17th-century Oxford: Parliament goes back to school…

With Universities now back in the swing of a new term, Dr Robin Eagles takes a look at the disruption caused in 17th Century Oxford when Parliament came to stay…

The past few weeks have witnessed the beginning of a new academic year in universities across the country. For many it is an exciting if unsettling time: getting used to a new environment, knuckling down to work, finding or confirming new lodgings. Students at Oxford in the 17th century experienced an additional difficulty on four separate occasions when the normal pattern of their terms was interrupted by the decision to convene Parliament there.

The earliest Parliaments had met frequently in locations away from London (Oxford had been the venue for the ‘Mad Parliament’ of 1258) but by the 17th century it was all but unheard of for Parliament to meet anywhere but in the usual rooms in the palace of Westminster. In 1625, 1644, 1665 and 1681 this pattern was interrupted by plague, war, plague again and finally by political unrest that persuaded the Stuart kings to summon the Lords and Commons to a city famed for its loyalty to the monarchy.

The purpose may have been to avoid problems in London, but the result was turmoil for the students (and citizens) of Parliament’s new temporary home. In 1665, the students were encouraged to stay away while members took over the majority of the lodgings both in the colleges and in the local hostelries. Christ Church became the royal court; the queen took over Merton; Parliament itself was housed in rooms in the Bodleian Library. Unsurprisingly, the price of everything soared. The antiquary Anthony Wood recorded how those students who had decided to remain behind were subjected to abuse by the MPs roaming the streets.  Worse still, when they were eventually able to return to their chambers after the session was brought to a close at the end of October, the students found that the peers and MPs had been none too careful with their rooms. As Wood described it, though the courtiers were ‘neat and gay in their apparel, yet they were nasty and beastly, leaving at their departure their excrement in every corner’. They were, in short, ‘rude, rough, whoremongers; vain, empty, careless’.

Given all this, the colleges can hardly have welcomed the decision to hold Parliament in Oxford again in 1681. The preceding election had been particularly bad-tempered, punctuated by the cry of ‘no universities! no scholars! no clergy! no bishops!’ none of which can have offered the university authorities much comfort. Following on from the problems arising out of the Popish Plot and Exclusion Crisis and reflecting the heightened tensions between the king and opposition grouping headed by Anthony Ashley Cooper, Earl of Shaftesbury, there were large numbers of soldiers present both in the city itself and lining the route from Oxford back to London. Wood noted the changed atmosphere. Whereas before they had been proud and rude, now the courtiers were ‘very civil’ to the scholars, even being willing to give way to them when passing in the street. They were still, though, keen to entrap the unwary into speaking of state matters so that they could bring them on their knees before one or other of the Houses.

However, while  the members may have been better behaved to their hosts they proved recalcitrant in their dealings with the king and when he realized that they were unwilling to press on with business without turning once more to the question of excluding the Duke of York from the succession, he determined to bring proceedings to a premature conclusion. Thus on 28 March, with the session just seven days old, Charles arrived at the Bodleian with his regalia hidden in an accompanying coach. He then surprised everyone by bringing the session to a close and quit the city. The members were furious. So were the workmen who had only just finished converting the Sheldonian Theatre into a Chamber for the Commons, carefully ferrying away the paraphernalia of the University Press that was housed in its basement. The subsequent confusion resulted in a spectacular explosion in the cost of carriages as the members press-ganged the city’s available transport for their use. It was, perhaps unsurprisingly, the final occasion on which Parliament convened away from Westminster.


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