Wolvercote: Site and remains of Godstow 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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'Wolvercote: Site and remains of Godstow abbey', in A History of the County of Oxford: Volume 12, Wootton Hundred (South) Including Woodstock, (London, 1990) pp. 311-313. British History Online https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/oxon/vol12/pp311-313 [accessed 20 April 2024]

Site and remains of Godstow abbey

Godstow abbey was built on an island between streams of the Thames given to the foundress c. 1133 by John of St. John. The site was enlarged in 1139 by John's grant of a further piece of land in front of the church (or abbey) gate, probably the site across Godstow bridge on which the abbey's grange was later built. (fn. 30) At the Dissolution the site was granted to Henry VIII's physician, George Owen. (fn. 31) It was sold, with the rest of Owen's Wolvercote property, to Sir John Walter in 1616, and descended in his family until 1702 when Sir John's great-grandson, another Sir John Walter, sold Godstow to Montagu Bertie, earl of Abingdon. (fn. 32) Most of the estate, including the grange and its surrounding land, was sold to John Churchill, duke of Marlborough, in 1710, but the site of the main abbey buildings remained in the possession of successive earls of Abingdon until 1902 when it was sold to J. T. Dodd. Dodd sold it in 1921 to trustees for R.W. Ffennell of Wytham Abbey, who in 1924 gave the site to Oxford University, on trusts to preserve the ruins for the nation. (fn. 33)

A church, and presumably the chief monastic buildings, had been built on the northern part of the site by 1139 when the church was consecrated; two wooden buildings of about that date, on the line of the modern Wolvercote-Wytham road, were excavated in 1959 north-west of a surviving wall. (fn. 34) Water was supplied by a conduit from Wytham. (fn. 35) The abbey was enlarged or rebuilt between 1176 and 1188 when Henry II gave a total of £258, including £100 for the church, 40,000 shingles, 4,000 laths, and a large amount of timber. (fn. 36) Following a serious flood in the mid 13th century the buildings near the Wolvercote-Wytham road were rebuilt on a slightly different alignment, and fragments of masonry found in the Thames suggest that work continued throughout the 13th century and the earlier 14th. (fn. 37) In 1423 the frater was in need of repair, and in 1445 the conduit. (fn. 38) The earliest of the surviving walls appear to be of the 15th or 16th century.

The abbey buildings were converted into Godstow House by George Owen, and occupied by him and his successors until 1645, when the house was severely damaged in the Civil War. (fn. 39) Thereafter the site was used as a quarry for building stone. The following attempt at a reconstruction of the medieval buildings is based mainly on drawings, of doubtful accuracy, made in 1660 and 1718 and on descriptions of 1666 and 1718. (fn. 40)

The abbey precincts were entered by the Wolvercote-Wytham road, which ran through the outer court. The two-storeyed main gatehouse, facing east, had a large gate for carts and a smaller one beside it for pedestrians; they led into the outer court, on the north side of which was a range of buildings, probably those for the chaplains and lay brothers recorded in the late 13th century. (fn. 41) Near the western end of the range was St. Thomas's chapel, which seems to have served as a church for the abbey servants, (fn. 42) and, beyond it, lodging for a priest. The guest house was presumably also in the outer court, perhaps on the west. On the south side of the court was the 'nunnery', probably the separate lodgings for the nuns, some at least of which opened directly into the outer court in 1432. (fn. 43) South-east of the outer court was the abbey church, with the cloister and associated buildings on the south. Part of the north-west tower of the church, perhaps of 13th-century date, survived into the late 18th century. (fn. 44) The rest of the church had completely disappeared by 1660, probably demolished by George Owen immediately after the Dissolution. The lady chapel was recorded c. 1276, but an altar of the Virgin Mary, perhaps in a new or rebuilt lady chapel, was consecrated in 1323. (fn. 45) Large numbers of burials have been found north, south, and east of the presumed site of the church. Finds of tiles in the modern river bank east of the site of the tower suggest that the buildings extended as far east as the new cut made in 1780 and enlarged in 1885. (fn. 46)

In the cloister court were the chapter house, recorded in 1386, and the dorter and frater, both recorded in 1432. (fn. 47) In 1666 there seem to have been three buildings, two of two storeys and one of three, in the west range of the court, but they probably represent Owen's remodelling rather than the convent buildings. In the south-east corner a small, originally late 15th-century, building survived in 1984. Anthony Wood identified it as the chapel of St. Leonard and recorded that the three lights of the east window had been filled with pictures of St. Leonard and of two early 16th-century abbesses, Isabel or Elizabeth Brainton (d. 1517) and Margaret Tewkesbury (res. 1535). (fn. 48) The building has been suggested as the chapel of the abbess's lodging, but since that lodging was used to entertain visitors (fn. 49) it is unlikely to have been in the cloister court. The chapel follows the plan of a domestic chapel, with access into a gallery from the upper floor of an adjoining building (now totally disappeared), and it may, as Hearne suggested in 1718, have been converted from a domestic building into a private chapel after the Dissolution. (fn. 50). The kitchen presumably lay behind the cloister, perhaps at the south-west corner where a building platform, rather massive for the later outbuilding on the site, survived in 1984. The infirmary may have been separate, perhaps west of the cloisters where building stone and roof tiles were turned up by ploughing in 1971. (fn. 51) The whole site, including the gardens and orchards recorded in the later 13th century and possibly the fishponds, which may have lain on swampy ground north-west of the lock-cut bridge, (fn. 52) was surrounded by a precinct wall which extended, on the south at least, from one stream of the Thames to another; the closure of a back gate c. 1535 caused the abbey's 'neighbours', presumably from Oxford, to make a 2-mile detour to reach the abbey. (fn. 53) In 1535 there was a 4-a. close within the precinct. (fn. 54)

