Oxfordshire - Encyclopedia

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OXFORDSHIRE (or Oxon), an inland county of England, bounded N.E. by Northamptonshire, N.W. by Warwickshire, W. by Gloucestershire, S.S.W. and S.E. by Berkshire, and E. by Buckinghamshire; area 755.7 sq. m. The county lies almost wholly in the basin of the upper Thames. This river forms its southern boundary for 71 m., from Kelmscot near Lechlade (Gloucestershire) to Remenham below Henley-on-Thames, excepting for very short distances at two points near Oxford. The main stream is the boundary line, but from Oxford upward the river often sends out branches through the flat watermeadows. The principal tributaries joining the Thames on the Oxfordshire side do not in any case rise within the county, but have the greater part of their courses through it.

These tributaries are as follows, pursuing the main river downwards. (I) The Windrush, rising in Gloucestershire, follows a narrow and pleasant valley as far as Witney, after which it meanders in several branches through rich flat country, to join the Thames at Newbridge. (2) The Evenlode, also rising in Gloucestershire, forms the western county boundary for a short distance, and follows a similar but more beautiful valley to the Thames below Eynsham. From the north it receives the Glyme, which joins it on the confines of Blenheim Park, where the woodland scenery is of peculiar richness. (3) The Cherwell, rising in Northamptonshire, forms some 10 m. of the eastern boundary, and with a straight southerly course joins the Thames at Oxford. From the east it receives the Ray, which drains the flat tract of Ot Moor. (4) The Thame, rising in Buckinghamshire, runs south-west and west, forming 6 m. of the eastern boundary, after which it turns south to join the Thames near Dorchester. Above the point of junction the Thames is often called the Isis. Lastly, a small part of the north-eastern boundary is formed by the Great Ouse (which discharges into the North Sea), here a very slight stream, some of whose head-feeders rise within Oxfordshire.

The low hills which lie south of the Windrush, and those between it and the Evenlode (which attain a greater height) are foothills of the Cotteswold range, the greater part of which lies in Gloucestershire. Between the Windrush and Evenlode they are clothed with the remaining woods of Wychwood Forest, one of the ancient forests of England, which was a royal preserve from the time of John, and was disafforested in 1862. Its extent was 3735 acres of forest proper. The hills continued north of the Evenlode (but not under the name of Cotteswold) at an average elevation over 50o ft. The range terminates at Edge Hill, just outside the county in Warwickshire. The hills bordering the Cherwell basin on the east are of slight elevation, until, running east from Oxford into Buckinghamshire, a considerable line of heights is found north of the Thame valley, reaching 560 ft. in Shotover hill, overlooking Oxford. Across the south-east of the county stretches the bold line of the Chiltern Hills, running N.E. and S.W. On the western brow, Nettlebed Common, an extensive plateau, reaches at some points nearly 700 ft. of altitude. The district was probably once covered with forest, and there are still many fine beeches, oaks and ash trees. William Camden in his survey of the British Isles (1586) mentions forests as a particular feature of Oxfordshire scenery, and there are traces still left of natural woodland in various parts of the lower country.

The Thames flows through a deep gap from about Goring downwards, between the Chilterns and the Berkshire Downs. Here, as above at Nuneham and other points, the sylvan scenery is fine, and Henley and Goring are favourite riverside resorts on the Oxfordshire shore. The western feeders of the Thames and Cherwell have much rich woodland in their narrow valleys, and the sequestered village of Great Tew, on a tributary of the Cherwell river, may be singled out as having a situation of exceptional beauty.

