You are here: Oxfordshire History: a Framework

This section of the website offers a framework for studies in Oxfordshire history. It includes brief texts identifying key themes, a variety of links to information, maps, texts, and further resources, and some timelines. It starts with the nature of the county, and then looks at its history period by period, from prehistory to the present day. Finally there are titles and brief comments on selected general histories for Oxfordshire, Berkshire, Oxford and the University (from outline surveys to detailed series).

 

The nature of the county

Oxfordshire was created as a county around 1007 AD. Its boundaries were to remain substantially unchanged until 1974, when local government reorganisation added the Vale of White Horse from Berkshire. The ‘new’ county took on a greater physical coherence, defined by the basin of the upper Thames and its enclosing uplands, and with Oxford centrally placed at a nodal point on the river system. ‘Historic’ Oxfordshire, by contrast, was marked by internal variety rather than topographical unity, with few natural boundaries, with the exception of the Thames marking about a third of its pre-1974 extent to the south and west.

 

Historic Oxfordshire stretches some 50 miles from north to south, narrowing to a width of 7 miles around the county town of Oxfordshire. Its physical grain runs south west to north east. This terrain encompasses the rich redlands of the north, the sweeps of Cotswold uplands and their green valleys, central clay vales interrupted by the heights around Oxford and Shotover, and the scarp, dip slope and woodlands of the Chilterns before reaching Oxfordshire’s southernmost town, Henley. Its variety has been reflected in the county’s sub-regions of landscape, agriculture, settlement, and building materials.

 

 

oxfordshire map post-1974.JPG
oxfordshire map pre-1974.JPG
 

       

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Many of these features are shared with neighbouring counties; the Cotswolds,

Map 2 Oxfordshire history geology.JPG

the Vales of White Horse and Aylesbury, and the Chilterns link Oxfordshire with Gloucestershire, Northamptonshire, Berkshire and Buckinghamshire. This has always been a county with significant contacts outside its bounds. The Thames and its numerous tributaries have been a major determinant of settlement, land use, movement and transport, of crossings and disputed jurisdictions since long before 1007, and throughout the county’s subsequent history. Click here to view a geological map of Oxfordshire. 

 

An exceptional factor has been the presence, since the late 12th century, of a major international university in Oxford. In some accounts this has been in danger of overshadowing attention paid to the history of the town and wider county. But the University cannot be ignored, causing tension between town and gown, intervening in politics and civic life, owning property around the county, generating trade and increasing numbers of jobs, and stimulating particularly high levels of research and recording of the history and archaeology of its surrounding county.

 

Historians of Oxfordshire will find a variety of contexts and past experiences, reflecting the county’s differing internal sub-regions and outside links. Just as the area was contested territory between Wessex and Mercia in the 8th to 10th centuries, so in modern times weather forecast areas, central government regions, broadcasters, and landscape historians have variously labelled Oxfordshire as part of the Midlands (east, west or south), the South East, or Central Southern England. The history of Banbury will sometimes be part of a Midlands story (from Mercian allegiances to links with the West Midlands motor industry). Henley historians will find their investigations inevitably drawn to the influence of London and the river trade. All are part of Oxfordshire’s history.

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