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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In 1279 local jurors asserted that New Woodstock was founded by Henry II to provide lodgings for his retinue when he was at Woodstock Park, which he visited regularly for love of Rosamund Clifford; he therefore provided land outside the park so that men might build hospitia, and he granted a market to the new residents. (fn. 5) The story is supported in part by other evidence, but Woodstock was one of Henry's principal residences before and after his association with Rosamund and indeed the town may have post-dated her death c. 1176; its foundation was presumably a response to the gravitation of trade to the vicinity of the court, and Henry's motives probably included a desire for rents and tolls as well as the need for lodgings and services. In 1177 Woodstock was not among local demesne towns contributing to works in Woodstock Park (fn. 6) and was perhaps founded only shortly before Henry's death in 1189, for in 1194 its rents apparently yielded less than 5s. a year to the king. (fn. 7) In 1199-1200 the men of Woodstock claimed that Henry had enfeoffed them with land for their vill acquired by exchange from the Templars' fee in Hensington (in Bladon parish). (fn. 8) By 1203 Woodstock was tallaged with other local demesne towns and in 1204 its market and rents were farmed. (fn. 9) By 1230, when it was referred to expressly as a borough, its rental yielded c. 36s. (fn. 10)
The site of New Woodstock, a well drained plateau on the edge of the Glyme valley opposite the royal palace, was said to have been vacant when the town was founded. Roman coins were found near the church in 1755 and an urn near Oxford Street in 1810. (fn. 11) The underlying rock is Oolitic limestone, (fn. 12) and many of the town's older houses retain deep, dry cellars. Water was obtained from wells and pumps until a piped supply from the Glyme was provided in the 1690s; fissures in the bedrock were used for sewage disposal until the mid 20th century. (fn. 13)
In the 19th century and probably from the later Middle Ages the borough comprised 61 ½ a. (fn. 14) Its boundary with the park on the west and south was probably established at its foundation, (fn. 15) but it was extended on the north in 1453 when the corporation's meadows (c. 17 a.) were granted by the Crown. (fn. 16) As late as 1750 a triangle of land at the junction of Brook Hill and Upper Brook Hill remained in Hensington, (fn. 17) suggesting that the borough boundary may once have followed the edge of the valley on the line of Upper Brook Hill and Harrison's Lane. The original east boundary was probably altered in the 13th century when the east side of Oxford Street was laid out. (fn. 18) In the 1580s there was a dispute over the boundary near Starting Grove, east of the later Union Street, (fn. 19) and then and later there was uncertainty over the boundary at the south-east corner of the borough: part of the open space at the east end of Rectory Lane, once Townsend pool and the site of the horse fair, was deemed to be in Hensington, and the borough boundary divided the front and rear parts of no. 12 Oxford Street. (fn. 20) The parish was perambulated regularly by the early 17th century; (fn. 21) an 'imperfect' perambulation of 1806 was corrected in 1822 when new crosses were marked, evidently on the line of the boundary mapped in 1876. (fn. 22) Perambulation was revived briefly in 1910 and 1957. (fn. 23) In 1886 the municipal borough was extended to 158 a., incorporating the builtup part of Old Woodstock (51 a.) and part of Hensington (45 a.); in 1894 the added areas became the civil parishes of Old Woodstock and Hensington Within and the remaining 61 ½ a. Woodstock civil parish. (fn. 24) The last was reduced in 1897 to c. 60 a. when Blenheim parish boundary near Old Woodstock mill was moved eastwards to the park wall; thereafter the municipal borough comprised c. 156 a. (63 ha.). (fn. 25) After 1974 the successor parish retained the same boundaries until 1985, when Hensington Without (493 a.) was added and the boundary at the north end of Old Woodstock adjusted to include Hill Rise, formerly in Wootton parish. (fn. 26)
Until mid 20th-century expansion Woodstock remained a small community. The medieval population was probably near its peak in 1279 when there were c. 140 houses and c. 112 named inhabitants. (fn. 27) Numbers had fallen by 1377 when only 164 adults paid poll tax. (fn. 28) There were c. 60 named contributors to the subsidies of 1523-4, (fn. 29) and in 1547-8 the number of communicants was said to be 360. (fn. 30) In 1619 and 1626 there were 92 and 131 adult males at the muster, (fn. 31) and suitors to early 17th-century courts leet, theoretically all male inhabitants aged 12 and above but chiefly the independent householders, usually numbered between 100 and 120, including a few from Old Woodstock and sometimes the widows of freemen. (fn. 32) Lists of suitors in the later 17th century indicate a larger population: there were c. 140 suitors in 1662 and 1687, 148 in 1699, and as many as 171 in 1703. (fn. 33) In 1662 hearth tax was paid by 116 householders and in 1676 there were 367 communicants and 2 nonconformists. (fn. 34) In the 1660s there were averages of c. 19 baptisms and c. 14 burials a year and in the 1690s c. 18 baptisms and c. 16 burials; years of particularly heavy mortality were 1655 and 1708, when burials exceeded 30. (fn. 35) Taken together the evidence suggests that total population in the later 17th century was between 550 and 700.
