Oxford History: Mayors & Lord Mayors


St Scholastica’s Day Riot, Oxford, 1355

The riot, and its consequences for the next five hundred years

St Scholastica's Day Riot

St Scholastica (died AD 543) founded a nunnery at Plombariola in Italy and she is buried at Monte Cassino in the famous monastery of her brother, St Benedict. Her feast day is on 10 February.

Because the most serious town and gown battle in Oxford took place on that day in 1354/5, it became known as the St Scholastica’s Day Riot. (It is only by coincidence that the saint’s name seems peculiarly appropriate for a riot involving the death of 62 Oxford scholars.)

On Tuesday 10 February 1354/5 some students and priests who were drinking in the Swindlestock (or Swyndlestock) Tavern on the south-west corner of Carfax complained about the quality of the wine. The landlord John of Barford (or de Bereford), who happened to be Mayor of Oxford at the time, is alleged to have responded to their complaint with “stubborn and saucy language”; whereupon a student threw a quart pot at his head. Local people came to his aid, and had the bell at the City Church (St Martin’s at Carfax) rung to summon the townsmen to arms; then the University retaliated by rousing its students to the fray with the bell at the University Church (St Mary-the-Virgin Church in the High Street), and battle commenced, with both townsmen and students making good use of their bows and arrows.

Swindlestock inscription

Left: inscription on the outside wall of Marygold House, which was built on the site of the Swindlestock Tavern. This building was sold to the Abbey National Building Society (now part of Santander) in 1988

The next day (Wednesday) the Mayor rode to Woodstock to seek the support of the King, and meanwhile about 2,000 men came in from the country to help the town, crying as they advanced, “Slea, Slea…. Havock, Havock…. Smyte fast, give gode knocks.” They broke into academic halls, killing scholars, and this continued on the Thursday. In all, 62 scholars were killed. The rioters were severely punished.

After the riots, Barford was imprisoned in the Tower of London, and a writ was issued by Edward III on 6  May 1355 to the citizens to elect a new Mayor.

The King (Edward III) continued to punish the townsmen of Oxford with an annual ritual humiliation that lasted 500 years. Every St Scholastica’s Day thereafter the Mayor and Bailiffs had to attend a Mass for the souls of the dead and to swear an annual oath to observe the University’s privileges. (The oath itself, however, was already in existence, and had been sworn since 1213 following the murder of three clerks by townsmen.) Together with 62 citizens representing the number of scholars slain, the Mayor and Bailiffs would march to the University Church of St Mary the Virgin, where the Vice-Chancellor of the University awaited them, together with the Vicar of St Mary-the-Virgin Church, the Proctors, and the University Registrar. The Bailiffs then had to hand over sixty-three pence, usually in small silver coins.

In 1575 Queen Elizabeth issued letters patent directing that the oath taken by the Mayor and Bailiffs should be in the following form:

You shall sweare that trulie you shall observe and keep all maner of lawful liberties and customes of the said University, the which the Chancellor, Masters, and Schollars of the said University have reasonably used, without any gainesaying, saving your fidelilty to the Queen's Majestie. “So helpe you God.”

Thomas Dennis, Mayor in 1642/3, did not put in an appearance at St Mary-the-Virgin Church on St Scholastica’s Day 1643, and when the Vice-Chancellor of the University asked for the reason, the council stated that they had decided not to attend again unless compelled to do so by law because “the originall was superstitious and besides they are often jeared by the Schollars that the mayor weres a halter about his neck on that day”.

From 1661 , the oath was taken in the University Church.

Jackson's Oxford Journal reported that on 1 February 1825 in full Convocation:

the University Seal was affixed to an instrument releasing the Mayor, Bailiffs, and Citizens of Oxford from the observance of certain acts heretofore required of them on Dies Scholastica (Feb. 10) in memory of the disastrous events which occurred in a conflict between the Students of the University and the Citizens of Oxford, in the year 1355-4, 30th of Edward III.

