13th Century Higher Education Policies

It is complicated to compare current policy issues with the way that they’ve been handled in the past; after all the conditions are never the same.  But it is illuminating that some issues have remained constant through history, even if the solutions have varied.

Henry 111

During the long reign of Henry III the English universities moved into a new relationship with the king – cementing a role as the king’s universities.  They gained a series of privileges from the king and he acted as their protector.  A key example is how the interests of Oxford led to the king ordering the closure of a university at Northampton.  Imagine that; the interests of Oxford being prioritised over newer universities…

‘If the university … persisted there, it would much harm our town of Oxford … especially as all the bishops of our land have signified by their letters patent that the university should be moved from the town for the utility of the English church and the advancement of students’
Quoted in Lawrence (1984)

Pearl Kibre (1960) highlights other parts of what we might, anachronistically,  call Henry’s ‘university strategy’.

Consumer Protection

Henry III saw himself as the guardian of the scholars and confirmed many of their privileges particularly by moving authority for matters that concerned them from local control to the university chancellor.  The chancellor was given jurisdiction over contracts between scholars and others.   The university also gained increasing power over the provision of services to scholars.

Henry III granted … the right to be present … at the trial of bread and ale. … The examination of the bread was to be made twice each year … The assize of the bread was to be made at the same time and was to be based on the price of grain.

… in 1285, in accordance with the grant of Henry III, Edward I provided further that all bread and ale which did not meet the specifications of the assize were to be declared forfeited to the king.
(Kibre (1960) pp283-284

International Strategy

Henry III supported the recruitment of international students – helping to recruit them, house them and provide a 13th century version of post-study employment…

… in 1229, he invited the disgruntled scholars of Paris to migrate to England during their dispersion, and offered … to assign them cities, towns, or villages if they would transfer to his kingdom, for purposes of study.  King Henry III shortly afterwards in 1231, followed up this decree or invitation with another pronouncement on the scholar’s behalf. He did so, he declared, in response to the complaints about rents brought to him by members of the university. Henry III at this time called attention to the fact that the entire kingdom was honoured by the presence at Oxford of scholars from all parts of England as well as from lands across the sea.
Kibre, 1960, p270

Henry set about confirming a form of rent control and his son, Edward I, confirmed the allocation of housing to students.

Fraudulent students

However, these rights given to scholars had to be jealously  guarded.  It had been possible for scholars to attach themselves to the university, but these new rights meant that the university’s authority over them had to be confirmed.

From an early period, at Oxford, an effort was made to prevent the growth of abuses associated at Paris with the difficulty of distinguishing between legitimate scholars and those fraudulently claiming this status. To achieve this objective Henry III endeavoured to promote  a close cooperation between the sheriff of Oxford and the chancellor of the university.  In in 1231 he directed that that the sheriff expel all so-called fictitious scholars from the city and that he make certain that no clerk who was not under the direction of a master of the schools remained in Oxford.
Kibre, 1960, p 271

Kibre notes that at Cambridge, the sheriff offered the chancellor free use of the city gaol for fraudulent students.

Right from the very outset of universities it is clear that were evolving a relationship with the state in which protection was linked their role as the king’s universities.  It’s also clear that 750 years later, many of the same issues remain with us – even if universities no longer control the price of beer.


Kibre, P, 1960, Scholarly Privileges in the Middle Ages, London, Mediaeval Academy of America
Lawrence, C, 1984 . ‘The University in State and Church’ in Catto J (ed) The History of the University of Oxford Vol 1, Oxford, Oxford University Press


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