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The influence of the rocky substratum upon the character of the scenery and soil is clearly marked. It is sufficient to point, on the one hand, to the dry chalky upland of the Chiltern Hills and the oolitic limestone hills in the north-west, or the Cornbrash with its rich, fertile soil; and, on the other hand, to the dreary scenery of the Oxford Clay land with its cold, unproductive soil. Cretaceous rocks occupy the south-eastern corner of the county; Jurassic rocks prevail over the remainder. The general dip is towards the south-east, and the strike of the strata is S.W. - N.E.; therefore in passing from south to north, beds are traversed which are successively lower and older. The Chiltern Hills, with a strong scarp facing the north-west, are formed of Chalk, the Lower Chalk at the foot and the hard Chalk rock at the summit; from the top of the hills the Upper Chalk-with-Flints descends steadily towards the Thames. Here and there, as at Shiplake and Nettlebed, outliers of Tertiary clays rest upon it. The Upper Greensand forms a low feature at the foot of the Chalk hills; this is succeeded by the Gault, with an outcrop varying from 4 m. to I z m. wide between Dorchester and Sydenham; it is a pale blue clay, dug for bricks at Culham. The Lower Greensand appears from beneath the Gault at Culham and Nuneham Courtney and in outliers north of Cuddesdon. The Kimmeridge clay, in the grass-covered vales between Sandford and Waterperry, is separated from the Lower Greensand by the Portland limestone and Portland sands and by the thin Purbeck beds; it is dug for bricks at Headington. Both Portland and Purbeck beds may be observed in Shotover hill; the Portland limestone is quarried at Garsington. The Coral Rag,with calcareous grit at the base, is a shelly, coral-bearing limestone, traceable from Sandford to Wheatley; it has been extensively quarried at Headington hill. North-west of the last-named formation a broad outcrop of Oxford Clay crosses the county; while this is mostly under pasture, the next lower formation, the Cornbrash, a brownish rubbly limestone, gives rise to a loose brown soil very suitable for the cultivation of wheat. Exposures of Cornbrash occur at Norton Bridge, Woodstock and Shipton; it forms a broad plateau between Middleton Stoney and Bicester. Inliers also lie in the Oxford Clay plain at Islip, Charlton, Merton and Black Horse Hill. Wychwood Forest has given its name to the " Forest Marble," an inconstant series of limestones which thin out eastward and become argillaceous. The Great Oolite limestones, with the " Stonesfield Slate " at the base and occasional marls, form the higher ground in the northwest. An excellent freestone is quarried at Tainton and Milton. The Inferior Oolite series of sands and limestones forms the Rollright Ridge and caps Shenlow and Epwell hills; it also reaches down to Chipping Norton and eastward to Steeple Aston. The three divisions of the Lias are represented in the N.W. of the county. The most important is the middle member with marlstone, which, being a hard calcareous bed at the top, forms an elevated ridge along the limit of the outcrop. The marlstone is quarried for building stone at Hornton, and for road metal in many places, and, as it contains a considerable amount of iron oxide, it has been extensively worked for iron at Adderbury, Fawler and elsewhere. The Upper Lias clays occur mostly as unimportant outliers. The Lower Lias clays have been exposed by the Evenlode near Charlbury and by the Cherwell in the upper part of its valley. A hard shelly limestone called Banbury marble occurs in this part of the Lias. Glacial drift is sparingly scattered over the south-western part of the county, but is more plentiful in the north-eastern portion. Valley gravels are associated with the main stream courses and gravel, clay-withflints and brick earth rest upon much of the chalk slope. Coal Measures have been proved at a depth of about 1200 ft. near Burford.

Climate and Agriculture

The climate is healthy and generally dry except in the low ground bordering the Thames, as at Oxford; but colder than the other southern districts of England, especially in the bleak and exposed regions of the Chilterns. Crops are later in the uplands than in more northerly situations at a lower elevation. In the northern districts there is a strong yet friable loam, well adapted for all kinds of crops. The centre of the county is occupied for the most part by a good friable but not so rich soil, formed of decomposed sandstone, chalk and limestone. A large district in the south-east is occupied by the chalk of the Chiltern Hills, partly wooded, partly arable, and partly used as sheep-walks. The remainder of the county is occupied by a variety of miscellaneous soils ranging from coarse sand to heavy tenacious clay, and occasionally very fertile. Nearly seven-eighths of the area of the county, a high proportion, is under cultivation. The acreage under grain crops is nearly equally divided between barley, oats and wheat. There is a considerable acreage under beans. More than half the total acreage under green crops is occupied by turnips, and vetches and tares are also largely grown. Along the smaller streams there are very rich meadows for grazing, but those on the Thames and Cherwell are subject to floods. The dairy system prevails in many places, but the milk is manufactured into butter, little cheese being made. The improved shorthorn is the most common breed, but Alderney and Devonshire cows are largely kept. Of sheep, Southdowns are kept on the lower grounds, and Leicesters and Cotteswolds on the hills. Pigs are extensively reared, the county being famous for its brawn.


