The old rivalry between Oxford and Cambridge is a well-known cultural mainstay, that plays out year after year as the two oldest British universities compete against each other in boat races, on the rugby and cricket pitches, on the polo field, and in the boxing ring. The rivalry dates to the foundation of Cambridge in 1208, when scholars took refuge from hostile townspeople and struck out on their own in a new town. But Oxford can boast many more rivalries than just this one―and many of them between its own constituent colleges.
It seems to be in the nature of colleges to bear grudges; something about the (university, or just human) culture compels a college to defend its identity against those of its counterparts. Hence rivalries between Merton and Balliol, each of whom stands fast in their claim to be the oldest college in Oxford: whilst Balliol appears to have been founded earlier, in that it began teaching in 1263, it did not formulate statutes until 1282; and it is on this count that Merton has Balliol licked.
The rivalry between Lincoln and Brasenose is situated within the framework of the broader rivalry between Town and Gown―and so we shall deal with the latter first. As with many English universities in the earlier years of their existence, there arose a tension between the scholars at Oxford University, and the townspeople who worked and lived around it. This tension led to bloodshed on the 10th of February 1355 (or St Scholastica’s Day, for those who observe their Christian feasts), when two scholars drinking in the Swyndlestock Tavern at Carfax (now Santander Bank) complained about the quality of the wine they had been served. The landlord, John of Barford, who also happened to be Mayor of Oxford at the time, is said to have responded with “stubborn and saucy language”, whereupon the two entitled scholars saw fit to hit him over the head with a quart pot.
Local townspeople were not prepared to let this one pass, and amassed a mob to fight against the University, which in turn called its scholars to battle. Cries of “slay, slay…havock, havock…smyte fast, give gode knocks [sic]” could be heard throughout the town for the next three days, with the scholar death toll rising to 62. From 1356 until 1825, the Oxford Mayor and Bailiffs were required to pay a penance of sixty-three pence to the university, a penny for every scholar killed and another for good measure.
Town and gown riots had produced some sticky ends before this one. On Ascension Day a century before the infamous St Scholastica’s, a spot of street brawling had broken out in Oxford, causing a Lincoln man and a Brasenose man to be chased through the city by an angry mob of townspeople. Upon reaching apparent safety at the Lincoln College doors, only the Lincoln scholar was admitted, leaving the Brasenose man to be beaten to death by the mob. This event is still commemorated on Ascension Day each year: the connecting door between the two colleges is kept open for five minutes, allowing for Lincoln students to serve those in Brasenose with pints of beer, before the door is locked again until the following year.
The final rivalry worthy of mention is that between those two armies of eleven men, Oxford United and Swindon Town, whose clashes have had them numbered amongst “the top 20 fiercest rivalries in English football”. When one thinks of Britain’s oldest university town, one does not imagine that it spends so much of its time inveigled in bitter conflict―it’s almost a wonder they get anything done at all!