Eynsham: Site and remains of the abbey

A History of the County of Oxford: Volume 12, Wootton Hundred (South) Including Woodstock. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1990.

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'Eynsham: Site and remains of the abbey', in A History of the County of Oxford: Volume 12, Wootton Hundred (South) Including Woodstock, (London, 1990) pp. 117-120. British History Online https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/oxon/vol12/pp117-120 [accessed 19 April 2024]

Site and remains of the abbey

The abbey site covered a wide area on the south side of Eynsham village: land between Station Road on the west and the Wharf stream on the east, the church and High Street on the north, and the Chil brook on the south seems to have been kept in hand by the abbey for much of the Middle Ages, and was later known as the Parks. (fn. 14) The walled precinct was presumably much smaller and the chief monastic buildings evidently stood in an area south of the original parish churchyard known in 1650 as Abbey Court; to the west stood the home farmstead and tithe barn, on the site of Abbey Farm. (fn. 15)

At the Dissolution the abbey and grounds were sold to Sir George Darcy and were then retained by successive lords of the manor until the mid 17th century. (fn. 16) The western part of the site was usually let: the farmstead and adjacent close (c. 1 ½ a.) formed part of the demesne farm known as the Farm and was sold with it in 1655, while the abbey barn and the adjacent 4 a. (known in 1650 as the Farm Court) were let with the great tithes until sold in 1658. Both portions were united in the ownership of the dukes of Marlborough from the early 18th century and sold as part of Abbey Farm in 1920. (fn. 17) The eastern part of the site, comprising in 1650 Abbey Court (c. 3 ½ a.) and Upper, Middle, and Lower Parks (c. 43 ½ a.), (fn. 18) was sold from the manor in the later 17th century and by 1700 was mostly in the hands of John Bartholomew. (fn. 19) The bulk of the Bartholomew family's property passed before 1762 to Edward Ryves and so to the Holloway family, (fn. 20) whose trustees at inclosure in 1802 held 27 a. of the Parks, including the whole central area. (fn. 21) Outlying portions of the former abbey grounds, c. 10 a. towards the Wharf stream in the east and c. 11 ½ a. along the Chil brook, were held in the 18th century by the Arnatt and Stevens families respectively. (fn. 22) The Holloway portion passed to E. V. Holloway, who sold it in 1824 to J. V. Harrison. (fn. 23) Before 1802 the Parks immediately south of the then churchyard were redivided by a north-south fence, creating closes called Upper Park (4 ½ a.) to the west and Lower Park (11 a.) to the east. (fn. 24) Some time in the early 19th century Lower Park was turned into a nursery, leased by Joseph Day, who bought it in 1858; (fn. 25) Upper Park descended separately, (fn. 26) and in 1863 Jonathan Sheldon sold part of it to extend the churchyard. (fn. 27) In 1930 the west end of the nursery was taken into the churchyard, (fn. 28) and later the remainder of Upper Park became the site of the Roman Catholic church.

What appeared to be part of the burial ground of the Anglo-Saxon minster was discovered at the north-west corner of the nursery field. (fn. 29) The parish church seems to have been built on a site taken from the abbey precinct after a market place had been established, (fn. 30) and thereafter the main approach to the precinct was by Abbey Street. In 1217 the abbot was licensed to divert a street that passed inconviently between his curia and barton, crossing the Chil brook towards Stanton Harcourt. (fn. 31) The condemned road was clearly an extension southward of Abbey Street. The diversion was to the west, and seems to have involved building a new bridge over the Chil (now Chilmore Bridge) and laying out a new street on the line of the later Station Road. (fn. 32) The new street was to rejoin the old at the gate of the cemetery of the 'great church', passing between the abbey barton and the tenement of John the porter; the barton evidently stood south of the present Abbey Farm, (fn. 33) and the upper section of the new street is probably represented by the east-west driveway through the farm grounds, linking Station Road to the southern end of Abbey Street.

By 1290 the abbot was seeking to close another street in that area, which linked the abbey with the almonry; the abbot undertook to provide a suitable alternative street outside his precinct. (fn. 34) The site of the almonry, which in the 16th century comprised a derelict mansion and great barn, (fn. 35) is uncertain, but if the almonry was the 'hospital' mentioned c. 1217 it stood near the west end of the drive through Abbey Farm. (fn. 36) If so it seems likely that in 1290 the abbot closed that drive and opened the northern end of Station Road as an alternative route, thus bringing within the precinct any farm buildings north of the drive, perhaps the new grange known to have been built in the early 13th century. (fn. 37)

Next to the abbey c. 1360 lay a large, well stocked garden, containing recently built fish ponds, and to the west a large curia with a grange, cattle sheds, and other farm buildings. (fn. 38) The garden seems to have been enlarged on the east in the 1280s when Robert Belgrave surrendered a house and land on the south side of the ferry road. (fn. 39) There are vestiges of fish ponds beside the Chil brook in both east and west portions of the abbey grounds, and signs that the brook was diverted to the south when the ponds were made. (fn. 40) In the early 18th century the complexity of the derelict site inspired an exaggerated local story that there had once been 52 ponds, 'according to the number of weeks in the year'. (fn. 41)

