Students at war

During the Second Barons War some of the scholars of the University of Oxford took the side of Simon de Monfort and the baronial rebellion against Henry III. They travelled to Northampton where a new university had been recently founded by scholars fleeing violence between the nations at Cambridge. In 1264 Northampton was besieged by the royal host and during the defence of the walls the scholars fought valiantly and, according to the account of Walter of Guisborough, did a better job than the soldiers and other baronial supporters who defended Northampton:

The clerks of the university of Oxford, which had been transferred to that place at the command of the barons, inflicted more harm upon the men entering and climbing up than the rest of the barons did, with their slings, bows and catapults….[and] they had a standard of their own raised aloft against the king. Angered by this, the king swore that when he got into the city he would hang the lot of them… When peace had been restored to the city, the king gave orders to carry out the sentence he had sworn to execute upon the clerks. And they said to him ‘Heaven forbid you should do this, O King; for the sons of your magnates and other men of your realm have come here with the university. If you have them hanged or beheaded, even your own people, who are now loyal to you, will rise against you, and will not allow the blood of their sons or relatives to be shed if they can help it’. And the king was pacified and his anger against the clerks abated.[1]

What I think is most interesting about this little vignette is that not only should a bunch of supposedly peaceful and scholarly students be taking part in a war and fighting well but that they should have their own standard raised against the king. Battle standards, flags and banners were rare sights during protests and rebellions in England compared to the continent, and that the scholars had their own and fought under it offers the tantalising prospect that there was some level of, at least, quasi-official support for the baronial faction by the university of Oxford whose chancellor at the time of the rebellion, Thomas de Cantilupe, was a prominent figure in the rebellion, and some of the most respected teachers,such as the likes of Adam Marsh, were advisers to Simon de Monfort. 

Whether the section about the scholars telling the King that he dare not kill them was true, I cannot say…but it certainly would not be the most outrageous act committed by medieval students.


[1]From The Chronicle of Walter of Guisborough. Vol. 89, Camden  Series (London: Camden Society, 1957) p.190, translation found in Lawrence, C. H., ‘The University of Oxford and the Chronicle of the Barons’ Wars’, The English Historical Review, 95 pp. 99-113.


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