An Odyssey of Oxford and Oxfordshire’s Northern Castles

BanburyCrossThe town of Oxford boasts the only surviving Norman stone castle in Oxfordshire which I wrote about back in May of 2009. It was already fortified before the Norman Conquest and William the Conqueror established both castle and wall by 1071. Considered a royal castle from that time, the preferred residence of the kings of England, however, was Beaumont Palace which Henry I built outside the city wallsBeaumont Palace, Oxford next to the north gatehouse and today is marked only by a commemorative stone which states: Near to this site stood the King’s houses later known as Beaumont Palace – King Richard I was born here in 1157 and King John in 1167. The above painting is one of the few depictions of it left. Edward I was the last monarch in residence after which it became a private home, late in the 13th century, to an Italian lawyer, Francesco Accorsi, who was King Edward’s foreign diplomat. When it fell into disuse and ruin in the 14th century, stone from Beaumont was used to repair the castle. Nevertheless, the remains held on for centuries, vanishing by the 19th century when Beaumont Street was installed.
Oxford_city_wall_tnWhere Oxford Castle now sits, on the west side of the town, you’ll find a good portion rebuilt and most of the original castle gone. When I wrote the Malmaison entry and put it up on May 21st 2009 I didn’t mention that fact but enough of the town walls remain, such as St. George’s Tower among others, that it is still a worthwhile sightseeing tour besides the fact that it is a castle hotel- albeit a bizarre establishment as well. Robert d’Oilly, who I mentioned in the 2009 entry was also responsible for building the first collegiate establishment inside a castle and when scholars became canons there, in those early times, it could be considered the origination of Oxford University. If you refer to the large litho I placed on the 2009 entry you’ll see the original configuration of Oxford Castle. Most of Oxford’s defenses were destroyed after the Civil War.

oxford_mapAt one time the city walls- or rather the surviving stretch of it in the New College gardens, which are the northeast section of the circuit- linked up with the castle and were regarded as the strongest town fortification in the kingdom since they were rebuilt in stone from 1226. At the present time, you will see remnants of what was once a complete circumvallation of thick walls punctuated with towers as bastions, some of which still exist in rebuilt form. The sector running through the grounds of New College have been kept in good repair by said college since 1379 when its own foundation was built. This section of wall includes a parapet and seven projecting bastions, five D-shaped towers with open backs and two square with the tallest rebuilt to serve as the college bell tower. Ruinous bastions can be seen further west, on Ship Street and another can be seen on the edge of Merton Field. Brewer Street has a bit of wall which underlies Pembroke College. All the remnants besides New College gardens are freely accessible to visitors.
A Dutch military engineer, Bernard de Gomme, drew up new plans for Oxford in 1644 for Henry III which was an enceinte of 120 acres with six gatehouses. He had planned similar defenses at Liverpool which were not completed for lack of funds. The cost was approximately 30,000 pounds even with forced labor of the male population of the town, which was common in medieval times.

university-buildings-oxford-universityAs the principal city of the Thames Valley, Oxford is responsible for initiating importance to higher education in Britain with the first university instituted in 1167 prior to the arrival of scholars from Paris in 1229. Many of the 37 existing colleges in and around this center have medieval foundations and make for worthwhile tours for those who are determined enough to obtain and observe the varying access rules for each building. This link will get you started: During Charles I reign and the Civil War, Oxford was a haven for royalists who found the support of students substantial until they were forced to flee after which Cromwell appointed himself chancellor.

