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The privileged tradesmen of Oxford


A privileged person (or privilegiatus) was someone granted the privileges of the University of Oxford via matriculation. Only a very few of these privilegiati were visiting scholars: the vast majority were local tradesmen, sworn to the service of the University. Just as the town council allowed only its own freemen to trade in Oxford, so the University matriculated its own tradesmen (who did not need to serve an apprenticeship) for its special needs.

This practice should have come to an end at the time of the Municipal Reform Act of 1835, but in fact tradesmen continued to be matriculated until 1874. William Sherwood in Oxford Yesterday and Today offers this explanation:

I spoke of a Matriculated Tradesman. These were an interesting survival from old days … they survived at this time mainly because they provided men to fill up the jury in case the University Coroner had to hold an inquest during the vacation, when it might be difficult to find twelve real members of the University in residence. That they might do this, they were brought before the Vice-Chancellor and admonished to keep the Statutes, and duly matriculated.

Originally, privileged persons could be servants of individual colleges, or else carried on trades such as bookselling and bookbinding that were useful to the University as a whole. By far the greatest number were tonsores, or barbers. Members of the Company of Barbers (which had been incorporated by the Chancellor of the University as early as 1348 and existed until 1859) dined once a year with the Vice-Chancellor and supped annually with the Proctors. Their duties would include shaving as well as cutting hair, and some of them would also have been phlebotomists and dentists.

With the status of “privileged person”, a matriculated tradesman would have been exempt in certain respects from the jurisdiction of the town, so in any disputes the townsmen had to sue a “privileged person” in the Vice-Chancellor’s Court. Many of the University privileges appear to have been an entitlement to avoid payment to or control by the city.

Because Privilegiati had to be matriculated by the University, many of them are listed in Alumni Oxonienses. They had to swear an oath of allegiance to the monarchy and to the Established Church (which meant that Nonconformists were automatically excluded from working for the University in any capacity). These privileged persons were commonly known as matriculated tradesmen, and by the 1520s a fifth of the town’s taxable inhabitants had this status.

There is just one female privileged person listed in Alumni Oxonienses: Catherine Slatford, a carrier, matriculated on 18 July 1723.

Trades held by privilegiati listed in Alumni Oxonienses


Disputes and problems between Freemen and Privilegiati

  • 1601. On 18 August 1601 it was reported that, “Whereas Mr John Willis, brewer, beeing a priveledged person of Thuniversitie, became lately a freeman of this cytie; and for that cause Thuniversitie maligning him have verie uncharitablie discharged him from serving of beere unto New Colledg and other places, where hee had custome, whereby hee is like to bee ympoverished and quyte undone unlesse the citie in charitie take regard of his estate; therefore yt shall bee lawfull for the said John Willis to absent himself from this howse and from all meetings of the citizens and from bearing any offyce within this cytie, so long as hee shall thincke good, his othe before taken to this cytie in any wyse notwithstanding.”
  • 1794. In his Recollections of Oxford, G.V. Cox records how in August 1794 a Mr Taman, a matriculated tonsor (barber), was prosecuted by the City of Oxford at the Assizes for encroaching on their privileges by selling glass and china without being a Freeman. Taman was encouraged by the University to fight the case on the grounds of his university matriculation privilege; but the Counsel at his trial said to him, “You and your brother barbers might hold the basin, but the gentlemen of the jury will tell you, by their sentence, that you were not privileged to sell one.” Thus Taman lost his case, incurring considerable expense, and had to shut up his shop.

For more information, see the section on Privileged persons in the Victoria County History.


Many privileged persons had their wills proved in the Chancellor’s court:
Online index

©Stephanie Jenkins

Last updated: 11 September, 2012

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