Monday, June 06, 2011

Oxford, Cambridge... and Stamford

News that A.C. Grayling and Co. wish to found a new elite university bring to mind the legend that the Lincolnshire town of Stamford was once home to a great university.

As James John Hissey put it in his Over Fen and Wold (1898):
For Stamford was erst a university town of renown whose splendid colleges rivalled both those of Oxford and Cambridge and even at one period threatened to supersede them, and probably would have done so but for powerful and interested political intrigues.
And in Memorials of Stamford (1867) Mackenzie Walcott commented on the town's resemblance to Oxford:
The likeness must have been most striking when the halls of the Monastic Houses of Peterborough, Crowland, Sempringham, and Vaudey, and Brazenose College, were thronged with students, and an academical look was given to the streets by the flowing gowns various hoods.
Sadly, this story has grown greatly in the telling over the centuries. The truth, as explained by Martin Smith in Stamford Myths and Legends (where the quotations above can be found) is that a group of Pelagians broke away from Oxford between 1333 and 1335, establishing themselves first in Northampton and then in Stamford.

Smith writes:
the group of teachers and students was never sufficiently large, or established,  to be considered a proper university. Many students returned to Oxford prior to 1335, and only seventeen masters, six parish priests and fourteen students were found in the last inquisition.
I suspect the legend has grown because Stamford looks so much as though it ought to be a university town. There were hopes that one could be established there in the expansion of the 1960s and again more recently when a university was planned for the county, but that went to Lincoln instead. There is even an earlier and less well founded legend that there was a university in Stamford long before the birth of Christ.

Still, Oxford University, at least, took the possible challenge from Stamford seriously. Following the 14th century succession students were made to swear an oath not to "lecture or attend lectures at Stamford".

I offer this to them as a possible way of dealing with A.C. Grayling and Co.


Kimpatsu said...

Even better idea: let's have the government promise to make all UK universities completely secular, and there won't be a need for New College, London.

dreamingspire said...

If the reference to Brazenose College is to the mediaeval Oxford Brasenose, it should surely have been to Brasenose Hall, as the Oxford College's Royal Charter is dated 1512 (just Google 'brief history of Brasenose').

Jonathan Calder said...

There is a Brazenose Street in Stamford and I suppose that, in the light of the legend, Walcott reasoned that there must once have been a Brazenoze College there.

In fact there is no connection between Brazenose Street in Stamford and Brasenose Hall, Oxford. But that didn't stop Oxford stealing an ancient door knocker from the street in 1890.