banbury_crossApart from the remains of various groups of motte and baileys, other castles of Oxfordshire are fortified houses of the late medieval period, all properly licensed, reflecting royal control of castle building among the lesser nobility. Bampton, Shirburn and Grey’s Court are altered quadrangular castles but Broughton is a unique embattled manor house with curtain wall follies and a moat with three acres depth as the most distinctive feature- a rare architectural delight ! Many have heard the nursery rhyme of Banbury Cross but certainly none have seen the 12th century castle there mostly because it didn’t survive after the Civil War even though it stood up to the long drawn out siege on the part of the Royalists. The two last-mentioned castles once stood a mere three miles away from each other in the upper north part of the county, which is a good place to start our tour. Some of the best countryside in England to visit is the northern Cotswold towns and villages such as Bourton-on-the-Water, Burford and the Barringtons. The wool trade is still carried out in this area of the Cotswolds and the town of Witney is well known for their manufacture of blankets until very recently. You’ll still find old woolen mills which punctuate areas along the banks of the River Windrush.
Banbury Castle, was founded early in the 12th century by Alexander, Bishop of Lincoln and dismantled after the Civil War, stone by stone. It withstood a lengthy siege on the King’s behalf in 1644 and finally surrendered in May 1646. Despite brief periods of occupation by royals in the 12th and 13th centuries-and one year in 1319- it remained always in the ownership of the Bishops of Lincoln until it was officially sold to the Duke of Somerset in 1547. Thereafter, it was continually occupied primarily by royalty on occasion and its primary use a prison, very much like Oxford Castle. By that time the inmates were recusants, which means that their imprisonment vacillated according to the tolerance of the government. Interestingly, the last official record of recusants was in 1612 when certain rooms were cleared to make room for Lady Stonor and five other women.
After 1651, interest by the crown was not officially recorded and the property belonged to the family of William Fiennes, granted by Charles I in 1629. The final sale was to the Golby family in 1792. By then it was only a few bastions with a brook running beside the remains and subsequent buildings from its original materials. It was used as building material, legally, through the centuries with a purchase for 2,000. A description before the final sale was that of ‘a fair piece of new building of stone’ by chronicler Leland and as a ‘mansion house’ within the inner enclosure comprising 23 bays covered with lead and fortifications including at least one tower, Eynsham, together with a gatehouse of six bays, roofed with slate and its barbican was referred to as the Half Moon.

Only three miles south of Banbury, Broughton Castle and Church of St Mary stand close together as the original early 14th century adobe-colored ironstone creation of Sir John de Broughton whose effigy can be seen inside the church along with many other family tombs, memorials and related hatchments (armorial effigies). The medieval manor house, seated on an island surrounded by three acres of moat became the property of William of Wykeham, who was the Bishop of Winchester, in 1377. Technically, as a previously undefended manor house, it is called a castle because Sir Thomas Wykeham, great-nephew to the Bishop of Winchester, obtained a royal license to crenellate circa 1406. The curtain wall retains the battlements but the wall is relatively low as medieval curtains go and the wide water-filled moat is graced with a causeway to a relatively new gate tower which is popularly and well-photographed. The hall was subdivided and remodeled in Tudor style by Lord Saye and Sele (the Fiennes family) in the 1550s and has been their ancestral seat since that time. Many features such as bay windows, gables and plaster ceilings date from that period and the enlargement was vast. An embattled wing was left alone and is a good surviving example of a medieval solar block. The vaulted undercroft which is a dining room and the surrounding passages are unusually good work. A secondary solar above was transformed into a bedroom but the chapel alongside it is preserved as it originally was built.
Broughton_castle-GreatHallIn the 17th century, William Fiennes, 1st Viscount Saye and Sele, counted himself among the leaders in the opposition to Charles I. He organized troops to fight against him which, eventually, culminated at the Battle of Edgehill in 1742. In retaliation royalist troops besieged the castle, overcoming the garrison and taking occupation. It is legendary that Charles I slept in the King’s Chamber! To this day, William Fiennes, the 8th baron, is referred to as Old Subtlety for his irreverence to the crown. You will see his portrait along with many other family portraits in the gallery along with many artifacts and other works of art.

Broughton_castle_inside_gatehouseEven so, by the 19th century Broughton had started to decay but was rescued by the heir apparent, Frederick Fiennes- the 16th Lord Say and Sele, by hiring Sir George Gilbert Scott. Scott’s contribution can be seen in the fine plasterwork on many ceilings throughout this wonderful mixture of medieval and Tudor Elizabethan architecture. His work added another subtle layer to the interiors. In the Great Hall the plaster was removed from the walls exposing the stonework from the 15th century in stark contrast to the 16th century windows and 18th century ceiling. On an extensive tour the Oak Room and King’s Chamber are not to be missed for the rich interior work which is breathtaking. A tour of the oldest portion, in the Dining Room will reveal vaulted ceilings in the undercroft which are literally unchanged, save the double-linenfold paneling which was added in the 16th century, and connects with other passageways.
The current heir, the 21st Baron of the castle, William Fiennes, published a memoir in April of 2009 entitled The Music Room which is a fictionalized account of his childhood at the castle and gives a romanticized idea of what it is like to live like a royal in more modern times. Among many other films you’ll see the castle in Oxford Blues which was originally released in 1984. Like the castle, the gatehouse, garden and park are freely open to the public.
(about the book The Music Room) T- 01295 276070 Groups by appointment

