Referred to by the English as the upper Thames Valley, Oxfordshire was a mining treasure for limestone and ironstone but the original architectural remainders of the middle ages are few- among them Minster Lovell, Stanton Harcourt and the almshouses at Ewelme. The entire county is a hodgepodge of rich architecture spanning the centuries which makes it all the more interesting when comparing the southern portion with the north part of the county- stone for stone, brick for brick and wood for wood. It depicts rural England among the finest with green rolling hills, dry stone walls, and villages stocked with honey-colored Cotswold stone cottages. While driving through the countryside you’ll find the landscape peppered with riverside meadows full of bright colored wild flowers and busy little market towns. For centuries, restoration has been of the utmost importance but some rescues were sadly neglected. Nevertheless, there is much to see and appreciate on a broad spectrum even if architecture as old as an intact, genuine castle is an anomaly.
– The Castle Lady
Directly west from Oxford, about 14 miles, Bampton Castle’s remains are a part of what is referred to as Ham Court (since the late 17th century) seated on the western edge of town on Mill Street where the old gatehouse of the castle remains. Bampton was the site of a stand off between Empress Matilda and King Stephen during the end of the Anarchy in 1142 but the occupation was in the tower of Bampton’s church, fortified by Matilda’s garrison. The King laid siege and prevailed but the actual castle did not exist until it was built by Aymer de Valence, Earl of Pembroke in the early 14th century after he obtained a license to crenellate his quadrangular fort which eventually had four corner towers and four gatehouses standing adjacent to each other across the bailey. This symmetrical work was reminiscent to outer defense work he carried out at Goodrich Castle in Hereford, originally built by his father William. A projection based partially on ruins and corroborated by the west and north earthworks and east/west watercourses amounted to a frontage of 360 feet which would be much more expansive than Goodrich. It has been suggested that this castle was planned as the caput (seat) for Aymer’s barony.
The portion which became Ham Court, a Victorian farmhouse, was originally the western gatehouse, reduced, and was not built in the Edwardian style which was popular at the time but as a simple oblong gatehouse for embattlement. A portion of the crenellated curtain wall remains but stands alone as the sole ruins after the castle was besieged by Cromwell after the Civil War. The gate passage was blocked with the parapet gabled over. Other documentation and the earthworks show evidence of a former broad moat more than 90 feet wide, an outbuilding referred to as a longstable with an enclosure situated between that and the gatehouse, west and east gardens with a mill pond on the east and a fish pond and dovecote along the west garden.
Jesus College in Oxford obtained the property in the late 19th century and built the current structure onto the gatehouse’s south side, behind the remaining curtain wall and rebuilt the wall’s south end. The north lodging range was refurbished and a battlemented parapet was added to the polygonal stair turret on the gatehouse’s southeast corner. Windows in the blocked carriageway on the west were renewed and stone-mullioned windows were added to the extensions along with a canted bar window on the south. This magnificent farmhouse which encases the remains of the former castle keeps its secret well. Access is private but it may interest you to know that the village has been used as a film location for scenes from Downton Abbey. Quite a few features may look familiar as you look around a bit.
An ancient garrison at Radcot- southwest of Bampton, on the way to the hamlet of Weald- adjoins the Old Man’s Bridge and both adjoin the Upper Thames along with the Thames Path. This castle was most likely that of King Stephen during the anarchy, built and taken in 1142. Early excavations revealed a moated, rectangular plan fortification, more than a hundred meters square, delineated by crop marks. A bank of half that size connected to the southeastern corner of the site and has been interpreted as a second enclosure or bailey. Leland, the chronicler of the late middle ages, referred to it as a strong tower which had become a mansion house owned by the Bessel family. The strong tower was a pele tower built by the Lovells in the 15th century. The Time Team did an investigation of the site back in May of 2008 and the excavation revealed that a cross wall discovered in an enclosure (and interpreted as an interior to a tower) was dated later than 1100 and showed signs that it had been added hurriedly, giving rise to the speculation that this may have been the work of Matilda’s garrison as Stephen’s army approached. Previous geophysical investigations produced evidence of a chapel with an apse located to the east of the tower remains showing, in all probability, that this was indeed the tower where the Bampton standoff between Matilda and King Stephen took place. The Bessel Tower was built at a much later date but seems to have been utterly destroyed prior to the Civil War. The area was obliterated further during the Civil War when a fortification with angled bastions was placed and most likely destroyed, as well. Access is open and safe but it is always wise to take precautions when visiting an old castle site.
