History of Oxfordshire

A brief history of the county of Oxfordshire.

Plan of Oxford Castle Gaol

In the beginning

Oxford is first mentioned in 912, and the county of Oxfordshire was formed in around 1007, but people lived here long before. The mysterious Rollright Stones date from about 2000BC. North Leigh Roman villa was built on the site of an Iron Age settlement in around 100.

The Second City

After the Norman Conquest, Oxford Castle was built by Robert D'Oyley, and the city attracted successive kings. Kings' houses were built on the present Beaumont Street and to the north in Woodstock.

When the government was driven out of London by plague or politics, it generally came to Oxford. In 1155, Oxford gained a royal charter, eventually followed by other major towns such as Henley (1526), Banbury (1554) and Chipping Norton (1607).

Politics and war

So the county often found itself caught up in national events. The first English Civil War (Stephen against Matilda) struck the county in 1142, when Matilda had to flee the besieged Oxford Castle down the frozen river to Wallingford.

When civil war broke out again - Charles I against Cromwell - the King fled London to set up his HQ in Oxford. He moved into Christ Church college in 1642, until forced to leave by Parliamentarian troops in 1646.

Oxford continued a tradition of violent politics. In the disputed 1754 election, mobs rioted and one troublemaker was shot dead.

The Church

Oxfordshire was part of Lincoln Diocese, but got its own bishop in 1542. These were dangerous times.

The Protestant bishops Cranmer, Latimer and Ridley were tried and burned in Oxford in 1555 and 1556 for refusing to accept Catholicism. Catholic priests were also later executed in Oxford. Thereafter the clergy had a quieter time, but Oxford still produced Bishops such as John Fell ("I do not love thee, Dr Fell") and 'Soapy Sam' Wilberforce. The High Church Oxford Movement started here in the 1840s.

The university

Originally scattered halls where clergy studied together, the university evolved into colleges where students were taught. The earliest were University College and Merton in the mid-1200s. In the early days there were murderous fights between 'Town' and 'Gown' - the most famous was the St Scholastica's Day riot in 1355. Women were finally admitted to the University in 1879 but could only take degrees from 1920.


Machine room in Early Blanket factory, Witney

Machine room in Early Blanket Factory, Witney

Work and play

Oxfordshire has always been an agricultural county, but some noted industries have appeared.

Printing began in Oxford in 1478, and by the 17th century Oxford University Press was active. Originally its function was to print copies of manuscripts from Oxford libraries, but in 1636 Archbishop Laud gained it the right to print a wide range of books.

Shutford plush and Woodstock gloves were well-known, and the world-famous Witney Blanket industry started in the 17th century. In 1874, Frank Cooper's wife Sarah made the first batch of the firm's famous Oxford Marmalade.

Best known is bicycle-maker William Morris, who went into car production in 1912 and created the Cowley Works. The car plant was a major reason why, in 1954, over half the county's population had been born outside its boundaries.

First rate shopping came to Oxford when Elliston's store joined forces with Cavell in 1835.

Meanwhile, sport flourished. The first boat race was in 1829 (Oxford won) and Roger Bannister ran the four minute mile at Iffley in 1954. Oxford United was promoted to the league in 1962.

And now…

Agriculture has shrunk as an employer and Oxfordshire is now best-known for education, publishing, high-tech industries and the Mini. The county has also grown - it took over the Vale of White Horse from Berkshire in 1974.

Find out more about history and heritage in Oxfordshire

Heritage Search

Use our Heritage Search to explore our online collections of historical photographs, documents and objects.

Last reviewed
19 October 2012
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