Christmas is a time for tradition, and the University of Oxford is well known for diligently preserving its traditions for centuries. Many of these have long outlived the people who established them, and some are so old and mired in obscurity that even the University itself has no idea what they are or how they came to be. One such example of this is the strange case of Henry Symeonis.
In 1827 the University undertook a major review of its statutes. The statutes were, and still are, the written set of rules and regulations which governed everything that went on in the University. A product of many centuries, some of these were over already 500 years old by 1827. In going through the statutes as part of this review, the University found something rather odd in the section relating to Bachelors of Arts and the oaths they had to swear in order to become a Master of Arts.
As well as being 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, the Bachelors of Arts also had to swear that they would never agree to the reconciliation of Henry Symeonis (‘quod numquam consenties in reconciliationem Henrici Simeonis’).
The oaths required of those proceeding to MAs, from Corpus Statutorum (Statute Tit VII section 1. 5)
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. Who was Henry Symeonis and why was he specifically named like this in the University’s governing regulations? What had he done to offend the University so much?
For much of the operational lifetime of the oath, no-one appears to have known. Brian Twyne, first Keeper of the Archives and renowned antiquary of the 17th century, claimed in his Antiquitatis Academiae Oxon Apologia of 1608 that Symeonis was a Regent in Arts at Oxford who fraudulently claimed he had a BA in order to obtain admission to a foreign monastery. Twyne gave no evidence or source for this so we don’t know where that might have come from.
Anthony Wood, in his published Life and Times writes about the University’s earlier review of its statutes in January 1651/2 when it was first proposed to abolish the statute concerning Henry Symeonis. He notes that the proposal to remove the oath was refused but gives no reason why. 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.
The identity of Henry Symeonis was only (re-)discovered in 1912 by the then Keeper of the University Archives, Reginald Lane Poole. In an article for the English Historical Review, he looked at the curious statute and tried to get to the bottom of the Henry Symeonis mystery.
Poole identified the man in question as Henry, son of Henry Symeonis. Henry Symeonis the elder was the son of a man named Simeon, hence the patronymic surname of Simeonis (or Symeonis) being passed down to his son and grandson. Henry Simeon, our Henry’s father, was a very wealthy townsman of Oxford; in the early 1200s, there were few richer. Our Henry was also wealthy, owning several properties in Oxford and both their names are found in many property deeds of the period.
For example, Henry is listed as a witness to a grant of c1243 of a boundary wall in Cat Street from William Burgess to Nicholas de Kingham. He is named as ‘Henry son of Henry son of Simeon’.
Grant of a boundary wall including Henry Symeonis as a witness, nd (c1243) (OUA/WPbeta/F/43)
But what was the reason for Henry’s condemnation by the University to five and a half centuries of infamy? It was a murder. 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, forced to stay away (and allowed no closer than Northampton) at least until the King returned from abroad. The King returned in the autumn and by the spring of the following year, we know (from records of his property dealings) that our Henry, son of Henry Symeonis, was already back in Oxford.
What happened next is not easy to work out. There are few University records from that time and we have to rely on others’ accounts of what was happening to decipher the facts of the case. The chroniclers of those times notoriously disagree with each other, and the picture is muddy, to say the least. We know that over 20 years after the murder, on 12 March 1264, Henry III suspended the University and sent it away from Oxford, saying that he could not protect its masters and scholars in the city and that they would be safer elsewhere. The King was making Oxford the centre of his military operations and was unable to guarantee the safety of the students and masters. Many left, a large number moving to Northampton in spring that year where a thriving university was growing.
