Many people are probably unaware that one of the most prestigious universities in the world was founded, in part, thanks to a murder, more than 800 years ago. Now the infamous crime which ultimately led to the foundation of the University of Cambridge in 1209 has been "re-imagined" by crime writer Susanna Gregory (the Matthew Bartholemew series of medieval crime stories), in a short story published earlier this week, in celebration of World Book Day (March 4th).
In December 1209, as reported by the contemporary scholar Roger of Wendover, "a certain clerk at Oxford, absent from his studies, killed a woman by chance, and fled when he realised that she was dead". Two University of Oxford scholars who may have been innocent were convicted of the crime, and hanged by locals (who were sometimes in conflict with the university, and could be prone to vigilante justice). In protest at the executions, the University of Oxford went into suspension, and several scholars migrated elsewhere, fearful for their lives. Some "exiles" that travelled to the town of Cambridge were responsible for transforming the school there, into what is now Britain's second-oldest University.
The historic records are somewhat sketchy, and little more is known about the crime. However, using what few sources remain, Gregory (the crime writing pseudonym of a former Cambridge scholar), in conjunction with her husband Simon Beaufort, has created her own fictional interpretation of how those dark events might have played out. Her 35-page short story. entitled "Bloody Beginnings", can be downloaded for free from HERE.
Opening with the brutal murder, the story then follows a group of scholars as they escape Oxford and start a new university in Cambridge, all the while trying to uncover who amongst them is the killer. The hunt is led by Geoffrey Gryme, whose brother Adam had been one of the innocents hanged in Oxford.
I've just printed out the story, and I'm taking it home for a read tonight. It certainly sounds interesting, and it's kind of cool how it ties (loosely or otherwise) to a largely unknown part of the history of one of the world's most famous seats of letters and learning.