Tensions between university students and the locals of Oxford had been building for some time before violence broke out. The townspeople were frustrated with the University’s privileges, while students felt that local businesses exploited them by charging higher prices for rents, goods, and services.
On 10 February 1355 a group of students were drinking in the central Swindlestock Tavern. When they complained to the landlord about the quality of the drinks he had brought them, he responded with ‘stubborn and saucy language’ which prompted the two sides to exchange ‘snappish words’. One of the students, who may have been either Walter Spryngeheuse or Roger de Chesterfield, then threw a tankard of wine at the landlord’s head.
This prompted a pub brawl that expanded into a city-wide riot after one of the townsfolk called for assistance by ringing the bells of St Martin’s church, while the students rang those at St Mary’s, the University Church. Weapons that even included bows and arrows were used by both sides and, the next day, people from the local area joined the carnage with cries of, ‘Havoc! Havoc! Smyt fast, give gode knocks!’
The riot lasted for three days and left more than 90 people dead. The townsfolk were found to be responsible and were ordered to attend Mass for the souls of the dead students every year on the anniversary of the riot. They were also required to swear an oath acknowledging the University’s privileges, and pay a fine of 63 pence – one for each dead student. This continued until 1825 when the Mayor refused, but was only rescinded by Parliament in 1955.