A fortnight after this, on 25 March 1264, the King issued letters patent saying that he’d pardoned Henry Symeonis for the murder which had taken place 22 years earlier. He ordered the University to allow Henry to return to Oxford to live there in peace provided he was ‘of good behaviour’ and demanded that the University didn’t leave Oxford in protest. The letters patent stated:
… that the chancellor and university would be content that Henry son of Henry Simeonis, who withdrew for the death of a man, would return to Oxford and stay there, so that the university should not retire from the said town on account of his staying there; then they should permit him to return without impediment and have the king’s peace; the king, at the instance of Nicholas de Yatingden, of his further grace, has pardoned the said Henry the said death, on condition that he stand his trial if any will proceed against him, and has granted that he may return and dwell there so long as he be of good behaviour and that the university do not withdraw from the said town on account of his return and the death of the said Henry
The interpretation of this series of events is difficult. Poole, in his 1912 article, linked the University’s departure from Oxford in 1264 to its unhappiness at having Henry Symeonis pardoned and thrust back upon them from exile. He suggested that a serious eruption of town-gown violence broke out as a result of the pardon. This cannot be the case, however, as the King didn’t pardon Henry Symeonis until after the University had been told to leave Oxford. Besides, Henry had already been back in Oxford for many years and it would have been a bit late to act on that.
Town-gown relations were, at this time, pretty volatile, the problem being that Oxford wasn’t big enough for two bodies fighting for supremacy in a relatively small space. This had often led to violence, and apparently did again in February 1264 when the longstanding bad feeling between the two flared up. But it seems that this was not, despite some chroniclers attributing it to that, the cause of the University leaving Oxford. Henry Symeonis’s pardon by the King would, however, have only added fuel to the town’s fire that the University was always unjustly favoured by the monarch at the town’s expense.
We know that 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. This is presumably why it was made a condition of Henry’s return that the University had to promise not to leave.
We also know that both the town and University of Oxford were unhappy about the growth of a rival university in Northampton. Henry III had allowed a university to be established there in 1261 (on the request of the burgesses of the town), the third in England, behind Oxford and Cambridge. At the time, it was believed that it wouldn’t damage its older rivals but such a large number of masters and students from Oxford migrated there that Northampton was soon felt to be a threat to the two more ancient universities. The city of Oxford pressed the King to terminate this threat and on 1 February 1265 he formally closed down the university at Northampton and forbade the establishment of any future university there. All this was playing out against a backdrop of civil war and political unease, with Henry III engaged in a war with his brother-in-law, Simon de Montfort, and both Oxford and Northampton being heavily involved in the conflict.
Further research is needed to discover the exact details of what happened here but it seems 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 of 25 March 1264, resuming its hostility to Henry Symeonis. In fact, it felt so strongly about it, that it gave Henry Symeonis the unique honour of being named in its own statutes, making the University’s dislike of him official and perpetual.
The oath against Henry Symeonis continued in the University’s statutes for centuries after the events of 1264. Having survived earlier reviews of the University’s statutes, it was finally abolished five and a half centuries later. The records of the decision taken in 1827 are frustratingly brief and unenlightening. Convocation (the body of MAs of the University and its chief decision-maker at the time) took the decision to abolish the oath in February that year, but no background information nor reason for the decision is recorded. It is possible that’s because nobody knew exactly what they were abolishing.
The case of Henry Symeonis is a very strange example of the longevity of some University customs, long after they’ve lost relevance or meaning. The persistence of tradition in the University is famous, but this appears to have been an extreme example of using tradition to hold a very, very long grudge. By naming Henry Symeonis in its statutes as a figure of institutional hatred for centuries, it actually resulted in prolonging his celebrity, immortalising a man whom it had considered a villain.
For RL Poole’s 1912 article in the English Historical Review (vol 27, no 107, July 1912 pp515-517) see https://www.jstor.org/stable/550611#metadata_info_tab_contents
A pleasing coda to the story is that Henry III’s ban on a university at Northampton was finally ended in 2005 when a new university was established there, a mere 740 years after the suppression of its predecessor. See Drew Gray’s article on the ‘Ancient University of Northampton’ on the University of Northampton’s website at Microsoft Word – Ancient_University_of_Northampton.docx
The migration of Oxford students to Northampton is discussed in ‘The Alleged Migration of the University of Oxford to Northampton in 1264’ by FM Powicke in Oxoniensia (vol 8/9, 1943-4) at powicke.pdf (oxoniensia.org)
And for more information on Oxford and the Second Barons’ War see The University of Oxford and the Chronicle of the Barons’ Wars on JSTOR in the English Historical Review (Jan 1980, vol 95, no 374, pp99-113).