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11:28 GMT, Friday, 18 December 2009

The hanging of the clerks in 1209

By Simon Bailey
BBC Oxford contributor

Oxford's papal legate

It was a violent episode that caused a rift between the 'Town' and 'Gown' for centuries.

It led to scholars leaving the University of Oxford and forming a new institution in Cambridge.

The most detailed source for the events, which took place in 1209, is a passage written in the 1220s.

It is in a chronicle history of England: the Flores Historiarum of Roger of Wendover, a monk of St Albans who died in 1236.

The particular passage relating to Oxford reads as follows:

"About this time, a certain clerk engaged in the liberal arts at Oxford killed a certain woman by accident and when he found that she was dead he decided to flee.

"But when the mayor of the city and many others who had gathered found the dead woman they began to search for the killer in his house which he had rented together with three of his fellow clerks.

"Not finding the man accused of the deed they seized his three fellow clerks who said they were wholly ignorant of the murder and threw them into prison; then a few days later they were, by order of the King of the English [King John], in contempt of the rights of the church, taken outside the city and hanged.

"When the deed had been done, both masters and pupils, to the number of three thousand clerks, left Oxford so that not one remained out of the whole university; they left Oxford empty, some engaging in liberal studies at Cambridge and some at Reading."


Roger was writing some years after events at which he had not been present and the figure of 3000 is certainly an exaggeration. The actual size of the University at this time is not known but is unlikely to have been as many as 1000.

It was not the case that every clerk left Oxford as some who remained were subsequently punished. The involvement of King John is quite plausible as he was at this time in dispute with the Pope over the appointment of the Archbishop of Canterbury.

John was hostile to the Church and had been personally excommunicated; the country had been laid under a papal interdict by which all functions of the Church were suspended. Most of the ecclesiastical hierarchy had gone abroad.

There are other chronicle sources that differ in some respects from the account given by Roger of Wendover.

The Chronicles of Lanercost and of Melrose, probably written before the Flores Historiarum, set the episode not in 1209 but in the previous year and state that most of the clerks had, because they feared the tyranny of King John, already left Oxford by the time of the death of the woman and the subsequent hangings.

They differ on the number of clerks hanged, Melrose stating two and Lanercost one, and do not mention Cambridge but have the dispersed members of the University transfer to Reading and Paris. Lanercost states that the dead woman was 'shamefully discovered at Maiden Hall'.


Early documentary evidence of the episode, although very little detail, appears in a document of 1214 preserved in the University Archives. King John was in due course forced to submit to the will of the Pope who in 1213 sent his legate, the Bishop of Tusculum, to carry out the necessary formalities.

While in England the legate was requested by the town of Oxford to settle the dispute between it and the university and in June 1214 he issued his judgment in the form of a document known as the award of the papal legate.

"The town, or a substitute, was to pay the sum of 52 shillings a year in perpetuity to the university"

This refers to the events of 1208 or 1209 (the year is not stated) as 'the hanging of the clerks which the citizens had committed' but is chiefly concerned with imposing penalties on the town and making arrangements for the future protection of the university and its members.

For ten years the rents of lodgings in the town were to be held at one half of what they had been before the hanging of the clerks and for a further ten they were to be no more than they had been then.

The town, or a substitute, was to pay the sum of 52 shillings a year in perpetuity to the university for the benefit of poor scholars and to provide a dinner for a hundred poor scholars every year.

This dinner was to be held on St Nicholas' Day (6 December) each year and, although the document does not say so, it is sometimes suggested that this was the anniversary of the hanging of the clerks.

The citizens were to swear to supply food and other necessities of life at reasonable prices. Any clerk arrested by the town authorities should, on demand, be handed over to the Bishop of Lincoln or an official appointed by the Bishop.

Representatives of the town were to swear on behalf of the whole town to observe these provisions and to renew their oath every year. Those masters who had disrespectfully lectured in Oxford after the withdrawal of the scholars were suspended from lecturing for three years.

All those who had been involved in the hanging of the clerks were to go to their graves barefoot and unbelted, without caps or cloaks, followed by the rest of the citizens, and to bear their bodies with honour and respect to a reburial elsewhere.

Simon Bailey is Keeper of the Archives at the Bodleian Library, University of Oxford

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The 1214 Award up close

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