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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The King's houses
Royal interest in the chase led to the establishment at Woodstock of a hunting lodge, presumably by the reign of Ethelred II (978-1016) when a witan was held 'at Woodstock in the land of the Mercians'. (fn. 42) The building, if on the site of the later king's houses, stood on the west bank of the river Glyme, just within Wychwood forest (fn. 43) and probably within the bounds of a large preConquest royal estate centred on Wootton. (fn. 44) Later, as the administrative centre of Woodstock manor, the king's houses were usually known as Woodstock Manor, although also called Woodstock castle (fn. 45) and, by later writers, the royal palace.
The early Norman kings visited Woodstock, and Henry I, to whom the creation of the park was attributed, made it the 'favourite seat of his retirement and privacy'. (fn. 46) His presence there also brought the household and the great men of the realm. Robert Bloet, bishop of Lincoln, died there in 1123 while riding with the king, and peers sat there in judgement on Geoffrey de Clinton when he was accused of treason in 1130. (fn. 47) The Empress Maud was said to have built a castle at Woodstock, perhaps fortifying the existing buildings. (fn. 48) Henry II kept his mistrees Rosamund Clifford there, and was said to have founded New Woodstock merely to provide lodgings for his court. (fn. 49) At Woodstock he received the homage of the rulers of Scotland and Wales in 1163. The assize of Woodstock concerning the forest was promulgated there in 1184, and there were important ecclesiastical councils in 1175 and 1184 and a royal wedding in 1186; Henry visited at least once in each of 13 other years. (fn. 50) King John was often there, and in 1205 made as many as six visits. (fn. 51) Of his successors Henry III, to judge from the extent of his building works, was perhaps the most devoted to Woodstock. Having survived an assassination attempt there in 1238, he took measures to make the buildings more secure. (fn. 52) Of many notable gatherings at Woodstock during his reign probably the largest was for the visit in 1256 of Alexander III, king of Scots, when guests were so numerous that tents had to be put up in the fields and extra lodgings provided in Oxford. (fn. 53) Edward I was a frequent visitor in the first two decades of his reign; (fn. 54) his youngest son, Edward 'of Woodstock', was born there in 1301, and his daughter Eleanor in 1306.
Although from the early 14th century the manor was granted to queens in dower or was held by farmers, the king's houses remained at the disposal of later medieval kings; all frequented Woodstock, and several royal children were born there, including Edward II's daughter Eleanor in 1318 and Edward III's children Edward the Black Prince in 1330, Isabella in 1332, and Thomas 'of Woodstock' in 1355. (fn. 55) Hunting was probably the major attraction, but tournaments, too, were held there, as in 1355 on the occasion of the royal birth (fn. 56) and at Christmas 1389, during a visit by Richard II, when John, earl of Pembroke, was killed in a jousting accident. (fn. 57) The incidence of building work at the king's houses in the 15th century suggests that Henry VI and Edward IV maintained an interest in Woodstock, (fn. 58) and Henry VII ordered a major rebuilding. Henry VIII visited infrequently, (fn. 59) and Elizabeth, imprisoned there in 1554-5 in the custody of Sir Henry Bedingfield, (fn. 60) returned only in 1566, 1574, 1575, and 1592. (fn. 61) James I, a keen sportsman, stayed there in most years of his reign: in the hot summer of 1612 the whole court was entertained in a house of green boughts built in the park. (fn. 62) Charles I also stayed regularly and 'great multitudes flocked thither' to see him. (fn. 63) He found time to hunt there during the Civil War, when the manor house was a royalist garrison until it was surrendered after a short siege in April 1646. (fn. 64) The damage sustained by the house then and after a sale of materials during the Interregnum, together with a lack of interest in hunting, discouraged further royal visits. Charles II and the duke of York called briefly in 1663 and 1665, and James II in 1687; (fn. 65) when William III visited Woodstock in 1695 he stayed at John Cary's house in the town. (fn. 66)
In the early Middle Ages works at the manor house were usually carried out by keepers of the king's houses or the bailiffs of the manor on the direct orders of royal officers. (fn. 67) Later, when held in dower by various queens, the manor house was repaired at their cost. When farmed, expenditure on works was allowed against the rent. Responsibility for maintenance usually fell upon a resident comptroller of works, but occasionally, when larger projects were in hand, ad hoc clerks of works were appointed by the Crown, and in the 16th century the clerk of the King's Works was sometimes involved. (fn. 68) For a time in the early 16th century and again from the late 16th century a mason was employed permanently. (fn. 69)
