In the throes of the English Civil War, the City of Oxford and its university were under siege between 1644 and 1646. After failing to recapture London, King Charles I had sought a new capital — one he readily found in Oxford. When word of the war first reached the ears of Oxford University, it boldly declared itself in favour of the Royalist cause — making it a perfect seat for the evicted monarch.
Then-Deputy Vice-Chancellor Dr Robert Pink organised students into Royalist militias and drilled them in the quadrangle, the King took up residence in Christ Church, and New College was converted into a makeshift munitions workshop (evicting its student residents in the process).
Across three engagements, King Charles I and his Royalist forces held firm in their sandstone garrison against waves of Parliamentarian assault.
It is often thought that the surrender of Oxford following the third and final siege was the last straw for the Royalists and their war effort. In that final siege, a single cannon shot was fired; it landed in the meadows adjoining Christ Church College itself. That final siege led to negotiations and those negotiations led to surrender, and so concluded the University of Oxford’s life under bombardment..
With Charles once again on St Edward’s Chair, it seems prudent to prepare for another university siege. Modelled off of Oxford itself and featuring its open book insignia on our coat of arms, the University of Sydney is surely next. And where would fair USyd make its final stand? None other than the Quadrangle: the Keep of Camperdown and the Citadel of Science Road.
So let us draw up some battle plans, barricade the gates, and rally the troops. USyd is officially under siege.
Drawing from the Quad’s Henry VII Gothic architectural style (also known as Perpendicular Style), we can situate the Siege of the Quadrangle in 15th century England. Cannons and muskets were really coming into their own around this time, but your crossbows, spears, lances, catapults, and trebuchets of the world also played a role. Accompanied by siege towers and battering rams, those seeking to assault the Quad would have a smorgasbord of marshal technology to select from.
The University’s biggest weakness in the unlikely event of a 15th century English Quad siege is the Quad itself. In all its neo-Gothic magnificence, it simply imitates rather than emulates the conventions of Tudor castles. Its numerous windows present a critical weakness, with access only a gentle smashing away. Precious little can be done about this fatal flaw, except for maybe securing the latches and sticking up some newspaper.
Its approximately 14 entrances aren’t doing it any favours either. The wrought iron gates that don’t reach the height of the entry, wooden doors lack bar locks, and there’s the small issue of having to defend a silly 14 entryways.
In the bigger picture, the Quad really just wasn’t designed to be defended. Its faux battlements behind decorative crenellations offer no ramparts for defenders, just loose tiling and narrow gutters (my condolences to eager musketeers trying to find a perch!). The lack of moat would make Bodiam Castle weep and the absence of defensible or accessible towers would make Dover Castle groan.
It’s not all Charges of the Light Brigade though, there are some Battles of Waterloo. The clock tower and carillon offer a strong defensive position (Neuschwanstein Castle eat your heart out!) and the means to signal an advanced warning — like the tocsins of old, the bells of the Quad can herald the siege ahead.
A castle is only as strong as its defenders, and USyd has the capacity to marshal an unrivalled force. With student enrolments of 74,862 and a staff of 19,000, the University has an army of almost 100,000 at its beckoning.
Unfortunately, loyalty cannot be assured. Mutiny sours the ranks of its staff soldiers, with cuts and fees from old wars and more recent skirmishes littering the bodies of both grizzled NTEU commanders and green casual recruits.
For the students, a dark cloud lingers over undergrads and postgrads alike — the Battle of Proctor U still fresh in their hearts, casualties from the Siege of Future FASS still unaccounted for, and the Enemy, an ancient enemy as old as time itself looms ever large: Higher-Ed Cuts. Perhaps the greatest threat to the Quad is from within its walls, rather than without. But of course this all depends on the foe.
A common enemy is often the best way to unite a fractured force, but those in our ranks who sympathise with the enemy could be our undoing. Maybe against interlopers from Melbourne or Monash, undergrads and postgrads, professional and academic, permanent and casual could unite under the one banner and live those words that emblazon our coat of arms: sidere mens eadem mutato, “though the constellations change, the mind is universal.” Some grudges really are universal.
Against an incursion of education activists though, sedition might turn to treason against the Lords and Ladies of USyd.
Yet, USyd does not stand alone. In times of dire need, it can always light the beacon fires, also known as the Group of 8 (Go8), and call upon its ancient allies. Stalwart UNSW in the east might heed the call and bring up reinforcements through light rail, train, and bus.
The fair and noble cloud kingdom of UTS might be a more practical ally though — while beyond the sight and succour of the Council of Eight, its proximity makes it useful in a pinch and the short march up Broadway and through Victoria Park has been done before and done successfully by climate activists.
The Quad would fall quickly according to Dr John Gagne, Director of the Medieval and Early Modern Centre. After a short field inspection, Dr Gagne gave it an hour at best. Concerned by the overrepresentation of windows and the underrepresentation of gates, he advised a retreat to the Great Hall — a more defensible position. But Dr Gagne would forgo the Quad altogether, the Fisher Stack should be USyd’s siege time stronghold apparently. Its height, rooftop access, and metal skeleton make it prime real estate.
Unlike Oxford, it’s doubtful that the Quad would survive one, let alone three sieges. Bold strategies and even bolder hearts would be needed to make it through the night. Surplus cooking oil from nearby USU outlets could be sourced, boiled, and poured down onto unsuspecting infantry. Maybe statues and busts will come to life and rush to our defence, animated by ancient magics and commanded by Chancellor Belinda Hutchinson. Or maybe we’ll just tie some white, fur-trimmed graduation robes to a stick and wave the flag of surrender.
Whatever happens, it’s sure to go down in the history books.
Special thanks to Dr John Gagne for providing historical background and a professional assessment.