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Oxfordshire after 1350 saw uncertainties and new trends of long lasting significance. The Black Death reached the county in the winter and spring of 1348-9. In one of Oxfordshire’s most fully recorded villages, Cuxham near Watlington, all 12 villein, tenant farmers died. In 1377 Cuxham had 38 taxpayers in total, suggesting about one third of the known population in 1348. General estimates are that up to half the population died, and the plague became endemic.
Pressure on land and resources disappeared. Land sales, for all the apparent
constraints of feudal relationships, increased. Demesne estates were let out by owners as potential income fell, labour was short, labour services reduced or disappeared, and social and geographical mobility increased. The best returns were now not for arable crops but for wool, and reduced populations needed less land under plough. By the 15th century enclosure for pasture, often fossilising the ridge and furrow earthworks of the previous common field arable was an increasing feature. Whilst it is not possible to point to complete desertion of villages after 1348-9, the viability of small settlements and those on marginal land was eroded and shrunken or deserted settlements are a feature of Oxfordshire between 1350 and the early 1500s, sometimes associated with enclosure. A map of Oxfordshire's deserted and shrunken settlements can be viewed here.
These changes in agricultural strategy and landscape were linked to another element of medieval Oxfordshire life, its role in national and international trade (with Flanders and Italy) in wool and later cloth. Trade in wool expanded from the 12th and 13th centuries, and Cotswold wool from west Oxfordshire was rated the second or third finest English wool. In the early 14th century the south-west of the county was its richest area. Burford was an important wool town, with a guild merchant playing a leading role in its governance. By the 15th century there were wool merchants in most Oxfordshire towns, and from the mid-century cloth-making revived in Witney and elsewhere. The monasteries at Eynsham, Osney, Bicester, Thame and Bruern were all engaged in wool production.
Oxfordshire’s church buildings are a barometer both of post-Black Death piety and of where late medieval local prosperity was present or absent. For the contrasting examples of Burford and Widford view Contrasting Churches. In another shift the first English heresy, Lollardy, began at this time, arising from the work of John Wyclif (c.1329-1384), Master of Balliol College, Oxford. Its challenging ideas found a response amongst followers in the Thames Valley and Chilterns.
The uncertainty and changes of the late medieval county are epitomised by
two of its great houses. These were no longer fortified but proved far from secure. Minster Lovell Hall was built c.1431-42 by Lord Lovell, a Yorkist in the Wars of the Roses. The Lovell estates were confiscated 1485 and the mansion, no longer a seat of power, was to become a picturesque ruin. At Ewelme, God’s House, a mid-15th-century complex of re-built church, almshouse and school, was the benefaction of the de la Poles, earls and then dukes of Suffolk, whose palatial house lay nearby. Yet they were dispossessed in 1502 and their ‘palace’ is now gone. Oxfordshire was not a county with dominant magnates, but by 1500 of villages, churches, agriculture and trade, major institutions of monasteries, University and colleges, and the beginnings of gentry and merchant wealth.