Blankets are manufactured at Witney, and tweed, girths and horsecloths at Chipping Norton. There are paper mills at Shiplake, Sandford-on-Thames, Wolvercot and Eynsham, using water power, as do the blanket works and many mills on the tributary streams of the Thames. Agricultural implements and portable engines are made at Banbury, and gloves at Woodstock, the last a very ancient industry. Banbury has been long celebrated for the manufacture of a peculiar cake. Some iron ore is raised (from the middle Lias), and the quarries and clays for brick-making are important, as already indicated. A large number of women and girls are employed in several of the towns and villages in the lace manufacture.


The northern line of the Great Western railway, leaving the main line at Didcot Junction in Berkshire, runs north through Oxfordshire by the Cherwell valley. Oxford is the junction for the Worcester line, running north-west by the Evenlode valley, with branches from Chipping Norton Junction into Gloucestershire (Cheltenham), and across the north-west of the county to the northern line at King's Sutton. From Oxford also the East Gloucester line serves Witney and the upper Thames. Another Great Western line, from Maidenhead and London, enters the county on the east, has a branch to Watlington, serves the town of Thame, and runs to Oxford. The Great Central railway has a branch from its main line at Woodford in Northamptonshire to Banbury, the north and south expresses using the Great Western route southward. Branches of the London and North Western railway from Bletchley terminate at Oxford and Banbury. As regards watercommunications, the Thames is navigable for large launches to Oxford, and for barges over the whole of its Oxfordshire course. None of its tributaries in this county is commercially navigable. The Oxford Canal, opened in 1790, follows the Cherwell north from Oxford and ultimately connects .with the Grand Junction and Warwick canals.

Population and Administration

The area of the ancient county is 483,626 acres, with a population in 1891 of 185,240 and in 1901 of 181,120. The area of the administrative county is 480,687 acres. The municipal boroughs are Banbury (pop. 12,968), Chipping Norton (3780), Henley-on-Thames (5984), Oxford, a city and the county town (49,336) and Woodstock (1684). The urban districts are Bicester (3023), Caversham (6580), Thame (2911), Wheatley (872), Witney (3574)Bampton (1167) and Burford (1146) in the west, and Watlington (1154) in the south-east, are the other principal country towns. The county is in the Oxford circuit, and assizes are held at Oxford. It has one court of quarter-sessions, and is divided into 11 petty sessional divisions. The borough of Banbury and the city of Oxford have separate courts of quarter-sessions and commissions of the peace, and the borough of Henley-on-Thames has a separate commission of the peace. The total number of civil parishes in 304. Oxfordshire is in the diocese of Oxford, and contains 244 ecclesiastical parishes or districts, wholly or in part. The ancient county is divided (since 1885) into three parliamentary divisions: Banbury or northern, Woodstock or mid, and Henley or southern, each returning one member. It also includes part of the parliamentary borough of Oxford, returning one member, in addition to which the university of Oxford returns two members.


On account of the famous university of Oxford and other educational institutions there, the county as regards education holds as high a position as any in England. In connexion with the university there is a day training college for schoolmasters, and there is also in Oxford a residential training college for schoolmistresses (diocesan), which takes day students. There is a training college for schoolmasters in the dioceses of Oxford and Gloucester, at Culham. At Cuddesdon, where is the palace of the bishops of Oxford, there is a theological college, opened in 1854. At Bloxham is the large grammar school of All Saints, and there are several boys' schools in Oxford.


The origin of the county of Oxford is somewhat uncertain; like other divisions of the Mercian kingdom, the older boundaries were entirely wiped out, and the district was renamed after the principal town. The boundaries, except for the southern one, which is formed by the Thames, are artificial. There are fourteen hundreds in Oxfordshire, among them being five of the Chiltern hundreds. The jurisdiction over these five belonged to"the manor of Benson, and in 1199 to Robert de Harecourt, a name which is still to be found in the county in the Harcourts of Stanton-Harcourt and Nuneham. The county includes small portions of Berkshire and Buckinghamshire, which lie in the hundreds of Bampton and Ploughley respectively. There has been little change in the county boundary; but acts of William IV. and Victoria slightly increased its area.