In the late 16th century and early 17th the Stanleys resided in part of the abbey. (fn. 42) In 1647 there was still a memory of 'a world of painted glass' and 'curious buildings' on the site, with 'excellent carved wainscot, and wainscot-ceilings gilded: a curious chapel'. (fn. 43) In 1657 the ruins included two high towers at the west end of the church and part of the north wall; the remains, together with an 'entrance or lodge', were sold for building stone soon afterwards. (fn. 44) Sales of materials, presumably from the abbey, included loads of stone, brick, and timber, and a table from the 'great hall'; a Charlbury carpenter paid £14 for six bays of stables. (fn. 45)

In 1710 John Bartholomew owned a building in the Abbey Court called 'the little tower or study', which may have been the recently built tenement on that site mentioned in 1714. (fn. 46) Certainly Thomas Hearne in 1706 had seen no abbey remains except an outer gate on the west side. (fn. 47) The gate he saw was not the former main entrance (allegedly destroyed in the 17th century), but another which stood a furlong west of the abbey barn, presumably on the boundary of the western precinct (Station Road), perhaps near the end of the driveway into Abbey Farm: Hearne's crude sketch shows a pinnacled tunnel gateway of later medieval character, partially blocked and set in post-medieval walling. (fn. 48) Almost certainly it was that gateway which was removed before 1783 by the duke of Marlborough for 'some business at Blenheim'. (fn. 49) It may have been intended to form part of the plan to gothicize Blenheim Park in the 1760s. (fn. 50)

The abbey's main entrance has not been precisely located although in 1217 it stood near the southern end of Abbey Street. (fn. 51) A small freehold cottage there, on the west side immediately south of the present gateway of Abbey Farm, was held separately from the rest of the Abbey Farm site; the tenants of the farm required a special right of way round the east side of the cottage in order to reach the abbey barn. (fn. 52) When the cottage fell down c. 1850 it was seen to incorporate the respond of a medieval archway: (fn. 53) it possibly marked the western side of a gateway which straddled the southern end of Abbey Street. The cottage's separate ownership suggests that it was part of Abbey Court itself rather than of the farmstead.

A large barn on the site of the medieval abbey barn is of the 19th century. In 1802 the duke of Marlborough paid for the removal of the 'abbey stables', presumably part of the Abbey Farm buildings. (fn. 54) The foundations of a possible gateway were unearthed in 1825 on the southern side of the road to the ferry, near the bridge over Wharf stream, and there were 'in all directions' in the meadow south of the churchyard remains of old buildings, thought to be a former castle. (fn. 55) The last standing remnant of the abbey, a doorway, was reputedly removed in 1843. (fn. 56) In 1851 a large number of 14th-century inlaid tiles were dug up in the nursery garden, 15 yd. south of the churchyard, and further east a well and cistern, also surrounded by medieval tiles; cartloads of tiles were sold as building rubble. (fn. 57) In 1901 seven skeletons were recovered from an unrecorded site in the nursery field, (fn. 58) and in modern times grave-digging in the extended churchyard revealed massive foundations, floor tiles, and stone and lead coffins. (fn. 59) The main abbey buildings were restricted largely to the churchyards of the parish and Roman Catholic churches, (fn. 60) although buildings extended c. 10 m. east of the parish churchyard. Other structures, probably outbuildings, lay further east in the nursery field. Along the south side of the field was what appeared to be the boundary ditch of the precinct, dividing it from the fishponds. (fn. 61)

Architectural fragments incorporated in village buildings (fn. 62) confirm that much of the abbey was of 12th-century date. Two carved shields, one on the market house, the other set on its side on no. 6 Abbey Street, bear arms attributed implausibly to Aethelmaer, the abbey's founder. (fn. 63) Fragments preserved in the vicarage garden (fn. 64) include a 16th-century archway, and above it a panel with the arms of Chandos: Anne, daughter of William Stanley, earl of Derby, married Grey Bridges, lord Chandos (d.). (fn. 65) A tomb slab of John of Cheltenham, abbot of Eynsham (d. 1330), was removed to Elsfield church probably before 1645. (fn. 66) A medieval tomb, perhaps of an abbot, survives in the parish churchyard.