Henceforth the Mayor and Bailiffs no longer had to attend St Mary-the-Virgin Church. The full document sent by the Mayor, William Slatter, in Michaelmas Term 1834, is quoted thus in Jackson's Oxford Journal on 5 February 1825:

The Mayor having intimated to this House that he cannot, as Chief Magistrate of this City, take part in the ceremony usually observed on Dies Scholastica without a painful sacrifice of personal feeling; and having called upon the House to deliberate and advise upon the subject:

And this House considering, that the solemnity in question serves only to keep alive the remembrance of a casual affray, which, however much to have been deplored when it happened, may at the present day be well deemed to have been amply atoned for by 5 centuries of annual humiliation:

Considering too that the harmony and good understanding so happily and so firmly established between the University and City, whilst they have long rendered the observance of this ceremony wholly nugatory and unavailing for any useful end or purpose, furnish also a powerful reason for consigning to oblivion the memory of past jealousies and dissensions:

Considering also that the ceremony may be laid aside without derogating in the smallest degree from the rights, privileges, or interests of the University, and therefore without affording to that body any just ground of offence, which this House is most anxious to avoid:

Considering moreover that the declared reluctance of the Chief Magistrate of the City, founded as to this House it appears to be upon right feeling, is entitled to the support and protection of the House:

It is unanimously resolved, That in the judgment of this House it will be advisable for the Mayor and Bailiffs to abstain from attending at St. Mary's Church on Dies Scholastica.

And the Mayor and Bailiffs having thereupon signified that they will follow the advice of this House:

It is further resolved, that the Town Clerk do wait upon the Reverend the Vice-Chancellor with a copy of these proceedings.

Following the passing of the Municipal Corporations Act of 1835 by agreement between the University and the Corporation the Mayor, Sheriff (to whom the duties of the Bailiff had been transferred), and Burgesses went to the house of the Vice-Chancellor, and only four Burgesses compared to the 64 in earlier years were now required to be present.

G. V. Cox in his Recollections of Oxford (1868) states that there was an alternative to this humiliation (namely a considerable sum of money to be paid by the Mayor as a fine) but that Richard Cox was the only Mayor he remembered doing this, in 1800. (In fact, however, Thomas Robinson also refused in 1817 and presumably the fine was paid.)

The practice ceased following the Mayoralty of Isaac Grubb (1857/8). W. E. Sherwood records in Oxford Yesterday (1927) what happened on 10 February 1858 when Grubb was expected to humiliate himself before the University for the events of St Scholastica's Day in 1355:

The City, too, was still to a great extent under the control of the University…. A mayor, Mr. Isaac Grubb, greatly daring, when summoned with the Corporation to attend the annual sermon at St. Mary’s on St. Scholastica’s day — a sermon putting the town in what was considered its proper place, and for which, as an additional insult, they paid the fee — had

’Stated in emphatic language
What he’d be before he’d stand it.’

Whether it was the vigour of his refusal which scared them, or whether it was that the University thought it was about time that a quarrel of five hundred years ago should be forgotten, we know not, but at any rate the summons was not pressed, nor was it renewed.

The case of The Queen v. Grubb was decided in the Court of Queen's Bench on 6 May 1858:

Grubb court case

The riot was re-enacted in the Oxford Historical Pageant of 1907.

In 1955, to mark the 600th anniversary of the first St Scholastica’s Day, the Vice-Chancellor conferred the degree of honorary D.C.L. on the Mayor, William Richard Gowers in the Sheldonian Theatre; and in return the Vice-Chancellor, A. H. Smith, was made a Freeman of the City of Oxford at the Town Hall.

See Octavius Ogle (ed.), Royal Letters Addressed to Oxford (1892), pp. 52–56 and 62–65 for writs of Edward III relating to the St Scholastica's Day riots, and pp. 331–333 for the Order of Council relating to it.

©Stephanie Jenkins

Last updated: 11 March, 2023

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