In the early 18th century the building of Blenheim Palace introduced a large labour force and the town's subsequent prosperity enabled it to sustain the population. By the second decade of the century average baptisms exceeded 28 and burials 21. After a period of stability the population grew rapidly in the 1760s when average baptisms were c. 33 a year and burials c. 29. In the 1770s baptisms rose to 48 a year, probably in part reflecting national population trends. (fn. 36) In 1801 there were 1,322 inhabitants in 311 families, probably double the population in the late 17th century. From a peak of 1,455 in 1821 the population fell to 1,380 in 1831, and an apparent slight rise in 1841 was caused only by the temporary residence of a large labour force restoring Blenheim Palace; by 1851 the population was 1,262 and by 1881 only 1,133. After 1886 population in the former borough, represented by Woodstock civil parish, continued to fall and was below 1,000 between 1921 and 1951. Numbers in the enlarged borough fell from 1,628 in 1891 to 1,484 in 1931. The population increased rapidly after the Second World War, reaching 1,715 by 1951 and 2,037 by 1981. Hensington Without, not included in Woodstock until 1985 although for long effectively a suburb, doubled in population in the 1960s and in 1981 had 1,106 inhabitants. (fn. 37)
Woodstock straddles the Oxford-Stratford road, which was probably an established route before the town's foundation: north of Woodstock the road formed part of the early boundary of Wychwood forest and its crossing point of the Glyme at Old Woodstock was the site of a Domesday mill, (fn. 38) frequently the sign of an early fording place. A causeway there was repaired by the bailiff of Woodstock manor in 1257 (fn. 39) and by the 17th century, when it was the borough's responsibility, it comprised a long series of stone arches. (fn. 40) In 1774 the corporation agreed with the turnpike trustees to rebuild part of the causeway but when the trustees repaired it in 1827 the corporation refused to contribute. (fn. 41) The bridge at the Old Woodstock end of the causeway was accepted as a country bridge and in 1839, after a dispute with the corporation, the county took over the whole length of the derelict causeway; the bridge appears to have been rebuilt in the 1830s and the rest of the causeway in the 1840s. (fn. 42)
An early road to Banbury ran north-east from the town on the line of the later Brook Hill (fn. 43) and is preserved as the green lane following the Glyme valley known in part as Dornford Lane. Henry VIII seems to have entered the town by that route. (fn. 44) After the creation of local turnpike roads in the 18th century, however, the preferred route to Banbury seems to have been by Hensington Road and and its branch north-east to Sturdy's Castle, which were in the care of turnpike trustees by 1804. (fn. 45)
Woodstock had a postal service by 1685 (fn. 46) but by then the town lay off the principal lines of communication: the Oxford-Stratford road was relatively unimportant, the London-Worcester road passed 2 miles to the north, and the Ox-ford-Coventry road 2 miles to the east. (fn. 47) After Blenheim Palace was built, however, Woodstock's attractions to the traveller were recognized: the earliest Oxfordshire turnpike trust, taking over the London-Oxford road at Stoken-church in 1718, also adopted the Oxford-Woodstock road north of the Oxford mileway. (fn. 48) In 1730 the Stratford road between Woodstock and Great Rollright was turnpiked and the town became a popular stopping place for travellers on the 'great Irish road'. (fn. 49)
