You are here: Oxfordshire History: a Framework » Early-modern 1520-1750

Labelled by historians as the early modern, this is a period when local historians will find aspects of medieval and earlier society and institutions persisting alongside (and often in tension with) new and modern features. Oxfordshire’s experience is outlined here in 3 parts: 1520-1640; 1640-1660; and 1660-1750.



Between the Reformation and the Civil War the county was strongly affected by national trends and upheavals. This reflected a general weakening of localism in the face of outside forces, not least in the way local places were governed and linked to central authority. The Tudors adopted the parish as their unit of civil local government and, from the 1530s onwards, invested it with a range of powers and responsibilities. These continued until the 1830s and included registration of baptism, marriages and burials from 1538, reporting of criminal and political misdemeanours to Quarter Sessions, the collection of local, county and national taxes, maintenance of highways, and increasing responsibilities for the control and relief of poverty. Manorial jurisdictions remained active in some places, but the parish was ubiquitous and grew in influence, for example parish vestries might regulate common fields. The parish system generated constant and direct links from locality to county and national government.         


Religious reformation also radically changed the face of Oxfordshire. The most apparent and public transformations began in 1529 as Henry VIII began to sever the institutions of the English Church from the international Church of Rome and religion became a matter of state. Major elements of local life disappeared. The dissolution of the monasteries, 1536-9, rapidly removed some monumental landmarks, like Osney Abbey, whilst others, like Eynsham Abbey, slowly dwindled. Some were reused; in 1546 St Frideswide’s Priory became the cathedral for Henry’s new diocese of Oxford (covering the area of the historic county), whilst Dorchester Abbey church was unusual in being saved in its entirety as the local parish church. All over Oxfordshire the monastic presence, as landlord, owner of local church livings and tithes, as a source of education, charity, health care and lay employment, was gone. 


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Samuel and Nathaniel Buck’s eighteenth century print, showing the west front of Eynsham Abbey church as it appeared in 1659.


More gradually forms of worship and the hearts and minds of ordinary people were affected

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by successive waves of change, in doctrine and theology, in ritual, church interiors, bible and prayer book. For 30 years or more this uncertainty continued, at parish level and, in high profile fashion, in Oxford University. This was the setting chosen during Mary I’s reign for the trial and execution of the Protestant martyrs, Bishops Latimer and Ridley (in 1555) and Archbishop Cranmer (in 1556). The monument to Oxfordshire’s religious martyrs, unveiled in 2008, remembers equally 23 Catholics or Protestants known to have lost their lives in this troubled period. (See Oxfordshire's Reformation Martyrs'). 


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As the Elizabethan church settlement of 1558 took root, it steered a careful middle way for Anglicanism, seeking to encompass ‘high church’ traditionalists and Puritan reformers, whilst outlawing both Protestant separatists and Roman Catholic recusants. A few of the latter remained, mainly in south and east Oxfordshire and associated with gentry families and certain parts of the University. The strains of religious diversity were to contribute to Civil War in 1642, and were apparent in early-17th century Oxfordshire, where some areas were known for their Puritanism, like Banbury and the north, and others for their high churchmanship. William Laud (1573-1645), was Charles I’s controversial, anti-Calvinist archbishop of Canterbury. He was also president of St John’s College (1611-21) and an interventionist Chancellor of the University from 1629. Executed in 1645, he contributed to a lasting association of the University with Royalist and high church causes.


Oxfordshire remained a predominantly farming county, its trades based chiefly on agricultural produce or its processing. The wealth of the county in 1524, as revealed by lay subsidies, placed it 16th amongst English counties, with Oxford 30th richest town. The county’s best off men were individual lords and prosperous yeomen. The dissolution of the monasteries created an active land market with space for rising new men, an opportunity seized, for example, by John Croke at Studley Priory, and Lord Williams at Thame Abbey. Also upwardly mobile was the Witney wool merchant, Walter Jones, who built Chastleton House c.1603-14. More generally a ‘Great Rebuilding’ of less grand, vernacular homes began, as existing houses were remodelled for greater comfort (upper floors inserted, separate bedrooms created, and fireplaces and chimneys installed), or new houses built. This change to the town and villagescapes of Oxfordshire is still apparent today (see original evidence - buildings) and is an indicator of greater and more broadly-based prosperity. 20th-century research has indicated that Oxfordshire farmers were achieving marked agricultural improvement within the county’s common field systems, and benefiting from it through market networks with local towns and ever-expanding London. The Thames, largely impassable in late middle ages above Henley, was re-opened to Oxford in 1624.


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One reason for the prosperity of landowners and farmers was that population had begun to grow again for the first time since mid-14thC. Between 1520 and 1700 the estimated population of England doubled. The most rapid rises came in the period to 1630. Prices rose, inflation set in, and wages fell in value. It was a time of social polarisation. Whilst some prospered, others became poorer and Oxfordshire saw opposition to enclosure of land and fear of unrest, with rebellions in 1549 and 1596 (see recent studies here). Charitable giving and the establishment of almshouses was a feature, as was the development of national Poor Laws, implemented through local parishes.


This was also a time of educational benefactions. Such activities in part filled the gaps left by the dissolved religious institutions. They also reflected Renaissance learning and the teaching of classics, and (in what was now a Protestant country), the importance of literacy as a means to individual Bible study and devotion. By 1600 four new schools had been founded in county, and 3 re-founded. In the 17th century, Henley and Witney schools were re-founded and 6 new ones established. In the late 16th and early 17th centuries the social range of the University widened as nobility, gentry and merchants sent their sons to study in greater numbers than ever before, and scholarships for poor students were provided. In the first 3 decades of the 17th century the size and prosperity of the University increased greatly, with Wadham and Pembroke founded and other colleges extending and rebuilding.


