Middle Ages

Manslaughter and murder

The history of the finance of the University begins with manslaughter and murder. In the winter of 1208-09 an Oxford student killed a woman in a tavern brawl, and disappeared. The Mayor and townsmen of Oxford, intent on justice but failing to find the offender, arrested two or three innocent students who shared his lodging and, with the King's permission, hanged them outside the walls.

Thus began the first of the great conflicts between Town and Gown. The University, a training ground for clerics, was defended by the Church; the town's action was supported by King John, who was then engaged in a general and bitter struggle with the Pope, but the Church proved stronger than the King and, under threat of excommunication, the King eventually submitted to the Pope and, after a few years' defiance, the townsmen of Oxford also submitted.

In 1214 the Papal Legate in England issued an ordinance in which he imposed terms on the town, which included as some recompense for hanging the students, annual payment of fifty-two shillings for the use of poor scholars and the payment for a feast for one hundred of them. This annual payment was the University's first endowment and it is an interesting example of the continuity of University history. Shortly after 1214 the Abbot of Eynsham undertook the payment on behalf of the town and the Abbey continued to pay annually up to the dissolution of the monasteries in the sixteenth century.

 The Crown then took over the obligation and this blood money, as it might be called, was until recently paid to the Chest by the Paymaster General. The sum received annually, £3 1s 6d, was handed over by the Chest to the Vice-Chancellor for the relief of needy students for which purpose the Vice-Chancellor applied it.

An 'academic pawnshop'

In 1240, Robert Grosseteste, Bishop of Lincoln, directed that this revenue of the University should be paid into a chest to be kept in St. Frideswide's Priory and other gifts should be added thereto. This was the first University Chest. This was essentially a loan chest, a sort of academic pawnshop. Money was lent from it to finance needy students who deposited as security some pledge of value – a piece of plate, a garment or a book – which was to be sold at the end of the year if there were no repayment of the loan.

This chest at St. Frideswide's was followed by many others. During the Middle Ages there were at least twenty such chests kept in the Old Congregation House at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin on High Street, all of them being charitable foundations essentially for loans to needy students. The older statutes of the University show that many of these chests contained schedules of accounts, but although we have lists of the annually elected guardians of the chests, none of their accounts survive.

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