Oxford boasts a rich assortment of saintly associations – not least the former Cardinal, John Henry Newman, canonised as recently as 2019. His bust sits on a quiet plinth in the garden of Trinity College, greening serenely with age.

Some saints are very obvious, their names visible on churches and road signs: St Andrew, St Edward, St Francis, St George, St Helen, St James, St Luke, St Margaret, St Mary, St Matthew, St Michael, St Paul, St Philip, St Stephen, St Thomas.

Some are slightly less well known: St Alban, St Aloysius, St Barnabas, St Bartholomew, St Bernard, St Columba, St Gregory, St Ignatius, St Laurence.

Some define whole areas of Oxford: St Aldate’s, St Clement’s, St Ebbe’s, St Giles’.

Some give their name to halls and colleges of the university: St Anne, St Antony, St Benet, St Catherine, St Edmund (pictured below), St Hilda, St Hugh, St John, St Peter.

Morris Oxford St Edmund of Abingdon - Saints Daze

And two give their names to the bloodiest days in Oxford’s history:

The massacre of St Brice’s Day, 13 November 1002, was a grotesque, pre-meditated attempt at ethnic cleansing, or, as the Saxon King Aethelred put it, ‘a most just extermination’ of the Danes who had begun to spring up in Oxford ‘like a cockle among the wheat’. A mass grave of 36 young Scandinavian men was uncovered during excavations at St John’s College in 2008. Their bones had been hacked and charred – consistent with stories that they had sought sanctuary in the church of St Frideswide, but had been smoked out when it was burnt to the ground.

Three centuries later the riots of St Scholastica’s Day – 10 February 1355 – prompted the bloodiest Town v Gown conflict ever witnessed in Oxford, when a pub brawl turned into a full-blown carnival of carnage which went on for three days, leaving in its wake a dreadful toll of death and destruction.

The tinder was sparked by a dispute in the Swindlestock Tavern, close to the centre of town, on the corner of what is now Queen Street and St Aldate’s (fittingly, the site of another, more worldy, shrine – the bank of Santander).

Morris Oxford Santander - Saints Daze
Morris Oxford Swindlestock - Saints Daze

Two students, Walter de Springehouse and Roger de Chesterfield, accused the pub landlord (who happened to be Mayor at the time) of selling diluted ale. Insults were exchanged, then blows, then everyone piled in.

What followed next was more like a battle than a riot. In the words of Jan Morris:

The townsman rang the bell of Carfax tower; the students rang the bell of St Mary’s; thousands of wild country folk came screaming in, thonged and hooded, carrying a black flag and crying:

‘Slea! Slea! Havoc! Havoc! Smyte fast, give gode knocks!’

If we are to credit the old chronicles, these unnerving yokels plundered the students’ hostels, scalped a number of chaplains, attacked a procession of friars, buried several scholars in dung-hills, and virtually depopulated the infant university.

Three days later 30 townspeople and 63 students lay dead. Smoke rose in acrid plumes from the carcasses of torched and ransacked buildings. Only the presence of royal forces, despatched en masse from Woodstock, eventually managed to quell the violence.

When order was finally restored the King delivered his judgment upon the affair. Edward III’s verdict was severe – and far from even-handed. In a charter affixed with the royal seal the rights of the town’s traders were dramatically reduced and those of the university significantly increased. More than that, the Mayor and his council officers were required to do public penance, swear an oath to honour the university’s privileges, and pay recompense of a penny per head for every student killed.

Morris Oxford Royal Seal - Saints Daze

Generations of future mayors and councillors had to do the same, donating 63 silver pennies and parading their contrition in an annual church service of humiliating remembrance which did not cease until 1825. And it was only on 10 February 1955, six centuries to the day after the outbreak of hostilities, that a formal rite of reconciliation took place. The Lord Mayor of Oxford was awarded an honorary degree and, in return, the Vice-Chancellor of the University was granted the freedom of the city. A ‘loving cup’ ceremony was held and speeches were made solemnly regretting ‘the murderous quarrel of our ancestors … an episode that is best forgotten’.

Sacred or secular, memories seem to take a very long time to fade in Oxford.