The development of coaching in Woodstock was attributed to the landlord of the King's Head inn who c. 1760 started a two-wheeled chaise service, soon followed by a post chaise run by the landlord of the Bear inn. (fn. 50) A stage wagon to London was in operation by 1773, (fn. 51) and in the late 18th century the Bellingers, long established carriers to London, were operating a twice-weekly service, and the Priors a weekly wagon to Birmingham. At that time no stage coaches operated from the town but several passed through from other places. (fn. 52) In 1808 a thrice-weekly post coach between Woodstock and London, called the Blenheim, was started, at first using the Old Angel inn but later run as a daily return service from the Bear. (fn. 53) In 1830, at the height of the coaching era, there were eight coaches to London and three to Birmingham on most days, and daily coaches to Holyhead, Worcester, Shrewsbury, and Leicester; carriers provided a daily service to London and Birmingham and regular services to local markets. (fn. 54) Coaching declined sharply in the 1840s: by 1844 the Birmingham and Worcester coaches through Woodstock were carrying London travellers to the railway at Steventon (Berks.), and by 1852 coaches were reduced to daily services to Birmingham, Worcester, and Oxford with regular omnibus connexions to the railway at Kidlington. (fn. 55) Poorer communications forced a change to afternoon postal deliveries in 1844. (fn. 56) The Oxford-Stratford road was disturnpiked in 1878. (fn. 57)
Attempts to obtain a railway link to Woodstock failed (fn. 58) until the 8th duke of Marlborough in 1885 planned a branch line owned by the Woodstock Railway Co., of which he was chairman. The single-track line was opened in 1890, running from the Great Western Railway at Woodstock Road (renamed Kidlington) station to Blenheim and Woodstock station, built on the duke's land on the east side of Oxford Street. The branch was sold to the G.W.R. in 1897. By 1910 there were ten trains a day to Oxford but the service was pruned after the Second World War and the line closed in 1954. (fn. 59) The station survives, largely unaltered, as Young's garage.
New Woodstock was at first a moderately successful planted town, stimulated by royal patronage and the proximity of Woodstock park, which was visited regularly by successive kings. (fn. 60) The original street plan was extended in the 13th century, additional fairs were granted, and the borough acquired large powers of self government long before receiving a formal charter of liberties in 1453. Many leading medieval townsmen held office in the royal manor and park, and court gatherings filled Woodstock with clerks and servants. The provision of a Chancellor's house outside the park in Hensington in 1232 and the jurors' emphasis in 1279 on the provision of lodgings confirms that space in the king's houses was limited; in 1256 even the town could not accommodate surplus guests attending the visit of the king of Scots. (fn. 61) The royal connexion perhaps accounts for the foundation of several small hospitals in the vicinity: a house for leprous women was mentioned in 1182 and 1232, the leper hospital of the Holy Cross in Old Woodstock was recorded from the 1220s, and a hospital of St. Mary the Virgin and St. Mary Magdalene at Woodstock was mentioned in 1339. (fn. 62)
Although the town was evidently well established by the early 14th century it remained one of the smallest Oxfordshire towns, and seems to have declined in prosperity and population in the later Middle Ages. (fn. 63) There is no direct evidence of plague in Woodstock but the Black Death ravaged villages in the town's hinterland and may have caused a long-term setback. Latemedieval kings continued to use the royal park but infrequently, and in the mid 15th century the town contained fewer houses than in 1279. (fn. 64) Vacant sites and large frontages to the market area were in marked contrast to the minute subdivision of plots in more prosperous towns. In 16th-century subsidies Woodstock ranked low among Oxfordshire towns. (fn. 65) and although the late-medieval community was prosperous enough to endow chantries and influential enough to acquire chartered privileges few individuals were notably wealthy.
