For 500 Years, Every Student Who Attained a BA from Oxford Had to Swear Enmity Towards a Person Named Henry Symeonis

Image via The Bodleian Library

If you were to ask a cer­tain kind of Eng­lish­man what sets his home­land apart from the rest of the world, he might point to the strength of its tra­di­tions. And what holds true for Eng­land itself holds even truer for its most renowned insti­tu­tions, espe­cial­ly its most pres­ti­gious uni­ver­si­ties. Those who dream of attend­ing Oxford dream not least of its dis­tinc­tive tra­di­tions: from the rel­a­tive­ly fre­quent For­mal Hall, to the var­i­ous cer­e­mo­ni­al rit­u­als on Ascen­sion Day, to the Mal­lard Song sung just once per cen­tu­ry by the elites of All Souls Col­lege, dat­ing back to that col­lege’s foun­da­tion in 1438— which was still long after the time of Oxford’s ulti­mate per­sona non gra­ta, a long-mys­te­ri­ous fig­ure named Hen­ry Syme­o­nis.

As recent­ly as the time of Dick­ens (or at least the era in which he set his nov­els), Bach­e­lors of Arts stu­dents turn­ing Mas­ter of Arts stu­dents at Oxford were, accord­ing to the blog of the Archives and Man­u­scripts at the Bodleian Library, “required to swear that they would observe the University’s statutes, priv­i­leges, lib­er­ties and cus­toms, as you might expect; and not to lec­ture else­where, or resume their bach­e­lor stud­ies after get­ting their MA.” But they “also had to swear that they would nev­er agree to the rec­on­cil­i­a­tion of Hen­ry Syme­o­nis,” who­ev­er that was. “Nowhere in the statutes did it explain who this Hen­ry Syme­o­nis (or Sime­o­nis) was, what he was sup­posed to have done or why those get­ting their MAs should nev­er agree to be rec­on­ciled with him.”

The clause in ques­tion came up for review in the ear­ly 1650s, but “even by that time, one sus­pects that the oath was of such antiq­ui­ty that no-one knew any­thing about it and it was thought best to leave it be.” Not until 1912 did Regi­nald Lane Poole, Keep­er of the Uni­ver­si­ty Archives, deter­mine that Syme­o­nis was the son of “a very wealthy towns­man of Oxford.” In 1242, “he and a num­ber of oth­er men of the town of Oxford were found guilty of mur­der­ing a stu­dent of the Uni­ver­si­ty. Hen­ry and his accom­plices were fined £80 by King Hen­ry III in May 1242 and were made to leave Oxford as a result.” Two decades after the mur­der, Hen­ry III issued Syme­o­nis (who had, in any case, long since returned to town) an offi­cial par­don.

“The Gov­ern­ment was aware of the volatile rela­tion­ship between town and gown and was con­cerned, in 1264, at the prospect of the Uni­ver­si­ty leav­ing Oxford in protest if Hen­ry was allowed to return.” What seems to have hap­pened is that “Hen­ry Syme­o­nis had bought the King’s par­don and his per­mis­sion to return to Oxford. The King was will­ing to allow his return if the Uni­ver­si­ty agreed to it. But the Uni­ver­si­ty refused and chose to ignore the King’s order” — and even “gave Hen­ry Syme­o­nis the unique hon­or of being named in its own statutes, mak­ing the University’s dis­like of him offi­cial and per­pet­u­al.” There his name stayed, receiv­ing the sworn enmi­ty of five and a half cen­turies’ worth of Oxford stu­dents, until the removal of the rel­e­vant oath in 1827. “No back­ground infor­ma­tion nor rea­son for the deci­sion is record­ed,” notes the Bodleian’s blog, pos­si­bly because “nobody knew exact­ly what they were abol­ish­ing.”

via Archives and Man­u­scripts at the Bodleian Library

Relat­ed Con­tent:

New Inter­ac­tive “Mur­der Map” Reveals the Mean­est Streets of Medieval Lon­don

Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty Presents the 550-Year-Old Guten­berg Bible in Spec­tac­u­lar, High-Res Detail

The British Library Puts 1,000,000 Images into the Pub­lic Domain, Mak­ing Them Free to Reuse & Remix

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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