deddingtonOnly scant remains of Deddington Castle could be viewed at the end of the 20th century but eight acres of earthworks are still apparent. Seated six miles south of Banbury, this medieval site was excavated in 1949 and 1978 which revealed castle foundations built over a former Saxon site by Bishop Odo of Bayeux, a half brother of William the Conqueror, sometime during the 11th century. By the 12th century a stone enclosure was built which has been attributed to William de Chesney, who became Lord of Deddington and later was seized by the Crown during the time that King Richard was struggling with his brother Prince John over the crown. At that time there was a gatehouse, curtain wall and the original motte had been leveled to make way for outbuildings such as a hall, kitchens, solar, stables, a well, latrine pits and a chapel.
Dedding_Excava_77By the time of indictment of Edward II and his cohort, Piers Gaveston, it was a weak castle in which is a chamber but was used as a prison for Gaveston by the Earl of Pembroke until he was removed in 1312 by the Earl of Warwick, who hated him, and had him executed near Warwick. Today the castle site is near a playing field southeast of the village , surrounded by heavy tree growth where ramparts, and a small inner bailey is still visible from aerial photos. The excavations revealed the square keep and the foundations of the stone curtain.

Somerton_Castle-Ggrph-Lincolnshire1055631-by-Richard-CroftNot too much further southeast, the remains of Somerton Castle are situated in the vicinity of the Cherwell Valley. In a field northeast of a church and school which slopes down to the Cherwell River, there are mounds and fishpond remains still visible along with vestiges of the medieval castle of the De Grey family. If you go to look for it be sure to take a local expert so that you will not be disappointed with what you will actually view. It would take an expert to make out what still exists. The construction of a railway in 1850 buried most of the western portion and the medieval site was mostly obscured at that time, leaving very little to be seen.

In the northeast corner close to Cherwell Valley, where the M40 and A43 intersect, Ardley Castle is tucked away into the corner just outside Ardley Village on its southwest rim. As an oval enclosure in Ardley Wood, the remains consist of a shallow moat. It was most likely an adulterine (non-royal) castle put up during the time of King Stephen’s reign and demolished at the order of Henry II in the middle of the 12th century. The earthworks indicate that this was originally a Norman timber castle but also shows indications of a substantial palisade and includes platforms which could have been accommodation or stables. During the later medieval periods it may have been used as a dry-moat settlement.
Chipping-Norton-Town-HallNear the northwestern border between Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire and twelve miles southwest of Banbury, Chipping Norton is a medieval market town in the Cotswolds which can boast the presence of a motte and bailey castle with some obvious earthworks and the famous Rollright Stones which is a prehistoric stone circle only two and half miles north of the town. Even though you won’t see actual castle remains you will see many of the medieval buildings in the town which survive. In addition, the market is still run every Wednesday with a Mop Fair every September. You’ll also see quite a bit of Georgian architecture as well. If you’re a fan of pop music from the seventies you’ll enjoy a visit to the Recording Studios here where Gerry Rafferty laid down his now legendary hit Baker Street.


AscottDOilly_TowerRuins OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAscott d’Oilly and Ascott Earl both reside at the village of Ascott-under-Wychwood, northwest and a bit south of Chipping. (The Wychwoods are ancient Royal Hunting grounds which survive well to this day.) These separate historical registered monuments are remarkable for different reasons but are surprisingly situated in close proximity. The latter mentioned still has very well defined remaining earthworks and lie south east of the River Evenlode with a bailey that extends to the northwest enclosing the land between the river and the edge of the motte. Indications show that an earlier Saxon site preceded it. Ascott d’Oilly was named after Roger d’Oilly who received the land as a grant from William the Conqueror and the castle was built around 1129 but was demolished by 1175. It was situated on the north side of the village, built in stone with the walls nearly eight feet thick. Today traces of the tower remain and excavations carried out in 1959 by Martyn Jope and R.I. Threlfall turned up pottery of the 12th century. Even so, the actual earthworks are not nearly as impressive as those of the castle on the south side of town.

Five miles northeast of Chipping Norton, off the A361, you’ll find Swerford Castle right in the middle of the town overlooking the River Swere from its still sizable motte. This castle was most likely built around the time of the Anarchy by the d’Oilly family as well. The earthwork remains and small bit of stone ramparts which runs from north to south are rather lovely if no longer what anyone would consider an existing castle. These earthworks are more fun to visit and examine than those which have not been protected and considerably altered by overzealous excavations.