Fear of plague near Woodstock disrupted royal visits in 1518, 1520, and 1526; (fn. 66) Henry VIII made several later visits but Elizabeth I, imprisoned there in 1554-5, returned only four times as queen. (fn. 67) Risk of plague during royal visits caused royal officers to warn off travellers to Woodstock fair in 1575 and to discourage visitors on other occasions; (fn. 68) in general, however, Woodstock was regarded as healthy, for two Oxford colleges kept houses there as plague retreats and in 1625 the court moved there to escape plague in London. (fn. 69) Declining royal interest in the park was blamed for the town's 'great ruin and decay' in 1565, but Woodstock's new charter of that year, granting an additional market and fairs and valuable former chantry property, (fn. 70) was one of several signs of revival. The right to elect two M.P.s, not invoked since the early 14th century, was reasserted in the mid 16th and greatly influenced the town's later history. (fn. 71) An Act of 1576 making Woodstock a staple town briefly stimulated the local wool trade, and in 1585 the town acquired a grammar school. (fn. 72) The extent of building activity in the late 16th century and early 17th indicates renewed prosperity. James I and Charles I stayed regularly at Woodstock and the town was crowded with courtiers and visitors. (fn. 73) Early 17th-century fairs drew travellers from a wide area. (fn. 74) The relative failure of nearby market towns such as Eynsham, Charlbury, and Deddington extended Woodstock's hinterland: in 1584 a Great Tew inhabitant was made to do penance at Woodstock rather than Deddington market, and by the 17th century Woodstock's market area seems also to have stretched west to Eynsham and east to Islip. (fn. 75) Competition from Oxford and other markets, however, prevented further expansion, and in 1635 Woodstock's assessment for ship money was only £20, compared with Chipping Norton's £30 and Ban- bury's £40. (fn. 76) As the market centre of a troubled rural area Woodstock was concerned in the abortive agrarian uprising of 1596, when the activities of George Whitton, former mayor and prominent local landowner, were among the grievances. (fn. 77)
For much of the Civil War the manor house in Woodstock Park was a royalist stronghold, strategically important to the royalist capital at Oxford. (fn. 78) The town quickly experienced the consequences of partisanship: when royalist troops quartered there in 1642 were succeeded in September by parliamentarians (fn. 79) the town clerk, Edmund Hiorne, was forced to apologize at the Bar of the House of Commons for handing the town's armour to the royalists and publishing a proclamation against the earl of Essex; the Speaker, who castigated Hiorne, was Woodstock's recorder and M.P., William Lenthall.
On 28 October 1642, after the battle of Edgehill, Charles I stayed at Woodstock on the way to Oxford, and by November the manor house was fortified and royalist troops were billeted in the town. (fn. 80) Royalists then occupied Woodstock until June 1644: 2,000 soldiers were reported there in July 1643 when the king and queen were in residence, apparently because of plague in Oxford, but by August there was only a troop of the queen's horse; the garrison was reinforced late in 1643, but most of the troops were withdrawn before March 1644, leaving 300 foot soldiers. (fn. 81) On 2 June 1644 the king was hunting at Woodstock when he heard that Sir William Waller had crossed the Thames at Newbridge; fearing encirclement (fn. 82) he made his notorious flight from Oxford the following night. Soon afterwards parliamentary forces under Essex passed through Woodstock towards Chipping Norton; on 17 July, a royalist garrison installed in the manor house on the previous day surrendered to Waller without a shot after the captain had been arrested during a parley. (fn. 83)
The parliamentarians had left before September 1644. (fn. 84) In October the earl of Northampton with a large royalist army stayed there on the way to relieve Banbury, and seven foot regiments were quartered in Woodstock in November. (fn. 85) Reinforcements to the garrison in 1645 included the transfer of 300 soldiers from Faringdon when Cromwell was expected in the area. (fn. 86) The king stayed at Woodstock on 7 May 1645 on his way north, and may have taken the garrison with him since on 11 May Cromwell passed through the town with 5,000 men. (fn. 87) In September the parliamentary colonel John Butler wrote to Waller from Woodstock, but a few days later royalist troops were sent there and the royalist presence remained firmly established for the rest of the year. (fn. 88) Parliamentary raids on Woodstock were repulsed with small losses in February 1646, (fn. 89) but in March Col. Thomas Rainsborough and an army of 2,000 men arrived with the intention of blockading Oxford, which was cut off from Woodstock by early April. Resources were concentrated against the Woodstock garrison, which repulsed an attack on the manor house on 15 April but surrendered on 26 April after terms had been negotiated from Oxford. The fall of Woodstock precipitated the king's final departure from Oxford on the next day. (fn. 90)