The district was overrun in the 6th century by the victorious West Saxons, who took Benson and Eynsham, as may be seen in the Saxon Chronicle for 571. In the 7th century the Mercians held all the northern border of the Thames, and during the 8th century this district twice changed hands, falling to Wessex after the battle of Burford, and to Mercia after a battle at Benson. As part of the Mercian kingdom it was included in the diocese of Lincoln. A bishopric had been established at Dorchester as early as 634, when Birinus, the apostle of Wessex, was given an episcopal seat there, but when a bishop was established at Winchester this bishopric seems to have come to an end. Before the Mercian conquest in 777, Oxfordshire was in the diocese of Sherborne. In 873 the jurisdiction of Dorchester reached to the Humber, and when the Danes were converted it extended over Leicestershire and Lincolnshire, Oxfordshire forming about an eighth of the diocese. At the Conquest there was no alteration, but in 1092 the seat was transferred to Lincoln. In 1542 a bishopric of Osney and Thame was established, taking its title from Oxford, the last abbot of Osney being appointed to it. In 1546 the existing bishopric of Oxford was established. The ecclesiastical boundaries remain as they were when archdeacons were first appointed - the county and archdeaconry being conterminous - and the county being almost entirely in the diocese of Oxford. The Danes overran the county during the 11th century; Thurkell's .army burnt Oxford in i 00 and the combined armies of Sweyn and Olaf crossed Watling Street and ravaged the district, Oxford and Winchester submitting to them. In io18 Danes and Englishmen chose Eadgar's law at an assembly in Oxford, and in 1036, on Canute's death, his son Harold was chosen king. Here also took place the stormy meeting following the assembly (gemot) at Northampton, in which Harold allowed Tostig to be outlawed and Morkere to be chosen earl in his place, thus preparing the way for his own downfall and for the Norman Conquest. The destruction of houses in Oxford recorded in the Domesday Survey may possibly be accounted for by the ravages of the rebel army of Eadwine and Morkere on this occasion, there being no undisputed mention of a siege by William. Large possessions in the county fell to the Conqueror, and also to his rapacious kinsman, Odo, bishop of Winchester. The bishop of Lincoln also had extensive lands therein, while the abbeys of Abingdon, Osney and Godstow, with other religious houses, held much land in the county. Among lay tenants in chief, Robert D'Oili, heir of Wigod of Wallingford, held many manors and houses in Oxford, of which town he was governor. The importance of Oxford was already well established; the shire moot there is mentioned in Canute's Oxford laws, and it was undoubtedly the seat of the county court from the first, the castle being the county gaol. The principal historical events between this period and the Civil War belong less to the history of the county than to that of the city of Oxford (q.v.). The dissolution of the monasteries, though it affected the county greatly, caused no general disturbance.

