Tag Archives: William Browne

Odd Poems: Oxbridge rivalry

The King, observing with judicious eyes
The state of both his universities,
To Oxford sent a troop of horse, and why?
That learned body wanted loyalty;
To Cambridge books, as very well discerning
How much that loyal body wanted learning.

This poem was written by Joseph Trapp in response to events in England in 1714. King George I, to celebrate his coronation, purchased the entire library of the recently deceased bibliophile Bishop of Ely and donated it to Cambridge University, more than tripling the number of books in the university library. Meanwhile Oxford had been having one of its frequent periods of disorder, and the King had had to send in troops to restore calm.

Oxford has a long history of riots, beginning in 1209 with “the hanging of the clerks”. In his 1220s history of England, Roger of Wendover wrote:

“About this time, a certain clerk engaged in the liberal arts at Oxford killed a certain woman by accident and when he found that she was dead he decided to flee.

“But when the mayor of the city and many others who had gathered found the dead woman they began to search for the killer in his house which he had rented together with three of his fellow clerks.

“Not finding the man accused of the deed they seized his three fellow clerks who said they were wholly ignorant of the murder and threw them into prison; then a few days later they were, by order of King John, in contempt of the rights of the church, taken outside the city and hanged.

“When the deed had been done, both masters and pupils, to the number of three thousand clerks, left Oxford so that not one remained out of the whole university; they left Oxford empty, some engaging in liberal studies at Cambridge and some at Reading.”

In effect, Cambridge University was founded by refugee scholars from Oxford–though there is some dispute about the actual timing and the numbers. Then the Pope got involved as part of his disputes with King John, and sent a Papal Legate who, among other things, imposed a payment by the town of Oxford to its University of 52 shillings per year in perpetuity.

The disputes between Town and Gown have continued for centuries, the most severe being the St Scholastica Day riot of 1355. This began with two students complaining about the quality of wine in a pub and ended three days later with 63 University people dead, as well as 30 people from the town and surrounding countryside. And you can read a 1990s anarchist analysis of the continuing conflict in our own time here.

But let’s go back to 1714. George I had been brought in from Hanover to be King with the support of the Whig party; their opposition, the Tories, were on uncertain ground as many of them supported the rival Stuart claim to the throne. George therefore looked favourably on Cambridge with its Whig establishment, while Oxford was a Tory stronghold. Hence the response to Joseph Trapp’s poem by William Browne:

The King to Oxford sent a troop of horse,
For Tories own no argument but force:
With equal skill to Cambridge books he sent,
For Whigs admit no force but argument.

And the rivalry between Oxford and Cambridge continues to this day.