Civil War and Commonwealth, 1640-60


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Oxfordshire was fiercely embroiled in the Civil War. Its leading families included supporters of both sides, and some of their houses became garrisons, from Parliamentary Broughton Castle in the north, to Royalist Mapledurham in the south, to Bletchingdon House which changed hands. The first great battle of the war was at Edgehill, just over the Warwickshire border, in 1642, and further engagements took place at Chalgrove (1643) and Cropredy Bridge (1644). After Edgehill, with London in Parliamentary control, Oxford became Charles I’s capital until summer 1646. The rivers and elaborate new earthworks were used as defences. View the painting The siege of Oxford during the Civil War by Jan de Wyck. The king’s court was at Christ Church, the queen’s at Merton. The mint moved to Oxford, producing coins from melted down gold and silver from the colleges. The town was less welcoming. Although the soldiers, courtiers and their women folk brought trade they also brought disease and political and religious tension.


For Oxfordshire the war meant 4 years of disruption and uncertainty as the county was subject to skirmishing, pillaging and raiding, requisitioning and billeting, and taxation from both sides. Vehicles, stock, crops and timber were taken, including some 2,000 horses in 1643. Farming was disrupted. Chinnor was burnt and Banbury besieged. As parish registers reveal, troops brought disease with outbreaks of typhus in Thame and Henley, and also in rural parishes. (See Civil War Studies). In July 1646 the last Royalist garrison, at Wallingford Castle, surrendered.


The legacy of the war long outlasted local hostilities. The ferment of ideas continued. Levellers, radical democrats within the Cromwellian army, appeared in 1649 in Banbury, Oxford and Burford, where around 350 were imprisoned in the church. Anthony Sedley carved his name on the font. Three Levellers were taken into the churchyard and shot, as an example to the rest. Elsewhere new religious congregations, amongst them the precursors of Oxfordshire’s earliest Nonconformist churches grew up. Tithes and church courts were abolished. Major landmarks, Wallingford and Banbury Castles were dismantled by Parliament. When the monarchy was restored in 1660 celebrations were recorded in Oxford and elsewhere.





Oxfordshire in this period saw the building of numbers of great houses, Blenheim, Ditchley, Cornbury, Shotover, Rousham and Wroxton among them. These buildings, and their related gardens, parks and estates make the county a particularly rewarding one for the study of architectural and garden history (see Get involved and the Oxfordshire Gardens Trust ). They are also tangible signals of a stability and emerging  land-owning power only firmly established after the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688. Before that the county, and particularly Oxford, saw political controversy. From 1660 it was strongly associated with Crown and Established Church, and its Royalist bishop, John Fell, was fierce in his pursuit of still illegal nonconformists throughout the diocese. However, the attempts of James II to impose Roman Catholic sympathisers as college fellows fractured consensus, attracted national notice and contributed to the king’s down fall. Some, the Nonjurors, were left unwilling to swear allegiance to the new sovereigns, William and Mary, and the University and to some extent the county gained a reputation for ‘Toryism’ (party identities were just beginning to emerge), popery and Jacobitism which persisted into the 18th century.


The Restoration period saw the development of the University printing press, the building of the Sheldonian Theatre, the growth of scientific enquiry, and the publication of the first history of the county by Robert Plot (see Printed Histories). However, the University grew increasingly inactive, in tuition, scholarship and effectiveness. In this it was similar in the eighteenth century to many more local bodies, Anglican parishes, charities, schools, and civic authorities, which often became run-down, and sometimes dominated by increasingly powerful land and property owners.


Amidst this torpor there were signs of change and potential modernisation. In 1718, Oxfordshire’s first turnpike trust was established, an initiative to improve the road from Oxford to Stokenchurch using the proceeds of tolls paid by users. By the end of the century almost all the county’s main roads would be turnpiked. Transport links helped Oxfordshire farmers and tradesmen to benefit from continued improvements in land use, in cropping, and in stock keeping.



The Toleration Act of 1689 allowed liberty of worship (although not yet equal civil rights)

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to Dissenters, who began to build their own places of worship, as at Cote. Between 1720 and 1735 John Wesley was an undergraduate and then Fellow in Oxford. There he and a group of contemporaries laid the foundations of Methodism, as they pursued lives of regular and intense devotion and took their message out to the needy, including local prisoners. Thus Oxfordshire, despite or perhaps because of its lassitude, fostered early signs of the evangelical revolution. In 1753, the county’s first newspaper, Jackson’s Oxford Journal was founded. View illustration of the early newspaper masthead. The occasion for this was the first county parliamentary election to be contested since 1710. In the interim a local ‘gentleman’s agreement’ had seen the county seats held by Tories and the boroughs of Banbury and Woodstock by Whigs. Now intense party battle was joined, between Wenman and Dashwood for the Old Interest, the Blues, the Tories on one side and Parker and Turner for the New Interest, the Greens, the Whigs on the other. One local meeting led to the ‘Battle of Chipping Norton’. Parker and Turner were finally declared elected in April 1755, a year and much legal argument after the six-day poll. (See an image of a poll book of 1754).


The full Solent Thames Research Framework – Post-medieval Oxfordshire can be viewed at 

STRF Post-medieval Oxfordshire.


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