary.

The Daily Telegraph assessed the situation as: "Oxford has suburbs, like the one nicknamed 'Jericho', containing plenty of rough bargees and railway labourers glad to 'lick a lord', and the young and hot blood of the students regards it as an equal luxury to thrash a cad."

Oxford's bargemen rarely escaped accusation, and in the many Oxford novels which include a 'Town and Gown' row, they are often singled out as instigators.

This is the case in The Adventures of Verdant Green, published in 1853-57, where the "generalissimo" of the Town's side is "a huge, lumbering bargeman".

Interestingly, this particular confrontation occurs on November 5th, a day of the year when tensions were, seemingly by long tradition, greatly heightened.

Historic battlefields

In 1883, within this context, Jackson's Oxford Journal reported the night to be quiet, but was mistaken in suggesting that the inability of the public to produce more than "a few poor specimens of property called 'Guys' ... seemed an indication that the celebration of the historic event is dying out".

Even in the early 20th century, it is clear that if trouble was brewing (and it usually was!), Guy Fawkes' night was when it would be manifested.

Nowadays, thankfully, such frictions are a thing of the past, and Town and Gown have long since come to acknowledge the mutual benefits that each provides.

But how fortunate we are to live in a less resentful age. As the historian Hastings Rashdall, who, in the context of a city where military conflict has been almost non-existent, said (in 1936): "There is probably not a single yard in any part of the classic High Street between St Martin's and St Mary's which has not, at one time or another, been stained with blood. There are historic battlefields where less has been spilt."

Mark Davies is the author of Alice in Waterland: Lewis Carroll and the River Thames in Oxford.

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