A bit further north and about 3 miles south of Witney a fortified manor house, Yelford,was built by the Hastings family in the latter part of the 15th century. In this small parish you will find a restored timber-framed house which was once derelict in the mid-20th century. The Domesday book of 1086 has Walter of Ponz listed as the Lord of the manor of Yelford which along with his other estate holdings were referred to as the Honour of Hastings. By 1221 Philip of Hastings held the title and his family kept the property until 1651 when they sold to William Lenthall, a parliamentarian, whose family retained the estate until 1949. It is assumed that the present manor is the one which was built in the second half of the 15th century because it was described as a timber-framed building with a moat. This was altered circa 1600 when a first floor division was installed into the great hall along with a stone fireplace. The manor was further divided by three families in the 1900s and has long been considered the most picturesque house in this southwest county.
Faringdon Castle is seated on the edge of the Thames Valley on the east side of the town of Faringdon on Folly Hill. It twins an opposite ancient ditched hill fort with a defensive ring which is on the west side of town at Badbury Hill and affords some wonderful views of the Vale of the White Horse which can be viewed from the Folly along the summit. Originally erected by Robert, the Earl of Gloucester circa 1144 the ‘Clump’ was fortified by Matilda’s garrison during the Anarchy but what you will see of its remains was razed by Stephen within two years after his siege. Interestingly, Cromwell fortified the defenses during the Civil War in an attempt to attack Faringdon House from up above. Robert Pye’s own son was a parliamentarian and led the siege! When the house was rebuilt by the Pye family late in the 18th century they planted Scotch pine trees around the summit. The folly was designed by Gerald Wellesley, Marquess of Douro, and built for Lord Berner in 1935. This can be viewed from the A420 quite comfortably and well but you’ll miss the fine view if you don’t visit the grounds. The Folly Tower itself is quite striking and is lit up for Christmas and New Year to dazzling effect! Faringdon House is owned by Sofka Zinovieff, author of The House on Paradise Street and you’ll probably receive no flak from her for an invasion to see the view as long as you don’t bring a trebuchet with you. If you see pigeons dyed very strange colors don’t be alarmed as this is one of Lord Berner’s many unusual hobbies. If you visit during the first week of July you’ll be treated to the arts festival carried on there which directly benefits the town.
All along the southeast corridor you’ll find several more medieval leftovers in Grey’s Court which presently is an Elizabethan house seated three miles west of Henley-on-Thames in Oxfordshire’s Chiltern Hills, Shirburn Castle a mile northeast of Watlington, Andersey Island (once referred to as the Castle of the Rhae) near Abingdon and Wallingford Castle and its gardens. All these castles were once considered Berkshire territory which changed in 1974 after the reorganization. Henley-on-Thames is a delightful town to stay while you check out some of the historic parts of this region. The town has wonderful local shops and night life and at one time had a castle and town walls but nothing visible remains. Because it houses England’s award-winning River and Rowing Museum at Mill Meadows and a waterside park it is a favorite for visitors of all ages with three permanent galleries and eye-popping exhibitions of rowing boats, aquatic history and temporary exhibitions such as recreated scenes from Wind in the Willows.The town hosts the Festival of Music and Arts each year on a floating stage near the Henley Bridge which features top entertainers and of course, includes exhibitions of art and sculpture. Boat trips will become de rigueur when you get into the spirit of the town’s enthusiasm for the regatta course. The Thames path leads up into the Chiltern Hills and an outlook exposing grand views of the Thames valley. Not far away…
Grey’s Court sits prettily on its landscaped grounds surrounded by the late medieval remains which were built by John, Lord Grey of Rotherfield with a license to crenellate granted by Edward III. He descended from the Norman Knight Anchetil de Greye and the property is specifically mentioned in the Domesday Book. John, Lord Grey was granted the opportunity to fortify his castle because of his distinguished service during the Crecy campaign. The 16th century house which dominates the medieval courtyard along the west portion, is a fragment wing with interiors displaying 18th century plasterwork and primarily furnished as it was when it was a family home of Sir Francis Knollys- the treasurer of Elizabeth I. Grey’s Court has been continuously occupied for over 600 years with many extensions and additions made which includes a well-stocked Tudor kitchen and posh living rooms. The medieval remains are now few but are still a great study in quadrangular plan castles even though it is apparent that it was never built with true defensive intentions in mind. The southern corner towers were insufficient fortifications of which the now missing curtain wall is testament. A portion of the curtain remains along the west, restored as a garden wall by Sir Francis. Gracing it is a tall, four-storied tower which has been supposed as the keep. In all likelihood the size of the tower would be insufficient to contain residential compartments. The northeast tower and several medieval outbuildings date possibly from the Tudor period- among them, a well house which still has a working donkey treadmill but has gone unused for nearly a century. The walled gardens are antiquated with roses and wisteria, graced with an ornamental vegetable garden and a special maze was dedicated to Archbishop Robert Runcie in 1981 along with a 19th century ice house. At certain times of the year, when conditions are dry, the outlines of the former foundations of the walls and two gatehouses become visible in the lawns.