The chamberlains' accounts record payments for billeting soldiers and posting sentries, and the failure to compile full accounts from 1643 to 1645 reflects the disruption of civic life. (fn. 91) In 1646 University College, Oxford, blamed the 'unruly times' for rent loss and decay at its Woodstock house. (fn. 92) Payments were made for demolishing the fortifications in 1646 but soldiers were still billeted in Woodstock in 1647; in 1648 prisoners in transit from Colchester damaged the church when they were locked up there. (fn. 93) Local royalists rejoiced in 1649 when parliamentary surveyors were frightened from Woodstock manor house by supposed hauntings, later alleged to be the contrivance of an Oxford royalist. (fn. 94) None of the corporation are known to have been purged as royalists, but Benjamin Merrick, gentleman, resident at the house later Woodstock House, was fined for joining the king at Oxford. (fn. 95)
During the Interregnum the economic effects of the decline of the royal park were again Hamper, pp. 73-4. Marshall, Woodstock Manor, 198, misdates Northampton's arrival to 1645. noted. (fn. 96) Damage to the manor house was never fully repaired after the Restoration, royal visits ceased, and when William III visited Woodstock he lodged in the town. (fn. 97) New College, Oxford, reckoned that its rent from Woodstock property had halved since the days of regular royal visits (fn. 98) and in the 1680s there were complaints, perhaps exaggerated, that the town was poor, dependent entirely on markets and fairs, and lacking 'any manufacture to maintain it and the poor'. (fn. 99) On the basis of hearth tax returns Woodstock, while evidently prospering more than local market towns such as Eynsham and Charlbury, had fallen well behind the expanding Banbury and Witney. (fn. 1) Woodstock began to attract resident gentry, partly because of the introduction of horse racing but perhaps also because of its 'most pleasant and healthy' situation. (fn. 2) The corporation, purged at the Restoration, acquired a charter in 1664 which remained its governing instrument until 1886, but from the later 17th century it was increasingly subservient to political patrons interested chiefly in the borough's right to elect two M.P.s; it became less representative of the inhabitants and lacked the funds or the will to meet the growing demands of local government.
The town was transformed by the building of Blenheim Palace, begun in 1705. Thereafter many townsmen depended directly or indirectly on the palace and estate. Tourism became central to the town's economy, stimulating the coaching trade, benefiting innkeepers and shopkeepers, and aiding the development of two industries, gloving and steel jewellery manufacture, for which the town became widely known. Markets and fairs flourished, the resident gentry were augmented and grander houses built, and by the later 18th century there were several fashionable boarding schools. Woodstock's fame through tourism was reflected in the large number of places in the New World which adopted its name. In 1721 Woodstock was described as a 'neat country corporation' with good inns and well paved streets. (fn. 3) By the end of the century it was praised for improvements 'both in buildings and the respectability of their occupiers'; communications were excellent and Woodstock was recommended to retired persons 'with moderate fortunes'. (fn. 4) Even so Woodstock remained one of the least populous Oxfordshire market towns in the earlier 19th century. (fn. 5a)
The Marlboroughs dominated the borough as high stewards, political and ecclesiastical patrons, and major employers and purchasers. The Crown's gift to them of Woodstock manor included no town property, but later they acquired substantial holdings, including the principal coaching inns, the Marlborough Arms and the Bear, and the town's waterworks which they retained until 1934. They were major benefactors, paving the streets in 1714, building the town hall in 1766, restoring the church in the 1780s, building almshouses in the 1790s, and providing land for the National schools of 1854. Their influence was sometimes resented and an anti-Blenheim group was usually active in local affairs.
