Students at Oxford University turned the city into England’s murder hotspot in medieval times, a study has found.
Analysis of 700-year-old coroner reports by experts at Cambridge University has discovered that around the end of the 13th century, and into the 14th, Oxford had a homicide rate five times higher than London’s.
Three quarters of all murder victims and perpetrators were known as “clericus”, a term covering both staff and students at the university, which had been founded more than a century before.
Oxford University is one of the oldest institutions in the world at nearly 1,000 years old, and in medieval times one of the world’s foremost places of learning. This year it beat Harvard and rival Cambridge to the top of the list of the best universities in the world, according to Times Higher Education.
But Oxford was a very different place seven centuries ago as the young, all-male student body were often carrying swords and prone to beer-induced violence.
“A medieval university city such as Oxford had a deadly mix of conditions,” said Prof Manuel Eisner, Director of Cambridge’s Institute of Criminology who has launched a “medieval murder maps” project which includes Oxford, York and London.
“Oxford students were all male and typically aged between 14 and 21, the peak for violence and risk-taking. These were young men freed from tight controls of family, parish or guild, and thrust into an environment full of weapons, with ample access to alehouses and sex workers.
“As well as clashes between town and gown, many students belonged to regional fraternities called ‘nations’, an additional source of conflict within the student body.”
Data from the translated and transcribed reports, originally penned in Latin, suggest around 7,000 people were living in Oxford at the time, and roughly 1,500 are thought to have been students.
It is thought the city had a murder rate of around 75 per 100,000 people, roughly 50 times the UK average in 2023. Some Mexican cities, such as Tijuana and Celaya, are above 100 per 100,000 today, driven mostly by drug-related killings.
The 13th-century Oxford had a worse homicide rate than modern-day Detroit and similar to Cape Town, New Orleans and Kingston.
Swords and daggers were frequently carried, the scientists say, and fatal melees often were associated with pubs and alcohol.
One incident the scientists uncovered was when an unnamed scholar at the prestigious university employed a sex worker and after the tryst stabbed her to death instead of paying.
Margery de Hereford was murdered in the parish of St Aldate in 1299 and her scholarly killer was never apprehended.
Another sex worker in the city, which now boasts of being part of “the golden triangle”, called Christiana of Worcester, was taken back to lodgings by student David de Trempedhwy in 1298.
However, upon arrival he was set upon by his peers and murdered for his dalliance with the “harlot”.
Quest for justice
Other instances of bloody murder involved a mass brawl in a tavern which saw students engaged in a fracas with swords and axes in 1298.
A man named John Burel was taken to the town jail after curfew and found to be dead in the morning when the coroner saw “a mortal wound on the crown of his head, six inches long and in depth reaching to the brain” inflicted by a battle-axe.
Cambridge historian and co-researcher Dr Stephanie Brown said juries were often making “best guesses” about inquests and often found “two plus two equals five” in their quest for justice.
“Knives were omnipresent in medieval society,” she said. “Axes were commonplace in homes for cutting wood, and many men carried a staff.”
Prof Eisner added: “Circumstances that frequently led to violence will be familiar to us today, such as young men with group affiliations pursuing sex and alcohol during periods of leisure in the weekends. Weapons were never far away, and male honour had to be protected.”
“Life in medieval urban centres could be rough, but it was by no means lawless. The community understood their rights and used the law when conflicts emerged. Each case provides a glimpse of the dynamics that created a burst of violence on a street in England some seven centuries ago.”