When King Charles I. won the first battle of the Civil War at Edgehill (23rd of October 1642), Oxford at once became the material and moral stronghold of the royalist cause. Every manor house in the district became an advanced work, and from Banbury in the north to Marlborough in the west and Reading in the south the walled towns formed an outer line of defence. For the campaign of 1643 the role of this strong position was to be the detention of the main parliamentary army until the royalists from the north and the west could come into line on either hand, after which the united royal forces were to close upon London on all sides, and in the operations of that year Oxfordshire successfully performed its allotted functions. No serious breach was made in the line of defence, and more than once, notably at Chalgrove Field (18th of June 1643), Prince Rupert's cavalry struck hard and successfully. In the campaign of Newbury which followed, the parliamentary troops under Essex passed through north Oxfordshire on their way to the relief of Gloucester, and many confused skirmishes took place between them and Rupert's men; and when the campaign closed with the virtual defeat of the royalists, the fortresses of the county offered them a refuge which Essex was powerless to disturb. The following campaign witnessed a change in Charles' strategy. Realizing his numerical weakness he abandoned the idea of an envelopment, and decided to use Oxfordshire as the stronghold from which he could strike in all directions. The commanding situation of the city itself prevented any serious attempt at investment by dividing the enemy's forces, but material wants made it impossible for Charles to maintain permanently his central position. Plans were continually resolved upon and cancelled on both sides, and eventually Essex headed for the south-west, leaving Waller to face the king alone. The battle of Cropredy Bridge followed (29th of Jan.), and the victorious king turned south to pursue and capture Essex at Lostwithiel in Cornwall. In the remaining operations of 1644 Oxfordshire again served as a refuge and as a base (Newbury and Donnington). With the appearance on the scene of Cromwell and the New Model army a fresh interest arose. Having started from Windsor on the 10th of April 1645, the future Protector carried out a daring cavalry raid. He caught and scattered the royalists unawares at Islip; then he pursued the fugitives to Bletchington and terrified the governor into surrendering. He swept right round Oxford, fought again at Bampton, and finally rejoined his chief, Fairfax, in Berkshire. A few days later Charles again marched away northwards, while Fairfax was ordered to besiege Oxford. In spite of the difficulties of the besiegers Charles was compelled to turn back to relieve the city, and the consequent delay led to the campaign and disaster of Naseby. Yet even after Naseby the actual position of Oxfordshire was practically unshaken. It is true that Abingdon with its parliamentary garrison was a standing menace, but the districts east of the Cherwell and Thames, and the triangle bounded by Oxford, Faringdon and Banbury, still retained its importance, till early in 1646 the enemy closed from all sides on the last stronghold of royalism. Stow-on-the-Wold witnessed the final battle of the war. On the 9th of May Banbury surrendered, and two days later Oxford itself was closely invested. On the 24th of June the city capitulated, and three days later Wallingford, the last place to give in, followed its example.

The war left the county in an exceedingly impoverished condition. Its prosperity had steadily declined since the early 14th century, when it had been second in prosperity in the kingdom, owing its wealth largely to its well-watered pastures, which bred sheep whose wool was famous all over England, and to its good supply of water power. Salt is mentioned as a product of the county in Domesday Book. Various small industries grew up, such as plush-making at Banbury, leather works at Bampton and Burford, gloves at Woodstock, and malt at Henley. Glass was made at Benson and Stokenchurch in the reign of Henry VI., and the wool trade continued, though not in so flourishing a state, Witney retaining its fame in blanketmaking. The pestilence of 1349, the conversion of arable into pasture land, and the enclosure of common land in the early 16th century had led to agricultural depression and discontent. In 1830 the enclosure of Otmoor led to serious riots, in which the people gathered in Oxford at St Giles' fair joined. The county was represented in parliament in 1289 by two members.


The remains of castles are scanty. The majority of them were probably built for defence in the civil strife of Stephen's reign (1100-1135), and were not maintained after order was restored. Considerable portions of the Norman Oxford Castle survive, however, while there are slighter remains of the castle at Bampton, the seat of Aylmer de Valence in 1313. Among remains of former mansions there may be noted the 14th century Greys Court near Henley-on-Thames, Minster Lovell, on the Windrush above Witney, and Rycote, between Thame and Oxford. Minster Lovell, the extensive ruins of which make an exquisite picture by the river-side, was the seat of Francis, Lord Lovel, who, being the 'son of a Lancastrian father, incurred the hatred of that party by"serving Richard III., and afterwards assisted the cause of Lambert Simnel, mysteriously disappearing after the battle of Stoke. The remains of Rycote (partly incorporated with a farmhouse) are of fine Elizabethan brick, and in the chapel attached to the manor there is remarkable Jacobean woodwork, the entire fittings of the church, including the canopied pews and altar-table, being of this period. Here Elizabeth was kept in 1554, before her accession, and afterwards resided as queen. Of ancient mansions still inhabited, the finest is Broughton Castle near Banbury, dating from 1301. Others are Shirburn Castle, begun in 1377, but mainly Perpendicular of the next century; Stanton Harcourt, dating from 1450, with a gatehouse of 1540, a vast kitchen, and Pope's Tower, named from the poet, who stayed here more than once. Mapledurham, on the Thames above Reading, is a fine Tudor mansion of brick; and Water Eaton, on the Cherwell above Oxford, is a singularly perfect Jacobean house of stone, with a chapel of the same period resembling pure Perpendicular. Of other mansions in the county Blenheim Palace, near Woodstock, must be mentioned. The former Holton House (now replaced by a Georgian building), near Wheatley, was the scene in 1646 of the wedding of Ireton, the soldier of Cromwell, with his leader's daughter Bridget.

