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Many historians now consider that the middle ages began in England not
with the Norman Conquest of 1066 but with the developments of the preceding, late Saxon period. Such an argument can certainly be made for Oxfordshire. The interplay of existing and new elements can be seen in the first available overview of Oxfordshire, part of the remarkable national inquisition ordered by William the Conqueror in 1086, the Domesday Book. This was compiled using the mechanisms of Saxon local government in the service of a determined, new king. Eleventh-century Oxfordshire is presented from his view point, as a hierarchy of manorial units, either owned by him or held from him. An introduction and translated text of the Oxfordshire Domesday entry can be viewed in the Victoria County History for Oxfordshire, Volume 1. Assets, including arable, meadow, pasture, wood, mills and tenants, are listed, with values before and after the Conquest, Some 251 Oxfordshire places are named, although others undoubtedly existed but were encompassed under the name of a manorial centre. A map of the landholding in Oxfordshire at the time of the Domesday Book can be viewed here.
The Conquest imposed new figures at the top of local society, led by Robert d’Oilly, the king’s new sheriff in the county. Areas of Saxon Oxford, at the west end of the town, were swept away to construct Oxford castle in 1071. Other motte-and-bailey castles were built in Wallingford, Deddington, Middleton Stoney and Chipping Norton. In 1072 the diocesan centre was moved from Dorchester to Lincoln, on the periphery of which great see Oxfordshire was to remain until 1542.
The royal presence was strong in the middle ages. The Crown owned numbers of manors, Wallingford Castle, and residences at Beaumont ‘palace’, (just outside the north walls of Oxford), and Woodstock manor. Forests were a major feature, with parts of Bernwood, Shotover and Wychwood (in the late 1100s it covered one-third of Oxfordshire at its fullest extent) all within the county. A separate forest law applied to large areas of wooded and unwooded countryside. Royal rivalries sometimes disrupted the county; the Thames valley was a focus of campaigning in the 1140s during the civil war between Stephen and Matilda. More continuous and peaceful was the growing impact of royal government, through the sheriff, the Exchequer, and the royal courts (from the 1150s locally-delivered through Justices in Eyre). The records of these bodies provide the main evidence for Oxfordshire people and events until locally-created documentation, including that for some individual manors, emerges from the later 13th century.
Monastic houses, bishops, and parishes became important features. Historic Oxfordshire had 18 monastic houses (Benedictine, Cistercian and Augustinian), plus preceptories of the Knights Hospitallers and Templars, and in Oxford 7 friaries and 6 monastic colleges. In the countryside there were numerous granges and estates owned by monasteries. By the 13th century the system of local parishes, each with a known boundary, a parish church, and tithes, land and dues to support a rector, had crystallised. Many Oxfordshire parishes had monastic links. It became common for secular lords to make pious gifts of the rectorial rights of their local churches to monasteries, a process known as appropriation. By the 1530s around 53% of the county’s parishes were appropriated.
The University of Oxford appears on the scene by the 1180s and by 1209 was functioning as an effective corporation. Halls, where students lived; monastic colleges, study centres for the various religious orders; and the first colleges, with resident students and academics began to appear. A list of Oxford colleges with foundation dates can be viewed here. Of the 10 colleges founded by 1500, 4 held manors in Oxfordshire, and 8 appropriated churches or rights to appoint local clergy. Oxford’s status as a town was developing at the same time (its first surviving charter dates from 1199) and tensions between town and gown were perennial. Most notorious were the deaths and injuries of the St Scholastica’s day riot of 1355, after which town rights were significantly subjugated to those of the University.
This was the period of the development of Oxfordshire’s market towns. Banbury, Chipping Norton, Henley, Thame, Witney, and Woodstock all saw new, planned layouts particularly in the 12th and 13th centuries, and commonly because of seigneurial initiatives. Henley’s expansion was a lay, possibly royal initiative, whilst at Witney it was the bishop of Winchester, and at Banbury and Thame the bishop of Lincoln who seized the opportunities. Smaller towns were also established, but some attempted efforts failed, despite market and fair charters. Patterns of trade and travel, of which Oxford and other towns were part, are suggested by the earliest surviving ‘route map’ of Britain, the Gough map of c.1360 in the Bodleian Library. This shows the London to Gloucester and St David’s road crossing Oxfordshire from Tetsworth to Oxford to Witney and Burford. Other routes ran from Oxford to Faringdon and on to Bristol, and Oxford to Reading and Abingdon. An interactive website of the Gough Map, a joint venture between Bodleian Library and Queens University, Belfast can be viewed online.
In the countryside the pattern of primary village settlements established pre-Conquest remained (see Map of Cuxham showing medieval field pattern). The period to 1348-9 was one of population growth which saw existing villages managing their land in more and more closely regulated systems of common field farming, and as land became less productive and sufficient, expanding the area of cultivation onto poorer land. This extension sometimes produced new settlements, including those cleared out of previously sparsely settled areas in the Chilterns, or above the favoured valley sites of the Cotswolds. Demesne farming, the direct management of their land by manorial lords and related exaction of labour services from their peasant tenants, was at its peak. (see Further reading and resources section).
The full Solent Thames Research Framework – Later Medieval Oxfordshire can be viewed at STRF Later medieval Oxfordshire.Bottom of Form