Thank heavens for the beatific soul who transcends all local differences – the patron saint to both Oxford Town and Oxford Gown, a healing presence in our midst for over a thousand years, and one whose memory has lasted longer than any.

God Bless St Frideswide!

CP 2e. Frideswide window by BJ just story RW - Saints Daze

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Feedback

Anna Cuthbert writes:

Previous to Newman, Oxford’s most recent saint was John Duns Scotus (c.1265-1308) who was beatified in 1993.

A Franciscan friar (originally from the village of Duns in Berwickshire), he is now regarded as one of the most important Christian philosopher-theologians of Western Europe, alongside Thomas Aquinas and William of Ockham. His intricate, sometimes labyrinthine, metaphysics earned him the soubriquet ‘Doctor Subtilis’ or ‘the subtle doctor’.

To the citizens of our fair city he is probably best known for featuring in Gerard Manley Hopkin’s poem Duns Scotus’s Oxford, with its reference to

Towery city and branchy between towers;
Cuckoo-echoing, bell-swarmèd, lark charmèd, rook racked, river-rounded;

and its lament about Oxford’s ‘base and brickish skirt’ born of ‘graceless growth’.

Less well-known is his association with the dunce’s cap. Apparently he liked to wear a pointy hat, which he felt focused and enhanced his thinking (hence the traditional shape of wizards’ hats?) When his philosophy later fell out of fashion the conical cap became associated with its exact opposite – stupidity. There’s a fascinating article about this here.– AC

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More on Duns Scotus – this time a sensational floral revelation by the Oxford-based novelist, Malcolm Pryce:
Elizabeth Kuligowski’s fascinating article about The St Brice’s Day Massacre features on the Museum of Oxford website, since when she has been reflecting further on the timing of the atrocity.

I recently wrote a post on the St Brice’s Day Massacre of 1002 for the Museum of Oxford. It made me think more about St Brice (or St Briticus) himself, and how his feast day ending up being associated primarily with a Danish extermination.

It has been suggested that, by choosing St Brice’s Day to organise a massacre, King Aethelred’s advisors were attempting to frame a political action, and a gruesome one at that, as a necessity sanctioned by the saints themselves. The Viking raiders were costing the King a fortune, and perhaps it felt like an easy solution to portray them as enemies of a godly society – a pagan blight to be vanquished. Religious and political ambitions came together and the brutal solution that presented itself was to sacrifice the Danes in a state- and church-sanctioned extermination.

If this theory is true – if Aethelred’s advisors deliberately chose St Brice’s Day to legitimise their edict to exterminate the Danes – they were of course unsuccessful. The violence spiralled out of control, ending in the burning of a church, which exemplified perfectly the underhandedness of trying to extend a tenuous saintly warrant to a political situation. Still, it’s an interesting note on the way that violence could be legitimised, the distinction between murder and righteous justice, and the use of popular saints in re-framing difficult narratives. – EK

Nicholas Lynes writes:

The St Brice’s Day massacre had repercussions far beyond the walls of Oxford. Also killed in the uprising was Gunnhilde, half-sister of King Sweyn ‘Forkbeard’ of Denmark, and daughter of Harald Bluetooth.

Revenge was brutal and emphatic. Oxford was laid waste in 1009 by a Danish invasion force, and from 1016 onwards the whole of England was ruled by the Danes under the great King Canute. – NL

A recent study, led by archaeologists from Oxford, threw up a new theory about the bodies discovered in 2008 during excavations in the grounds of St John’s College. Professor Mark Pollard, former Director of the Research Laboratory in the School of Archaeology, explains:

The grisly remains at St John’s College have, up to now, been thought to be the outcome of the massacre of St Brice’s Day in AD 1002. Evidence of knife wounds and charred bones is consistent with the story of the burning of St Frideswide’s Church in which the victims were said to have sought safety, before being smoked out and brutally stabbed.

We know from bone and collagen analysis that these were all men aged between 16 and 25 who were physically robust and taller than average. Several had multiple pre-existing wounds suggesting previous conflict. Strontium isotope analysis of dental enamel, a technique which provides evidence of where an individual lived when their teeth were being formed, indicates that these people were not native to Britain, a finding confirmed by evidence of the substantial amount of seafood in their diet, considerably higher in marine protein than that found typically in local Oxfordshire people.

