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Camden's Britannia.JPG

It was in the late 16th century that more formal histories of specific localities began to be written and published, starting with county histories. Counties were also recorded in maps; Christopher Saxton’s famous series, including Oxfordshire and Berkshire, dates from 1574-6. In 1576 the first county history, Lambarde on Kent, appeared. In 1586 William Camden’s Britannia was published, an account arranged in chapters by county of the history and topography of the lands of the former Roman province. The Oxfordshire chapter constitutes the first history of the county, with many characteristics of the antiquarian writing which was to dominate published local history until the 20th century. Camden initially published in Latin and wrote in the idiom of post-Renaissance classical learning. He recorded major features, like the Rollright Stones, but interpreted them speculatively, in that case inaccurately as ‘haply erected by Rollo the Dane, who afterwards conquered Normandie’. Such assertions tended to gain by repetition as antiquarian local histories multiplied. Typically such histories were written by and for the county gentry (including the rising new men of the period) and emphasised the history of their patch, its antiquity and importance. Content includes the descent of manors, pedigrees and heraldry, monuments, the church and its fabric and incumbents, religious houses, hospital and chantries, and sometimes archaeological sites. The Oxfordshire section of Britannia can be viewed online here and the section for Berkshire here.  

Plot - Nat Hist Oxon.JPG

After the chapters in Camden, Oxfordshire had to wait until 1677 for its own county volume, Robert Plot’s The Natural History of Oxfordshire. As its title hints, this embraced all manner of scientific and other curiosities in the eclectic and somewhat indiscriminate manner of its time. Only one chapter dealt with antiquities, although this has its interest, as do other sections, if unintentionally. For example, an illustration of the echo in Woodstock park also shows the medieval royal palace before its demolition for the development of Blenheim park. Oxfordshire’s next history, Joseph Skelton’s Antiquities of Oxfordshire (1823) was the first in a more conventional antiquarian mould. Berkshire had its first county history only when D. and S. Lyson published  Magna Britannia: Berkshire (1806). The county history has been taken forward in the 20th century by the VCH (Victoria County History) and by modern, less antiquarian overviews (see Further reading and resources).

It was characteristic of antiquarians to accumulate great amounts of material, but never to analyse or publish it. Their collections are a quarry for present day local historians, with the Bodleian Library particularly rich in such bequests. Thomas Hearne (1678-1735), a Berkshire native, is a prime example. His voluminous collections have been published in part (Oxford Historical Society, 11 vols., 1885-1921).   Another is John Dunkin who, in the early 19th century, began a history of Oxfordshire. The History and Antiquities of the Hundreds of Bullingdon and Ploughley was published in 1823 but he died in 1846 without publishing further volumes. His unpublished notes are in the Bodleian Library. (See also Finding the Sources, Bodleian Library.


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