  • 14. e.g. O.R.O., Palm. IV/1; ibid. CH. XIX/1: map of 1782, printed in part in Chambers, Eynsham.
  • 15. O.R.O., Palm. IV/1 (plot 27 in Mill Street). For Abbey Court and Farm Court, below, Other Estates.
  • 16. Below, Manor.
  • 17. Below, Other Estates.
  • 18. O.R.O., Palm. IV/1 (summary of demesnes).
  • 19. Cf. ibid. Misc. Hac. X/v/1; ibid. MSS. Wills Oxon. 116/1/9; 126/2/19.
  • 20. Blenheim Mun., E/P/9. For small sales from Abbey Court by the Bartholomews see O.R.O., Misc. Pim. II/ii/2-5; II/iii/1. For the Ryves-Holloway connexion, below, Other Estates.
  • 21. O.R.O., incl. award and map.
  • 22. Cf. Blenheim Mun., E/P/9; O.R.O., incl. award and map.
  • 23. O.R.O., Welch XVI/1-16.
  • 24. Cf. ibid. incl. map; ibid. CH. XIX/1.
  • 25. Ibid. Welch XVI/1-16. It was a nursery by 1836: ibid. Palm. IV/4.
  • 26. e.g. ibid. Palm. IV/5 (plot 721).
  • 27. Ibid. MS. Oxf. Dioc. c 1811.
  • 28. Ibid.; ibid. MS. d.d. Par. Eynsham c 11, item i.
  • 29. M. Gray and N. Clayton, 'Excavations on site of Eynsham Abbey, 1971', Oxoniensia, xliii. 100-22.
  • 30. Below, Church.
  • 31. Cal. Pat. 1216-25, 78.
  • 32. Chambers, Eynsham, 76 sqq.
  • 33. e.g. Eynsham Cart. i, pp. 165-6.
  • 34. O.R.O., DL I/xii/6, p. 338.
  • 35. B.L. Harl. Rolls F 29, G 12; P.R.O., SC 2/197/38 (s.a. 1486).
  • 36. Eynsham Cart. i, pp. 156-7; cf. Chambers, Eynsham, 77, where it is assumed that Robert Halthein lived west of Station Road.
  • 37. Eynsham Cart. i, pp. 156-7, 165-6; cf. Chambers, Eynsham, 77-8, where the surviving house name, the Grange, is considered significant.
  • 38. Eynsham Cart. ii, p. 37.
  • 39. Ibid. i, pp. 313, 316-17.
  • 40. County Mus., P.R.N. 4615 includes a detailed rep. of 1979 by C. J. Bond.
  • 41. Hearne's Colln. i (O.H.S. ii), 244.
  • 42. Below, Manor.
  • 43. Bodl. MS. Ashmole 1722: MS. note in copy of Plot, Nat. Hist. Oxon. (1677), endpapers.
  • 44. Wood's Life, i (O.H.S. xix), 228; sketch in Bodl. MS. Wood E 1, f. 45, reproduced in Eynsham Cart. ii, facing p. xlviii, of which later copies are misleading: cf. Bodl. MS. Willis 46, f. 96 (reproduced in Oxoniensia, xliii, pl. IV); Hearne's Colln. x (O.H.S. Ixvii), 266, 444; Oxoniensia, xliv, 104.
  • 45. O.R.O., Palm. I/1, ff. 1-2v.
  • 46. Ibid. Misc. Hac. X/v/1; ibid. MS. Wills Oxon. 126/2/19.
  • 47. Hearne's Colln. i (O.H.S. ii), 244.
  • 48. Bodl. MS. Hearne's Diaries 50, pp. 221-2.
  • 49. Torrington Diaries, ed. C. B. Andrews, i. 214.
  • 50. Below, Woodstock, Blenheim, Pk. from 1705.
  • 51. Pat. R. 1216-25, 78.
  • 52. O.R.O., incl. award and map; ibid. Palm. IV/4-5.
  • 53. Bodl. G.A. Oxon. c 317/20: corresp. and drawings.
  • 54. O.R.O., Misc. Pim. I/1, s.a. 1802.
  • 55. Bodl. MS. Top. Oxon. b 275, p. 188. The idea of a castle at Eynsham derived from a medieval misinterpretation of the A.-S. Chron. entry for 571: cf. Chron. Rob. of Glouc. (Rolls Ser.), i. 333.
  • 56. Gardner, Dir. Oxon. (1852).
  • 57. Bodl. G.A. Oxon. c 317/20: corresp. and drawings; Gent. Mag. N.S. xxxv. 191-2; Archaeol. Jnl. viii. 211. The site of the discovery was further west than suggested in Oxoniensia, xliii. 104. For tiles see Loyd Haberly, Medieval Eng. Pavingtiles, passim.
  • 58. Oxf. Times, 28 Sept. 1901.
  • 59. Oxoniensia, xxviii. 88-9. For summary of modern finds see County Mus., P.R.N. 3112.
  • 60. Pinnacles preserved in the R.C. churchyard are fragments of a 19th-cent. Oxford bldg.
  • 61. Oxoniensia, xxix-xxx. 191; xliii. 100-22.
  • 62. W.Bainbridge, Visible Remains of Eynsham Abbey (Eynsham, 1980): pamph. in Westgate Libr.
  • 63. Cf.N. &Q. clxxxvii. 14;Oxoniensia, xxxvii. 248.
  • 64. There are also collns.in County Mus.,Woodstock,and Ashmolean Mus.,Oxf.For 19thy-cent. drawings of fragments see Bodl.MSS.Top.Oxon. a 66, ff. 250, 256; c551, f. 113; d 514, f. 27v.
  • 65. Bodl. MS. Top. Oxon. b 275, p. 188; cf. Skelton, Antiq. Oxon. Wootton hund. p. 8, which suggests a different Bridges connexion.
  • 66. W. Bainbridge, 'Looking for Abbots', Eynsham Rec. i. 16-18; ii. 19.