Rural distress in the town's hinterland provoked food riots at Woodstock in 1766 and tension over bread supply in 1795. (fn. 6a) In 1798 the corporation considered forming an armed association to preserve the peace (fn. 7a) and in 1800 the mayor appointed special constables to prevent disruption of the market. (fn. 8a) The formation of the Loyal Woodstock Volunteers in 1803, ostensibly in aid of national defence, perhaps also reflected anxiety over local disturbances. (fn. 9a) In 1830 there was industrial unrest among the town's glovers and in 1831 a group deported for machine breaking included Woodstock men. (fn. 10a)
The borough lost its own M.P.s in 1832 but remained dominant in a larger, single-member constituency until 1885. It became the centre of a poor law union in 1834. During the 19th century the inadequacy of the old corporation was increasingly criticized, and in 1886 a reformed corporation was given wide powers over an enlarged borough. The town's economic stagnation was reflected in steadily falling numbers throughout the century, contrary to national trends and in contrast to successful local towns such as Banbury, Chipping Norton, and Bicester; (fn. 11a) emigration was evidently substantial, particularly in the late 19th century. (fn. 12a) Several factors contributed to Woodstock's relative decline: the steel jewellery craftsmen failed to compete with mass production in the Midlands; tradesmen and others dependent on Blenheim suffered when the household was severely reduced in the 5th duke's time (1817-40); the gloving industry, hardly mechanized until the later 19th century, shared the problems, largely caused by foreign competition, affecting the industry nationally; above all the decline of coaching and the failure to acquire a railway link left Woodstock unable to compete with larger market towns.
Tourism, however, continued to supplement the town's function as the market of a diminishing hinterland. The streets were regularly decked to welcome distinguished visitors to Blenheim, (fn. 13a) of whom some took an interest in the town: in 1870 the prince of Wales visited the Oxon.' (Birm. Univ. Ph. D. thesis, 1981), 332-3. National school and in 1873 Benjamin Disraeli inspected schools and a glove factory. (fn. 14a) In the mid 19th century, when fairs had largely ceased and the weekly market had dwindled, Woodstock was described as a sleepy little town, 'singularly neat and clean', glorying in the past rather than the present. (fn. 15a) Controversy, however, disrupted the town's political and religious life for much of the 19th century. In the 1870s the town's leading Liberals and Methodists were prominent in the local agricultural trade union movement, (fn. 16a) and in the 1890s a traveller noted the town's 'discontented spirit' and hostility to landlords. (fn. 17a)
Although the opening of the railway caused some revival in gloving and tourism its impact was limited. By the 1930s Woodstock was a quiet backwater, its market finally abandoned, its tourist trade minimal, its streets cluttered with overhead electricity cables; gloving continued but many inhabitants were employed in the Oxford motor industry. (fn. 18a) Suburban expansion, particularly in Hensington, began on a small scale in the 1930s and after the Second World War the town was transformed; tourism thrived after the reopening of Blenheim in 1950, and Woodstock began to attract many commuters and retired professional people. The range and nature of Woodstock's shops reflected the relative affluence of the local community and the town's dependence on tourism.
The 17th-century corporation entertained visiting dignitaries, gave twice-yearly leet dinners, and provided wine and 'taste cakes' at New Year and other festivals and bell-ringing and bonfires on 5 November and days of national celebration. Royal visits provided spectacle and entertainment: the corporation paid for ringers and for gifts to the king's trumpeters and other members of the retinue; the queen's players were in Woodstock in 1609 and the king's players in 1635. (fn. 19a) Sermons and weekly lectures were important civic occasions, and the corporation entertained many visiting preachers. (fn. 20a) From the later 17th century the range of official festivities narrowed, but leet dinners continued and the corporation provided refreshments and music on days of national thanksgiving. (fn. 21a) Much corporate entertainment was restricted to leading townsmen: in the early 17th century wine was usually dispensed only among 'the neighbours' (i.e. fellow councillors) and on thanksgiving days in the 18th century, while councillors drank wine in the town hall, the 'populace' shared a hogshead of ale at Penniless Bench. (fn. 22a)
