Friday, March 9, 2018

Oxbridge and the Stamford Oath


William Whyte writes for History Today on the monopoly Oxford and Cambridge held on university education in England from the fourteenth to the nineteenth century:

From 1334 onwards, graduates of Oxford and Cambridge were required to swear an oath that they would not give lectures outside these two English universities. It was a prohibition occasioned by the secession in 1333 of men from Oxford to the little Lincolnshire town of Stamford. They were escaping the violence and chaos which often attended medieval university life – the frequent battles between students, and between students and other communities within the town – the same conditions, in fact, which had led an earlier generation of scholars to up sticks and leave Oxford for Cambridge. But their action now threatened both universities, and so the Stamford experiment had to be suppressed. The sheriff of Lincoln, the lord chancellor, even the king, Edward III, were all called into play and the result became known as the ‘Stamford Oath’; an oath which Oxford and Cambridge graduates continued to swear until 1827. 

England was thus different than countries on the European Continent or even than Scotland:

This was in sharp contrast to the European experience. Just as Oxford and Cambridge were establishing and policing their unique right to produce graduates, ever growing numbers of universities were being founded across the Continent. In the 14th century new institutions appeared in towns from Pisa to Prague; from Kraków to Cahors. In the years that followed, the gap in numbers between English universities and those on the Continent grew even greater, with over 100 founded or refounded in Europe after 1500. Oxford and Cambridge remained the only universities in England. Indeed . . . in the mid-17th century, universities were springing up in such unlikely places as the small towns of Prešov in Slovakia and Nijmegen in the Netherlands. The English experience was also very unlike that of the Scots, who acquired five universities between 1451, when Glasgow opened, and 1582, when Edinburgh was established.

Whyte explains that religion played a role:

Just as the two universities wanted to control the supply of teachers and students, so the English Church and state wanted to control the universities. Universities could be – indeed, were – the source of dangerous heresies, where people learnt to think the wrong things. Oxford gave birth to the reforming, proto-Protestant Lollard movement in the 14th century. Cambridge was home to an alarming nest of evangelicals – humanist-inspired converts to church reform like the martyrs Robert Barnes (c.1495-1540) and Thomas Bilney (1495-1531) – 200 years later. With only two universities it was easier to control theological debate and even to use one of the institutions to oversee the other. It is no coincidence that the Cambridge-educated bishops Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley, together with the Cambridge-educated archbishop Thomas Cranmer, were sent to loyalist, Catholic Oxford to be tried and burnt in the 1550s.

This control was also used to remove Catholics from the universities and to restrict Protestant dissenters from attending them: Anglicans removed Puritans and Puritans removed Anglicans. Two years before the Catholic Emancipation Act passed in 1829, which opened the way for Catholics to attend Oxford or Cambridge again after a few centuries--although receiving a degree would be difficult since graduates still had to swear an oath to uphold the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England--the Stamford Oath was disavowed. 

Whyte describes why:

If the existence of this alliance helps explain why Oxbridge was successful in blocking any rivals, then the breakdown in this relationship also helps account for what happened next. The 1820s were a period of acute crisis for Church, state and the two universities alike. The decision to grant full civil liberties to Dissenters in 1828 and then to Roman Catholics in 1829 reflected – and helped enact – a breakdown in the exclusive link between the Church of England and the government. It also called into question the privileged position of Oxford and Cambridge. Still redoubts of Anglican orthodoxy, still loyal to the confessional state, they both looked, as the poet and critic Matthew Arnold would later observe of Oxford, homes ‘of lost causes, and forsaken beliefs, and unpopular names, and impossible loyalties’.

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