The most legendary and historical part of Woodstock, a small town 8 miles northwest of Oxford, is located on the grounds of Blenheim Palace (you’ll find a separate entry on Blenheim in this blog’s February 2008 archives). Blenheim became the grandiose replacement of a most extraordinary royal hunting lodge called Woodstock Palace. Most people would never suspect that the UNESCO World Heritage site of the Churchill family razed the likes of its predecessor which really was the Windsor of its day because of the royal connections alone and its posh interiors. In fact, Woodstock was the site of a royal forest before it was anything else, having been described as such in the Domesday Book of 1086. Edward, elder son of King Edward III , who held several titles was born at Woodstock Manor on the 15th June 1330, exactly 683 years ago, but during his lifetime he was best known as Edward of Woodstock. Many of noble birth in England were either born or associated with Woodstock at some point in the early Middle Ages and its history is fascinatingly rich in historical events. For instance, during Queen Mary’s reign her half-sister Princess Elizabeth (who eventually became the first Queen Elizabeth in the 16th century) was imprisoned in the gatehouse of the old manor being deemed the only part still fit for a princess. She remained there for a year under the supposition that she was safe from harm in such isolation. Æthelred the Unready who was the King of England just before the Danish invasion, held an assembly at Woodstock decreeing IX Æthelred , so its connection with royalty is ancient.
The status of Woodstock as a palace extended to that of a grand hunting lodge due to the forest which surrounded it at the time. Drawings, depictions and paintings which I have included here belie the fact that it was built with architectural style refinement in mind along with the security of fortification. Some features adopted were repeated later in other royal establishments, such as the bars placed in the windows during King Henry III’s time in response to an attempted assassination of him in 1238. Apparently a disgruntled subject made an attempt to do him in by climbing in through a window while he was taking care of business in the loo.
The images placed here depict Woodstock Palace after 1129 when Henry I encircled the original lodge with eleven kilometers of thick walls creating the first enclosed park and menagerie which included lions and leopards. Later, during Henry II’s reign, Woodstock became the location of his courtship with Rosamund Clifford (the J.W. Waterhouse painting is of the same fair Rosamund) even though he was still married to Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine. The esthetic and almost fairytale visage of Woodstock Palace was partially due to his additions of buildings within the bailey and exterior changes in an attempt to make Rosamund comfortable and at home although some accounts state that she was as restless as himself becoming a part of his entourage when he visited his vast holdings all over England and abroad. The town market was established when Henry II established a Royal charter in 1179. Nevertheless, the crenellation and obvious ornamental additions to the palace are more attributable to Henry III in the mid-13th century concerning the queens and kings chambers and the Queen’s Chapel. These changes gave the palace a rather Scottish baronial appearance than that of a medieval castle.
Today, even though Rosamund’s original bower was removed during the landscaping of Blenheim Palace, you can view the well which was dedicated to her memory very near the original eastern location of her bower along with a pillar and tablet dated 1802 marking the site of the old palace nearby. Her residence was referred to as Fair Rosamund’s Tower and was connected to the palace by a drawbridge. A favorite variety of rose in English gardens, nationwide, was named after her in death- the Rosa Mundi- by Henry II her ever devoted lover. The entire park was and still is the work laid down by Capability Brown in 1764.
Throughout medieval history Woodstock retained a certain amount of historical importance because of the royal connections. It was the site of the signing of the Treaty of Woodstock between Henry III and the Welsh King Llewellyn the Last in 1247 which had a disastrous outcome for Wales. Edward Longshanks ( I ) was Henry’s successor who, as we all know, started an aggressive campaign of building massive and imposing castles all over Wales besides rebuilding indigent castles as well for his own benefit. Edmund, Edward’s youngest son was born at Woodstock and the Black Prince (also an Edward) was born at the palace, as well, in 1330 and the marriage of Mary Plantagenet and John V, Duke of Brittany in 1361.
By the time of the Civil War the palace was considered a primary target and it was utterly destroyed when it’s time was at hand. It had been left to rot, anyway, by the late 15th century but was curiously used- as I mentioned earlier- to imprison Elizabeth as a princess in the mid-16th century. Curiously, the ruins were slapped back together by Vanbrugh early in the 18th century during the time of his residence when he was helping Nicolas Hawksmoor to construct Blenheim Palace and thereafter its remaining materials were used to fill-in the grand bridge along the causeway.
Woodstock, the town, contains few remnants of the medieval period despite its history. It was altered quite a bit when Blenheim and the Duke of Marlborough came to town in the 17th century. If you look around really well, however, you’ll see few medieval buildings like the Bear Hotel (dating from the 13th century on Park Street opposite the equally historic Oxfordshire Museum.) River Glyme divides the old part of Woodstock, outlined by a triangle, from the outgrowth named Hensington seated to the south and east of the center. You’ll find Chaucer’s House (poet Geoffrey Chaucer ) within this triangle along with the primarily 17th and 18th century buildings such as the town hall designed by Sir William Chambers and the almshouses erected in 1798 by Caroline, Duchess of Marlborough. Keep your eye out for some rare antiquities such as the Norman doorway of St. Mary Magdalene. This church has the distinction of a musical clock that chimes on the hour. The previously mentioned Oxfordshire Museum occupies the historic Fletcher’s House which went through total refurbishment back in 2001 adding new permanent displays for the entire county and its history along with constant Garden Gallery exhibitions which constantly change. You’ll want to check out the Dinosaur Garden with a full-size replica of a Megalosaurus and the Museums Store for visitor support and the reference collections.
With rosy-colored fragrant kisses,
The Castle Lady