Middleton Stoney Castle is a former motte and bailey which lies bit south of Ardley, three miles west of Bicester. It was officially recorded in 1215 and can be found east of All Saints Church right in the town of the same name. Two miles south of Bicester the minsterlovellhall_FerneArfin_photcastle of Alchester was once a Roman town. Minster Lovell Hall and Minster Lovell Manor’s masonry ruins which are two and a half miles west of Witney, overlooks the River Windrush in the Old Minster Lovell parish partially hidden in a churchyard. This 15th century manor house along with what remains of vaulted ceilings of an earlier house once belonged to William Lovel’s descendant Lord Francis Lovell, the ninth baron, whose skeletal remains were discovered in a secret chamber of the manor in 1708, according to legend, and had died of starvation while hiding after the Battle of Stoke in 1487 after the Wars of the Roses. Another legend combines with that and is recounted by the locals to explain strange sounds coming from the place. A medieval dovecote near the ruins may be in better condition than the hall itself but the area abounds with wonderful paths along with fish ponds and a nice pub and hotel nearby Old Swan (a 600 year old establishment !) is aMinsterLovell_OldSwanInn great place to stop and stay for awhile to drink in the atmosphere.

Thame_bishopspalace_WitneyThame Bishop’s Palace can be found right at Station Lane in the town of Witney which also still retains old town defenses. An exhibit of the archaeological remains under modern cover can be visited by appointment during normal business hours. Built by the Bishop of Winchester in the 12th and 13th centuries, by the time of the mid-18th century it was purchased by the Duke of Marlborough and became an important residence for him. Cogges Manor Farm Museum might be worth a look because of its prestigious representation of a 13th century manor house which is unequaled in the region.
On the border between Oxfordshire and Northamptonshire, Shelswell resides in the northeast corner. In 1530 a medieval manor was officially recorded which had moats and was referred to as Home Farm, parts of which can still be found. A new manor house was built southwest of the old village in the early part of the 18th century and was later increased as a plantation and parkland. By 1875 that house was demolished and replaced with the present Italianate country house which was designed by the architect William Wilkinson and is no longer occupied and it has fallen into disrepair. There are no medieval remains of Shelswell or Sheldon Park to be found in the present day.
The town of Hanwell is about two miles northwest of Banbury where the remains of a Roman Villa were discovered not long ago just west of the B4100. The castle was a house with ornamental battlements, originally called Hanwell House and sometimes, Hanwell Hall. After receiving the title to the manor from the Duke of Suffolk, William Cope began construction in 1498, as the earliest example of a brick building in north Oxfordshire. This mansion had three ranges with a quadrangle configuration. Chroniclers Sherwood and Pevsner contend that there was an east range but later historians such as Lobel claim that there was only the three,- north, south and west. When you visit you’ll find fishponds fed by the village spring. Sir Anthony and William Cope, 1st and 2nd Baronets, entertained James I here at in 1605, 1612 and 1616 and King Charles I in 1637. By the late 18th century most of the so-called castle was demolished saving only the western part of the south range as a farmhouse. In 1902 some restorations and extensions were made to the surviving building.

Visit Oxfordshire +44 (0) 1865 252200

For all the good times,
The Castle Lady

(with many more to come, hopefully !)

forsan et haec alim meminisse iuvabit
(Someday even this will be pleasant to remember.)
– from Virgil’s Aenid


About Evelyn

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4 Responses to An Odyssey of Oxford and Oxfordshire’s Northern Castles

  1. Hi Evelyn. I adore castles! I find their history fascinating. My husband and I have visited the UK twice now, and spent many hours exploring as many castles as possible. Even stayed in one in Ireland, it was an amazing experience I will never forget. I look forward to reading more of your articles.


    • Evelyn says:

      Wonderful ! I’d love to read more details about your trip. Have you published them on your blog? If not, I urge you to do so and I’ll be sure to re-blog it here. Which castle did you stay in when you went to Ireland ? Bunratty by any chance?
      Thanks ! Evelyn, The Castle Lady


  2. Kaitlynn says:

    Very good post. I definitely appreciate
    this site. Keep it up!


  3. interesting read says:

    I am actually grateful to the owner of this web site who has shared this fantastic post at here.


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