We are therefore presented with an alternative and in some ways more compelling interpretation: that, rather than a group of Oxford residents of Danish origin who were rounded up and massacred, the skeletons could be those of seasoned warriors – members of a raiding party (perhaps dating from the incursion of 1009) who were captured and executed.

A good friend of Morris Oxford, who used to work at Trinity College, tells of the solution to a long-standing saintly mystery:

For many years members of Trinity College had been familiar with Henry Newman’s famous reference in his Apologia Pro Vita Sua (1864) to ‘much snapdragon growing on the walls opposite my freshman’s rooms’. The exact location, however, wasn’t known.

Around the turn of the millennium, Staircase 14 in the corner of Trinity’s Garden Quad was renovated and converted into en-suite rooms. In the process of removing floorboards, one of the workmen found an ancient Huntley and Palmer biscuit tin. Inside the tin was a note signed by the distinguished travel writer and editor, Douglas Sladen.

The note records for posterity the fact that Newman himself had occupied that very room (1817-18): ‘Dr John Henry Newman Hon. Fellow of this college had these rooms, when a scholar here. He told me so himself.’

This meant that the snapdragons must have been on the dividing wall between Balliol and Trinity, rather than overlooking St John’s as previously thought.

The room, 14:9 (one of the largest in Trinity) is now named the Newman Room.

Our special thanks to the archivist of Trinity College, Clare Hopkins, who writes:

I attach a photograph of the tin containing the note by Douglas Sladen

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and a close up of the note itself:

morris oxford 2 - Saints Daze

Newman’s room is a student room in term time and allocated to conference visitors in the vacations. But there is one stipulation – the students have to be willing, with notice, to tidy up and let the rooms be shown to any passing cardinals or other VIP visitors! – CH

We are grateful to Alice Blackford Millea, Assistant Keeper of the University Archives and author of an excellent book entitled Oxford University: Stories from the Archives. In it she tells the story of how the Town/Gown reconciliation finally came about, but notes (pp.173-74):

sensitivities remained on the city’s side, even in 1955, and not everyone was willing to forgive and forget. Alderman E.A. Smewin walked out of the meeting of Oxford City Council, at which the Vice-Chancellor’s freedom of the city was to be voted on. Although, he said, he had nothing personal against the VC, he couldn’t support the celebration of such a ‘beastly oppression’.

Stephanie Jenkins writes:

This postcard (below) shows the re-enactment of the St Scholastica’s Day town & gown battle in the Oxford Historical Pageant of 1907, which was held in the grounds of Magdalen College School. It was a huge event, with 3500 performers and 300 horses. The Consultative Committee included eminences such as Regius Professor Charles Harding Firth, Professor Charles Oman, Professor Walter Raleigh, and Sir Arthur Evans. The scriptwriters included Laurence Housman, Robert Bridges, and Elizabeth Wordsworth, with A.D. Godley writing the script for the St Scholastica Day scene. There is more information about the pageant here:

https://historicalpageants.ac.uk/pageants/1142/

st scholastica smaller jpg for Morris - Saints Daze
Readers may be puzzled by the date on the postcard. Why 1354 not 1355? Stephanie explains:

The answer is that the pageant was organized by (somewhat pedantic) historians. The year at that time, before the reformation of the calendar, ended on 24 March in what we would think of as the following year. (This probably explains why 25 March, originally the first day of the new year, was a Quarter Day.)

Thus the people who actually took part in the riot would have said that it was near the end of the year 1354, on 10 February, and would have been quite correct; but its 600th anniversary was remembered in February 1955 (with the University conferring the degree of honorary D.C.L. on the Mayor, William Richard Gowers, and the City making the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford, A.H. Smith, a Freeman).

The only really clear way of giving the date is 10 February 1354/5, but I am not sure that many people would understand this.

When the new calendar was introduced in 1752 it was very hard for people to understand what had happened, as days were completely lost, and henceforth they had to celebrate the New Year in the depths of winter instead of at the start of Spring.