The influence of such a centre of learning as the university was naturally very great upon the ecclesiastical history of the neighbourhood. A large number of monastic foundations arose, such as those of Augustinian canons at Bicester, Caversham, Cold Norton, Dorchester, Osney (a magnificent foundation just outside the walls of Oxford) and Wroxton; of Cistercians, xx. 14 at Bruern and Thame; of Benedictines, at Cogges, Eynsham, Milton; of Mathurins, at Nuffield; of Gilbertines, at Clattercote; of Templars, at Sandford-on-Thames. There was at Gosford one of the only two preceptories of female Templars in England. Of all these, excepting the abbey church at Dorchester, remains are scanty. A few domestic buildings remain at Studley; the boundary walls still stand of Godstow Nunnery on the Thames, the retreat and burial-place of Rosamund Clifford or " Fair Rosamund," the object of Henry II.'s famous courtship; and there are traces of Rewley Abbey within Oxford.

In ecclesiastical architecture Oxfordshire, apart from Oxford itself, is remarkably rich, but there is no dominant style, nearly all the churches being of mixed dates. In fact, of the most important churches only Iffley, Adderbury and Minster Lovell need be taken as types of a single style. Iffley, picturesquely placed above the Thames i m. S. of Oxford, is one of the finest examples of pure Norman in England, with a highly ornate west front. Adderbury, 4 m. S. of Banbury, is a great cruciform Decorated church with a massive central tower and spire. Minster Lovell, also cruciform, is pure Perpendicular; its central tower is supported, with beautiful and unusual effect, on four detached piers. For the rest, one feature common to several is to be noticed. The short ungainly spire of Oxford cathedral was among the earliest, if not the first, constructed in England, and served as a model from which were probably developed the splendid central spires of the great churches at Witney, Bampton, Shipton-under-Wychwood and Bradwell. There are also three fine spires in the north: Bloxham, Adderbury and King's Sutton (across the border in Northamptonshire), which are locally proverbial as typifying length, strength and beauty. Bloxham church, mainly Decorated, with Norman portions and a remarkable Early English west front, is one of the largest and most beautiful in the county. In the west Burford (Norman and later) is noteworthy, and in the porch of the fine Norman church of Langford is seen the rare feature of a crucifix with the figure cloaked. At South Leigh are remarkable mural paintings of the 15th century. About 5 m. N. of Oxford there are Kidlington (Decorated) with a beautiful needle-like Perpendicular spire, and Islip, which, as the birthplace of Edward the Confessor, retains a connexion with his Abbey of Westminster, the Dean and Chapter of which are lords of the manor and patrons of the living. In the south-east, Dorchester Abbey, with its nave of transitional Norman, has a curious Decorated Jesse window, the tracery representing the genealogical tree of the patriarch. At Cuddesdon there is another large cruciform church, Norman and later. Ewelme church (Perpendicular) is remarkable for the tomb of Alice, Duchess of Suffolk (1475), gorgeous with tracery and gilded canopy, and that of Sir Thomas Chaucer (3434), ornamented with enamelled coats of arms. Here William de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk, founded in 1436 the picturesque hospital and free school still standing.


- The Natural History of Oxfordshire (Oxford, 1617, 2nd ed. 1705); Shelton, Engraved Illustrations of the principal Antiquities of Oxfordshire, from drawings by T. Mackenzie (Oxford, 1823); Sir T. Phillips, Oxfordshire Pedigrees (Evesham, 1825); J. M. Davenport, Lords Lieutenant and High Sheriffs of Oxford, z086 (Oxford, 1868), and Oxfordshire Annals (Oxford, 1869).

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