Town & Gown


[From the Magazine of the Nottingham Action Group on HMOs,
Midwinter 2009-2010]

This year marks the 800th anniversary of the foundation of Cambridge University. “Despite the ivory towers and despite the echelons of high learning that Cambridge now represents, it all started because of a violent brawl and a murder: most paradoxically that brawl and that murder happened in Oxford.” 

Eight hundred years ago Oxford was a place where there were “a lot of students, a lot of drink, some fighting with the townspeople and some fighting amongst the students themselves. There was a traditional enmity between people from the north and people from the south. It was just quite rowdy.” 

“There have been riots going on here for centuries. There was this animosity which existed right from the early days because the townspeople were here first.” 

In order to understand how all this fighting and brawling leads to the establishment of Cambridge University one has to go back to 1209 and to the killing by a student of an Oxford woman. 

The best record of events is to be found in the account given by Roger of Wendover in the chronicles kept in the University Archives in Cambridge. 

According to Roger of Wendover, a clerk studying at Oxford killed a woman who may have been a prostitute or his mistress, or indeed she may have been his landlady. All of these people would have come into contact with one another in medieval Oxford, with the students seeking accommodation wherever they could find it. 

Oxford in 1209 had scholars and townspeople living in close proximity to one another. In comparison to the life led by the scholars and their pupils, that of the townsfolk living around the university was one of relative poverty. The houses were little more than hovels, disease was rife, but the scholars and their students lived well-nourished and ‘easy’ lives. With this as a background, it is easy to understand how tensions could build up and how those tensions could lead from one riot to another. The one that happened in 1209 was no different from all the others. 

The student himself fled, but when the dead woman was discovered, the townsfolk went to the house where the student had lived. They found three of his companions and without any further investigation they took hold of them and they were put in prison there and then A few days afterwards, even though the students knew nothing about the dead woman, and by order of the King of England, they were hanged. 

At that point in time King John (who had a reputation for tyranny) had quarrelled with the Pope and England was under interdict from Rome. This meant that no ecclesiastical services could take place. With conflict between the King and Rome as a setting, possible persecution of the clergy may explain why three apparently innocent members of the clergy were hanged without trial and in contempt of ecclesiastical liberties. 

It is by no means clear what actually happened, or why. The events may have come about as a result of conflict between King and Church, or they may have been simply the result of conflict between ‘town and gown’. 

Whatever the motivation, the Oxford County Registry has in its archives a record that, because the University of Oxford had been harmed by the actions of the townspeople, on the Feast of St. Nicholas (5 December) a hundred of the poorest scholars were to be given a free meal by the Burgesses of Oxford, and penance was to be done by the Burgesses at the students’ graves. 

After the hanging, the scholars of Oxford went on strike and migrated out of the City in protest. The students left Oxford fairly rapidly and it seems that they were driven to do this by the Masters. It was not the case that a group of students took fright and left, but rather that there was a deliberate decision taken by the Masters to leave Oxford, though some did remain illicitly. 

The medieval clergy very zealously guarded what they called ‘ecclesiastical liberty’ – which basically meant their right to regulate themselves and, in most respects, to be free from the control of the laity. That, of course, included the Crown. So, apart from anything else, the events in Oxford in 1209 were seen by the clergy as an infringement of their liberties. The only way in which they could protest against it was to leave. The account of Roger of Wendover records that several of the scholars (and presumably their students) left Oxford, some going to Cambridge and others to Reading. In any case. medieval universities were very mobile and history records many migrations from one place to another. 

The reason why a group of Oxford clerics chose to go to Cambridge is assumed to be because their leader was a man who had come from Cambridge. At that point there were no university buildings yet. Cambridge University as such was no more than a bunch of scholars who had fled from Oxford and who had started to teach their students in rented houses in the neighbourhood around St. Mary’s Church which they also used for their ceremonies. 

One of the annual ceremonies required the Mayor and Aldermen of the town to kneel before the Vice-Chancellor and swear obedience to him in all matters relating to business in the town. In other words, a ceremony in which the Mayor had to enact his subordination to the university on pain of excommunication. 

Imagine the situation: here was a body of well-fed, well-educated scholars assuming superiority over the townspeople, claiming the right to police themselves, and essentially to act as they pleased. 

The University had all sort of privileges. For example, it could arrest any woman walking down the street if she was considered by it to be a ‘lewd’ woman. The university ran Cambridge and the history of Cambridge is a long and colourful one of town versus gown rivalry that could, and did, spill over into riot and violence. 

“You only have to walk past any of the college buildings and look at the great big thick gates which were not put there to keep the students in, but to keep the townspeople out. The walls around the colleges have jagged pieces of glass in them, put there to stop townspeople from climbing in”

Although the complete truth about the events in Oxford in 1209 and how they led to the foundation of Cambridge University will always be subject to conjecture: “... there is something immensely colourful in the idea that such a deeply cerebral, bookish place of learning was born in blood and politics – and even possibly sex. It makes a change from how things are done nowadays – by committee or government quango.” 

Which is as it should be. After all “what one really wants from history is colour.”

[Based on a BBC Radio 4 programme broadcast in 2009] 


As the Editor wrote at the end of this piece, and as a preface to the next section of the magazine: News from Nottingham's Universities:

Of one thing we can be sure. In 1209 there were no universities in Nottingham, though, if legend is to believed, Nottingham did have its own source of riot and mayhem in the form of Robin Hood and his band of ‘merry men’.

Today, we have two universities in Nottingham and their 50,000 or so students make up about 12 per cent of the City’s population.

Sadly, though one cannot imagine Nottingham's City Council leaders being required to kneel before the  respective Vice-Chancellors of Nottingham and Nottingham Trent universities in order to swear obedience to them in any way, shape or form, the friction between town and gown continues to surface on the streets of our studentified neighbourhoods, if nowhere else. And sometimes it does seem as if history is only the previous page in a book.