Blenheim: Introduction

Pages 430-431

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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Blenheim parish lies c. 8 miles (12 km.) north-west of Oxford, adjoining the west side of Woodstock. (fn. 20) In origin it was Woodstock Park, an ancient royal hunting reserve granted with Woodstock manor by Queen Anne in 1705 to John Churchill, duke of Marlborough, to honour his victory at the battle of Blenheim. Granted with the park were the king's houses (sometimes called the royal palace or manor house of Woodstock), demolished soon afterwards. (fn. 21) The duke's new house there was called first Blenheim House then Blenheim Palace and the park became Blenheim Park.

Woodstock Park was extra-parochial, its tithes having been granted to Godstow abbey, allegedly in the 12th century. (fn. 22) After the Dissolution the Crown granted the tithes to George Owen, the king's physician, whose son George sold them in 1612 to John Whitton; they were then held by the Whittons, comptrollers of the park, until William Whitton sold them to the duke in 1705. In 1860 they were formally merged in the land. (fn. 23) Under an Act of 1857 the extra-parochial area was deemed a civil parish, Blenheim Park; (fn. 24) it comprised 2,269 a., although the park itself was slightly larger, having taken in land from adjacent parishes. (fn. 25) In 1897 the parish was extended to the line of the park wall near Seven Arches Bridge, taking in c. 1 a. from Woodstock borough. (fn. 26) In 1954 a new civil parish, Blenheim, was created by adding to the former Blenheim Park parish 40 a. at the south-east corner of the park, including land outside the walls, all formerly part of Hensington Without. The new parish comprised 2,310 a. (935 ha.) and included all the park except an area in the south-east around the Lince which remained in Bladon. (fn. 27)

Blenheim parish is divided by the river Glyme, dammed in the 18th century to form a great lake, the centrepiece of Lancelot Brown's landscape design. East of the Glyme, Lower Park rises gently from c. 250 ft. (76 m.) near the southern boundary with Bladon to c. 315 ft. (96 m.) near the palace. West of the Glyme the park comprises three main areas: the lowest is at the south end, where the land between Spring Lock Lodge and the Lince occupies a peninsula between the Glyme and the river Evenlode; on rising ground to the north is High Park, which reaches c. 380 ft. (116 m.) near High Lodge and is divided from Great Park on the north by a steep dry valley, penetrated at its south-eastern end by an arm of the lake; Great Park is a wide, open plateau rising near the centre to c. 364 ft. (111 m.), its boundaries following a dry valley on the west but elsewhere unaffected by natural features. Towards its eastern edge Great Park is cut by another dry valley which forks north of Fishery Cottage.

Most of the park lies on rocks of the Great Oolite series; (fn. 28) Great Park is predominantly White Limestone but its central and highest part between Park Farm and Grim's ditch is capped by Forest Marble. Lower Park and the southern peninsula are mostly Forest Marble, with White Limestone on the slopes of the valley and outcrops of Lower Cornbrash south of the palace and along the eastern edge of the park south of Hensington gate. High Park is fringed with Lower Cornbrash but its highest part is Oxford Clay of the Upper Jurassic, with a superficial deposit of clayey gravel, the Plateau Drift, providing a water table between High Lodge and Combe gate. While High Park has remained wood pasture dominated by ancient oaks, elsewhere large areas of park were turned to pasture and arable, the White Limestone and Forest Marble providing soils ranging from stony brash to friable loam, but generally suitable for corngrowing. Stone was dug in the park from an early date, and there are many abandoned quarries, of which the largest is in Great Park near Icehouse Clump. In the Middle Ages the stone was used for the park walls and other buildings; the builders of Blenheim Palace found no freestone of sufficient quality in the park, but used the quarries for rubble and lime. (fn. 29)

The parish contains well preserved signs of early occupation. (fn. 30) At the north end is a section of the north Oxfordshire Grim's ditch, a system of earthworks possibly marking a Belgic frontier of the 1st century. Running across the north end of Great Park, and apparently aligned on a gap in the section of Grim's ditch, is Akeman Street, which connected St. Albans and Cirencester and was one of the principal Roman roads of the south Midlands. Romano-British pottery and coinage has been found in concentrations that suggest possible settlements near Ditchley gate, south-east of Furze Platt, and north-west of Rosamond's well. Roman coins were discovered on the site of the king's houses, which stood on the edge of the Glyme valley opposite the present palace, and were probably established by the 10th century. (fn. 31) In the later 18th century a burial site of unknown date containing a 'vast quantity' of bones, was discovered on the 'brow of the hill' north-east of Combe Bottom (the western arm of the great lake). (fn. 32)

From the early Middle Ages the park supported a resident population in the main house and in outlying lodges and gatehouses. Large variations in population in the 19th century reflected the presence or absence of the ducal family as well as changes in staffing policy. In 1811 there were 121 residents, but in 1831, when George, the 5th duke, was in reduced circumstances, only 83. Numbers rose in the later 19th century, when there were c. 25 houses and lodges in the parish. In 1901 the resident population was 164 and throughout the 20th century was usually between 110 and 130. (fn. 33)

A vestry was held for the parish, meeting annually in the 1880s in the estate office, chiefly to elect two overseers and a waywarden. From 1894 the vestry was replaced by an annual parish meeting. (fn. 34)


  • 20. O.S. Map 1/25,000, SP 41/51 (1982 edn.). The principal modern maps used were O.S. Maps 1/10,000, SP 41, NW., NE., SW. (1979-80 edns.); O.S. Maps 6" SP 41, NW., NE., SW. (1955 edn.); O.S. Maps 6", Oxon. XXVI (1876 and later edns.).
  • 21. Below, Woodstock Manor; King's Hos.
  • 22. Cal. Chart. R. 1226-57, 128; 1300-26, 329-30; Godstow Eng. Reg. ed. A. Clark (E.E.T.S.), ii, pp. 667, 671-2; Rot. Parl. i. 331.
  • 23. L. /?/ P. Hen. VIII, xv, p. 178; Blenheim Mun., box 130; ibid. shelf G 1, misc. box 10, abstract of deeds re Woodstock incumbrances.
  • 24. Relief of Poor Act, 20 Vic., c. 19; Pars. of Eng. and Wales, H.C. 114, pp. 342-3 (1867-8), liii.
  • 25. O.S. Area Bk. (1877); below, Park to 1705.
  • 26. Census, 1901; Loc. Govt. Bd. Order 35, 928; O.S. Map ½,500, Oxon. XXVI. 8 (1876, 1899 edns.).
  • 27. Census, 1961.
  • 28. Description based on Geol. Surv. Map 1", solid and drift, sheet 236 (1938 edn.); Blenheim: Landscape for a Palace, ed. J. Bond and K. Tiller, 5-12; W. J. Arkell, 'Geol. map of Blenheim', in D. Green, Blenheim Palace, 293-5.
  • 29. e.g. Green, Blenheim Palace, 56-7.
  • 30. Archaeol. finds summarized in Blenheim, ed. Bond and Tiller, 15-21.
  • 31. Below, King's Hos.
  • 32. Bodl. MS. Top. Oxon. d 173, f. 1971; cf. ibid. c 351, ff. 261-2.
  • 33. Census, 1801-1981.
  • 34. Blenheim Mun., shelf B 5, vestry min. bk. 1886-1938.