Early in the 20th century, the Brunner family bought and set about doing a restoration which has been applauded by historians and antiquarians alike. Much of the work is attributed to Henry Keene, an architect, who did a grand work of the exterior restoration with rusticated stone and more Tudor-era additions. One outstanding interior is the drawing room which was redrawn to the 18th century.
Roberts of Oxford is responsible for the walls and ceiling done in English Rococo. You will find similar plasterwork in the former dining room which was converted to a schoolroom for the family. By 1969 the property was donated by the Brunner family to the National Trust and today visitors can enjoy full facilities including a tea room and gift shop with wheelchair accessibility with prior arrangements.
A mile northeast of Watlington, Shirburn Castle sits in a large park surrounded by a wide wet moat and beautiful landscaping. Originally an authentic quadrangular castle built by Robert D’Oyley during the conquest, it was remodeled in the 18th century by Thomas Parker, the Earl of Macclesfield who purchased the castle in 1716. This was not the first overhaul, however, because it was drastically altered late in the 14th century by Warine de l’Isle, a veteran of the French wars who obtained a license to crenellate the fortification in 1377. In fact, this castle’s heritage history reads like actual royalty with five Thomases and three Georges within the same century!
Currently in a state of limbo concerning ownership this magnificent edifice has been the seat of the Earls of Macclesfield since 1716. It was purchased by Thomas Parker and taken over by his son, George Parker a celebrated astronomer who conducted observations there from the observatory and chemical laboratory he assembled with state-of-the-art equipment of his day. As a matter of fact, this was the place where Thomas Hornsby first observed the transit of Venus in 1761 !
In 1646 the castle was heavily slighted during the Civil War. At that time it was a typical fortification of its era which included circular corner towers and all four walls of solidly domestic purpose. Primarily built of brick, and right early at that, Shirburn doesn’t appear that way because the entire castle was shellacked in a veneer of plaster at some point, most likely to conceal the offsets in the walls. Rebuilding took place primarily along the north including the adjacent corner towers, a portion along the east with an outer range along the south wall added. Large Georgian sash windows were placed throughout. You’ll find the west front is least affected by the changes, though the gate tower has been absorbed by the heightened ranges on either side. A picturesque triple drawbridge structure with a portcullis is a renaissance feature which dates from the restoration replacing the medieval gate tower. The grandest feature is the wide and deep moat, which, supplied with running water from local springs, encircles the castle making it appear that the castle was built on an island very much like Leeds in Kent. Interestingly, the rooms seated below the level of the water in the moat are quite dry. The most popular view is contained in Skeltons Antiquities of Oxfordshire with a sizable drawing of the castle showing off round-headed windows in the two upper storeys and the basement being lighted by a few œillets (French for arrow slits!) and a fine groined roof.
Wallingford Castle has the distinction of being the only other major medieval castle within the borders of Oxfordshire besides Oxford Castle which was originally baronial. It has been considered one of the most powerful royal castles of the 12th and 13th centuries by many historians and was established by Wigod as a motte-and bailey in the 11th century over an Anglo-Saxonburgh. As a refuge for Empress Matilda during the Anarchy it suffered quite a few sieges but was never relinquished or taken. With this reputation of impregnability it became a royal residence and was turned into a habitable one during the two centuries following only being abandoned by Henry VIII and after that time was allowed to go into disrepair. Like all royal castles, it was refortified during the Civil War and was heavily slighted after a long siege by parliament.
Wallingford was originally built by Robert D’Oyly between the years 1067-71 after he married Wigod’s daughter, Ealdgyth, and retained much of the property which belonged to Wigod. Seated along the northeast side of the town where the old ramparts most likely still existed he constructed a wooden castle which spanned 197 feet in width and 43 feet high and installed priests- starting St. Nicholas College in the bargain. The ruins which exist on the site today were built by his second son-in-law Brien FitzCount, a son to the Duke of Brittany, who became a strong supporter of Henry I and proceeded to rebuild the castle in stone by 1130. This included a shell keep and surrounding curtain wall, some of which can still be seen, presently.