Popular pastimes recorded in the 16th and 17th centuries included archery, cockfighting, and bowls; archery, because of its military significance, was supported by the corporation. (fn. 23a) Cards and dice were played in the town's many alehouses. (fn. 24a) Woodstock's distinctive May Day customs were noted in the 17th century: hawthorns taken from the park were set up before houses and there was dancing and feasting. (fn. 25a) In 1610 the corporation paid for music when an elm for the maypole was 'brought home' from combe and in 1634 the ranger of the park was wined when the maypole was acquired, presumably from the park. (fn. 26a) In 1678 the churchwardens bought the maypole and in 1742 the corporation repaired the site where it had stood. (fn. 27a)
The maypole was central to the town's Whitsun customs. By the early 19th century there was a septennial Whitsun ale (fn. 28a) during which the pole and an evergreen bower were set up on the green at the junction of Oxford Street and Rectory Lane; a lord and lady were chosen, with the traditional accoutrements of an owl, a flail, and a wooden horse, and revels and morris dancing continued throughout Whit week. (fn. 29a) Similar Whitsun ales or sports were held annually in the early 17th century, providing income for church repair; (fn. 30a) lords and ladies were chosen, and in 1614 the corporation bought an apron for 'our Whitsuntide lady'. (fn. 31a) Timber for the festivities was not always obtained from the park, (fn. 32a) but by the 19th century the dukes of Marlborough provided both maypole and bower. (fn. 33a) The town's claim in the early 19th century to an ancient right to Whitsuntide timber from Wychwood forest probably related to traditional grants from the park, whose associated outwoods were at one time coppiced every seven years. (fn. 34a) The 17th-century celebrations included a procession on Ascension day, evidently a perambulation of the town boundary. (fn. 35a) Income from Whitsun ales was not recorded after the late 17th century (fn. 36a) but in the mid 18th the corporation regularly paid for cakes, ale, and a drummer for the procession. (fn. 37a) The last recorded Whitsun ale, in 1851, attracted criticism for the 'buffoonery, profaneness, and obscenity' of this 'remnant of a dark age'. (fn. 38a)
Although county justices occasionally met at Woodstock in the Middle Ages and later, (fn. 39a) the town's role as a meeting place for the local gentry and aristocracy emerged more strongly when horse racing was introduced c. 1676. (fn. 40a) The race meetings, held, usually in September, in most years until the 1730s, were important to Woodstock's political patrons: their instigator, John, Lord Lovelace, brought Titus Oates to the races in 1679 and removed the meeting briefly to Oxford when snubbed by Woodstock voters in 1680; (fn. 41a) in the 1690s plates for races were presented by the Whig Thomas, Lord Wharton, and the Tory James Bertie, earl of Abingdon, contenders for the Woodstock interest; (fn. 42a) and Montagu Bertie, earl of Abingdon, set up a rival meeting in Oxford when the Marlboroughs took over patronage of the Woodstock constituency and the races in 1705. (fn. 43a) The earliest course was at Campsfield (in Kidlington parish) but by 1682 racing was over a 4 mile course in Woodstock Park; the meetings included a stag hunt, coursing, foot races, and smock races for women. (fn. 44a) In 1722 the races were held at Campsfield after Sarah, duchess of Marlborough, refused access to the park, but meetings were again at Blenheim in 1732-4 when the duchess was striving to restore her influence. (fn. 45a) Thereafter the Marlboroughs patronized the races at Oxford, where their political interest was less secure. (fn. 46a) The 4th duke, who inherited in 1758, briefly opened a 2-mile course at Blenheim. (fn. 47a) Although Woodstock was said to have annual race meetings as late as 1795, only a few races at Campsfield were advertised from the mid 18th century. (fn. 48a) Blenheim and Campsfield were used for challenge races in 1828, and in the 1830s the Oxfordshire Yeomanry held annual public horse races as part of their summer exercises in Blenheim Park. (fn. 49a)