David Walter was taxed on only one hearth in 1662, and by 1666 the surviving buildings, the tower, the south and west ranges of the cloisters, the gatehouse, and part of the north range of the outer court, were in ruins. By 1710 only a plain gateway and one side of the tower survived outside the remodelled precinct wall, and within it only one arch of the cloisters, the lower part of the walls of the building or buildings in the west range, and the south-east chapel. (fn. 55) In 1718 many of the surviving walls were being demolished for their stone, and in 1720 most of the abbey grange, across the Thames to the north-east, was demolished and the stone used to extend the house, later the Trout inn, that lay to the south. (fn. 56) A high wind blew down some of the ruins in 1764, and the remains of the tower were last recorded in 1783. (fn. 57) In the mid 18th century the site was an orchard, (fn. 58) and some of the surviving ditches may have been made or altered at that period. In the 19th and 20th centuries the ruins were used as a pound at the annual drives of Port Meadow, and the precinct wall was probably partially rebuilt; the well surrounded by a square wall which stood near the centre of the inclosure until the 1950s may have been made for the use of the pound. (fn. 59)

In 1984 most of the west wall had disappeared. Of the surviving walls, only the south and the remaining part of the west appeared to be medieval. (fn. 60) The western part of the north wall, which incorporated the remains of a barn or other outbuilding, was not shown on the drawings of 1666 or 1718 and may therefore be of the 18th or 19th century. In its eastern part, however, the north wall incorporates the buttress of a 14th-century building. The east wall, which is of varying thickness, may date from George Owen's remodelling of the monastic buildings. The walls and part of the window tracery of the south-east chapel also survived in 1984.


  • 30. Godstow Eng. Reg. i, pp. 27-9; for the date see V.C.H. Oxon. ii. 71; for a discussion of the buildings see D. Ganz, 'The buildings of Godstow Nunnery', Oxoniensia, xxxvii. 150-7.
  • 31. L. & P. Hen. VIII, xv. p. 178.
  • 32. Below, Manors.
  • 33. Blenheim Mun., box 149; Oxf. Univ. Arch., SEP 31 2.
  • 34. Godstow Eng. Reg. i, p. 28; Oxoniensia, xxxvii. 150.
  • 35. Godstow Eng. Reg. i, pp. 44-5.
  • 36. Pipe R. 1176 (P.R.S. xxv), 131; 1177 (P.R.S. xxvi), 13, 26, 64; 1178 (P.R.S. xxvii), 119; 1185 (P.R.S. xxxiv), 29; 1186 (P.R.S. xxxvi), 117; 1188 (P.R.S. xxxviii), 150.
  • 37. Bodl. MS. Top. Oxon. c 313, pp. 358-9; Oxoniensia, xxxvii. 151; Godstow Eng. Reg. i,p. xxii.
  • 38. Visit. Religious Hos., i (L.R.S. vii), 66-8; ii (L.R.S. xiv), 114.
  • 39. Blenheim Mun., box 150; Letter Bk. of Sir Sam. Luke (Beds. Rec. Soc. xlii), p. 545; Bodl. MS. Top. Oxon. d 502, f. 84; above, Intro.
  • 40. Bodl. MS. Rawl. B 408, before f. 1: reproduced in Wood's Life, i (O.H.S. xix), facing p. 346; ibid. MS. Gough Maps 26, between pp. 64 & 65; ibid. MS. Top. Oxon. b 123, f. 66; Wood's Life, i. 338-9, 344-6; Hearne's Colln. ii (O.H.S. vii), 393.
  • 41. Reg. Epist. J. Peckham (Rolls Ser.), iii. 850.
  • 42. Below, Church.
  • 43. Visit. Religious Hos., i. 67.
  • 44. Gent. Mag. liii (1), 462; Torrington Diaries, i. 6.
  • 45. Godstow Eng. Reg. i, p. 273; Lincs. R.O., Episc. Reg. v, f. 79v.
  • 46. County Mus., P.R.N. 1678; Bodl. MS. Top. Oxon. c 309, f. 20; Hearne's Colln. vi (O.H.S. xliii), 227-8; Oxoniensia, viii/ix. 197; xxxvii. 155.
  • 47. Godstow Eng. Reg. ii, p. 367; Visit. Religious Hos., i. 66-8.
  • 48. Wood's Life, i. 338
  • 49. Reg. Epist. F. Peckham (Rolls Ser.), iii. 848; Visit. Religious Hos., i. 66.
  • 50. Hearne's Colln. vi (O.H.S. xliii), 172.
  • 51. County Mus., P.R.N. 1678.
  • 52. Inf. from Mr. D.G. Wilson.
  • 53. Reg. Epist. F. Peckham, iii. 848; L. & P. Hen. VIII, xi, p. 227; Bodl. MS. Top. Oxon. a 18/2; air photo, 1981: copy in Westgate Libr.
  • 54. P.R.O., SC 11/550; Valor Eccl. (Rec. Com.), ii. 191.
  • 55. P.R.O., E 179/164/504; Hearne's Colln. ii (O.H.S. vii), 393; T. Hearne, Account of Some Antiquities in and about Oxf. (1711), 76.
  • 56. Hearne's Colln. vi (O.H.S. xliii), 227-8; vii (O.H.S. xlviii), 203.
  • 57. Oxf. Jnl. Synopsis, 14 Jan. 1764; Torrington Diaries, i. 6; Gent. Mag. liii (1), 462.
  • 58. J. Collinson, Beauties of Brit. Antiq. 242.
  • 59. County Mus., P.R.N. 1678; air photo, 1981: copy in Westgate Libr.
  • 60. R. Com. Hist. Mons. Oxf. 156.