When Henry I died the royal political situation became unstable when both Stephen and Empress Matilda laid claim to the English throne. Brien was originally a supporter of Stephen but changed his alliance in 1139 to the Empress. This same year Stephen planned to attack the castle, then changed his mind placing two counter-castles (siege castles) strategically to contain Wallingford along the road to Bristol. These are known as Stephen’s Mount and Crowmarsh Gifford of which some evidence still exists to corroborate the history if not actual proof of their existence. They were promptly destroyed by Miles and Robert of Gloucester. A prison was built within the castle during this time and among those kept there was the nobleman William Martel, Stephen’s royal steward. Cries of tortured prisoners in the castle disturbed the inhabitantsof the town of Wallingford according to more recent documents on the subject and because of lack of available space, Brien’s knights were forced to take refuge at various houses in the town.
By 1153, after three separate sieges by Stephen, the castle garrison began to feel the effects of starvation and the future Henry II then intervened with his forces, placing Stephen’s four reinforced counter-castles under attack. King Stephen marched back from Oxford and the two forces confronted each other on the meadows outside the castle.The result was a temporary truce called the Treaty of Wallingford, leading up to the Treaty of Winchester which ultimately ended the first civil war. Henry became king following Stephen’s death that same year and Brien, with no progeny, chose to enter a monastery and ceded Wallingford Castle to Henry.
The future King John was granted the town of Wallingford by Richard I in 1189 and then seized the castle during his revolt in 1191. He was forced to relinquish but reclaimed the castle again when he inherited the throne in 1199. Wallingford was his castle for the First Barons’ War in 1215-16 when he reinforced the fortifications and added a substantial garrison to protect it. This was the main residence of Henry III in 1231 when he granted it to Richard as the Earl of Cornwall who subsequently lavished large sums of money rebuilding and making the interior more fitting a monarch than a baron. When he became elected King of the Romans in 1251 he had to end his right to ownership. As a resultthe castle became embroiled in the Second Barons’ War from 1260 on.
Simon de Montfort seized the castle after his victory at the Battle of Lewes and used it as a prison for the royal family before sending them to Kenilworth in Warwickshire. Henry III took back possession after the end of the conflict then let it remain the home of the Earl of Cornwall clear to the end of the century. Succession continued down the line of the crown as a gift to favorites but it remained the seat for the Earls and Dukes of Cornwall (which was the official title of the sons of the king at that time.) It was continually used as a prison from the time it was originally established and was an important crown residence when their seat was all but removed from London. After 1518 it lost popularity especially after Henry VIII showed preference to many others. It was stripped for lead during the time that building materials were being quarried for use at Windsor Castle. The antiquarian, John Leland described Wallingford as being ‘now sore in ruin and for the most part defaced.’ After the 16th century it was no longer considered a residence of the Duchy of Cornwall and inexplicably Charles I granted it to Queen Henrietta Maria but it was nearly derelict by that time.
During the Civil War of the 17th century the Thames Valley became a critical war zone. Wallingford was considered a Royalist town with a garrison established there to prevent an advance on Oxford. Colonel Thomas Blagge was the appointed governor so Charles instructed him to refortify the castle and inspected the results within the year. Abingdon and Reading fell to Parliamentary forces by 1644 and the town and castle of Wallingford were under siege soon after. Even though the castle surrendered on July 1646 after sixteen weeks, civil conflict continued and so it was decided by parliament to put it out of military use in 1652. Virtually razed to the ground in the operation, a Wallingford outbuilding continued to be used as a prison clear into the 18th century. A short while later a large house was built inside the bailey followed by a gothic mansion house on the same site in 1837. When the mansion was abandoned it was demolished in 1972. Wallingford Castle was then declared a scheduled monument and a Grade I listed building! Castle grounds, St. Nicholas College ruins and two sections of castle wall plus the motte are open to the public. Archaeological research has been done by Leicester University in 2002 and 2010 and continues with the aim to understand the historical transition of Anglo-Saxon remains of the town of Wallingford to the period during the Norman invasion and subsequent building of the castle.
Located as an island in the River Thames, Andersey Island is just above Culham Lock very close to Abingdon and a possible site of royal residences perhaps as early as Anglo-Saxon times. Once it was taken over by William the Conquerer it was presented to the Abbot of Abingdon circa 1100 but the buildings fell to ruin. Most of the island is open land with poplars and willows but also grounds for a football and cricket club, with a leisure facility. Cottages with barns are scattered along the island.
( you only live once.)