Other 18th-century pastimes, besides the continuing bowls and cockfighting, included cricket, played by the 'gentlemen of Woodstock' in the 1790s; (fn. 50a) separate Woodstock and Blenheim Park cricket clubs were formed in the 19th century. (fn. 51a) Boxing matches were held at Campsfield in 1816. (fn. 52a) Plays and puppet shows were banned from the town hall in 1771 but concerts, balls, and lectures were held there regularly from the late 18th century. (fn. 53a) The Woodstock stage, characterized in 1765 by 'poverty, rags, and blunders', (fn. 54a) may have been at the town hall, but by the 1770s there was a theatre at the Six Bells (later no. 16 Oxford Street). (fn. 55a) Visiting companies included the Theatre Royal in 1780, and plays were advertised regularly until 1788. (fn. 56a) In 1788-9 plays were performed publicly at a theatre in Blenheim Palace by the duke's family. (fn. 57a) An unidentified New Theatre in Woodstock was mentioned in 1820. (fn. 58a) Assemblies were held at the Marlborough Arms in the early 19th century, presumably in the ballroom surviving at no. 32 Oxford Street, which was built and incorporated into the inn in the later 18th century; (fn. 59a) by tradition Sarah Siddons (d. 1831) acted there. (fn. 60a) In the 1870s the Royal Assembly Rooms were built at the King's Arms hotel, and used for plays, concerts, and other events until the 1970s. (fn. 61a) In 1922 the Empire cinema was opened at no. 41 Oxford Street, which had been a Wesleyan chapel until 1907 and thereafter the Freemasons' hall. The Empire closed c. 1930 and the building was later used as a garage. (fn. 62a)
There was a library in the corporation's care in 1746, (fn. 63a) and book societies were mentioned in 1787 and the 1820s. (fn. 64a) The Woodstock Literary Institute, at first called the Mechanics' Institute, was established c. 1852 with 60 subscribers and a small library. (fn. 65a) Probably from the outset it was in Market Street in a building, later the north-west corner of the Feathers hotel, then owned by the Revd. John Carlyle, schoolmaster. (fn. 66a) Proposals to move the Institute to the town hall in 1868 failed, (fn. 67a) but in 1894 the corporation bought the Institute's stock as the basis of a public library. (fn. 68a)
In the 18th century the town was noted for horticulture. Florists' feasts were held by 1759, (fn. 69a) and in the later 18th century were held 1858; Oxf. Chron. 14 July 1877. annually at one of the town's inns, notably the King's Arms from 1791 until 1809. (fn. 70a) The Woodstock Florists' and Horticultural Society, founded in 1825, held annual shows recorded until 1835, (fn. 71a) and in the early 19th century there were separate shows for carnations and melons, gooseberries, and other varieties. (fn. 72a) The Blenheim apple, first grown at Old Woodstock, (fn. 73a) acquired national renown, and apples, gooseberries, and other fruits from Woodstock gardens regularly won national prizes. Among local horticulturalists John Fardon (d. 1865), clockmaker at no. 6 Market Place, was particularly prominent. (fn. 74a) The Woodstock Agricultural and Horticultural Association, formed in 1858 and surviving until the 1930s, held annual shows. (fn. 75a)
Woodstock Provident Society, founded in 1781 at the Old Angel inn, claimed to be the earliest box club in the county. (fn. 76a) The town's friendly societies retained a high membership in the early 19th century (fn. 77a) and several became associated with particular political groups: in the 1840s the Woodstock Friendly Society was supported chiefly by Liberals and nonconformists. (fn. 78a) In 1868 the feasts of the Woodstock Friendly Society, the United Brethren, and the United Benefit Society were held on the same day in the Marlborough Arms, the New Angel, and the Star respectively; music was provided by the Oxford Yeomanry band and the Woodstock Drum and Fife band. (fn. 79a) In the later 19th century branches of national friendly societies became dominant, but the Woodstock United Permanent Benefit Society, founded in 1871, survived into the 1920s. (fn. 80a) Many political, sports, and special interest clubs were founded in the 19th century and later. One of the longer lasting was Woodstock Social Club, started c. 1920 chiefly for returning service men; it was at no. 7 High Street until moving in 1976 to no. 44 Oxford Street. (fn. 81a) The Woodstock Society, which provides lectures and has compiled historical and architectural surveys of the town, was formed in 1966. (fn. 82a) From the 1930s fund-raising pageants were sometimes held, and in 1953 a pageant formed part of the town's 500th anniversary celebrations. (fn. 83a) Carnivals in 1966-9 were devoted to financing the town's swimming pool, and annual carnivals were held from 1982, at first in aid of the town hall restoration fund and later for various projects. (fn. 84a)
The repeated allegation that Woodstock was the home of Geoffrey Chaucer is unfounded. (fn. 85a) Distinguished natives included the philosopher and teacher John Case (d. 1600) (fn. 86a) and the artist and engraver Charles Turner (1774-1857), whose father Charles was the duke's house steward in the 1760s, later a schoolmaster in Old Woodstock, and finally a draper and glover in High Street. (fn. 87a) John Bennet, the 18th-century 'shoemaker poet' of Woodstock, (fn. 88a) was evidently John Bennet (1737-1803), whose father Sanders Bennet (d. 1783) was parish clerk and organist for nearly 50 years. (fn. 89a)