Several early serjeanties were associated with the king's houses: a Hanborough serjeanty was held by service of guarding Woodstock for 40 days in time of war, and a hide in Ludwell (in Wootton parish) was held by serjeanty of tending the royal garden. Some Combe tenants were obliged to provide a truss of straw when the king visited Woodstock, and the lord of Combe was charged with ensuring that the jakes, privies, and chimneys were cleaned. The tenants of Hordley (in Wootton parish) were obliged to clean the king's houses before and after royal visits. (fn. 70)
In the early 13th century a chaplain for Woodstock manor was paid 50 s. a year from the country farm, and additional clerks were paid for chanting on special occasions. (fn. 71) By 1240 two chaplains were each paid 50s. by the farmer of Woodstock, and soon afterwards a third was appointed. (fn. 72) From the 1290s until the later 15th century there were usually two chaplains, the fee rising by stages to £6 13s. 4d.; they had lodgings in the manor house and a fuel allowance, and were expected to reside. (fn. 73) By the mid 15th century the chaplains were appointed to the perpetual chantry of St. Mary to pray for the soul of the king and his progenitors. (fn. 74) By the 16th century there was only one chaplain, probably non-resident since royal visits decreased; some were local clergy, such as Thomas Elcock, appointed in 1572, who was rector of Bladon. (fn. 75) Until the Civil War the porter of the manor house was allowed £5 a year to provide a chaplain when required. (fn. 76)
The king's houses were removed and the site levelled in the 18th century. (fn. 77) The site is marked by a memorial stone on the low hill immediately north-east of the Grand Bridge in Blenheim Park. It was protected on the east and south by the steep banks of the Glyme valley, and until the 18th century was approached by converging causeways, one crossing the valley directly from the town gate, another, further south, partially preserved as Queen Elizabeth's island in the upper lake. (fn. 78) In the 13th century the upper causeway divided the royal fishponds, (fn. 79) and the lower probably formed the southern dam of a stew called King's pool, which was drained in the 15th century. (fn. 80) The principal causeway was probably the lower: in the early 18th century it was the wider and probably carried wheeled traffic, which, because of the steepness of the valley, could not cross directly from the town. (fn. 81) In the 1720s the lower causeway was rebuilt to form a dam and cascade for the shallow lake that preceded the present lake. (fn. 82)
Henry II added a new chamber in 1176-7 and repaired the chapel in 1186, presumably for the wedding of William, king of Scots, to Ermengrade de Beaumont. An aisled hall divided by stone piers, described in 1634, (fn. 83) was probably of the 12th century: an aisled hall was recorded in 1233 and John Aubrey c. 1670 remembered round-headed arches and zig-zag moulding. (fn. 84) Henry III's extensive building works at Woodstock included the addition of several chapels, including one for the queen, begun in 1238-9, which was a substantial building with an undercroft and crenellated walls. The great chapel used for the royal wedding in 1186 (fn. 85) may have been the same as the round chapel mentioned in 1233: (fn. 86) the round chapel was probably that described in 1599, when it was evidently the principal chapel, as 'built in the Jewish fashion in a semi-circle', (fn. 87) suggesting a parallel with the 12th-century chapel at Ludlow. The only chapel windows seen by Aubrey were of the 13th century or early 14th, but may have been of another chapel that also survived into the 17th century. (fn. 88)
The 13th-century buildings included a crenellated king's high chamber at one end of the hall. The hall and chamber were reached from the courtyard by a great staircase, which was given an elaborate porch in 1231-2; the porch, approached by 35 stone steps, survived in 1599. (fn. 89) During the 13th century separate and extensive suites of chambers and service rooms were built for the queen, who also had a highwalled garden and a herb garden for her to walk in near the king's stew. (fn. 90) The main buildings were grouped around two courtyards, with the entrance apparently on the west or south-west. The outbuildings included a great barn and, near the park gate, (fn. 91) separate king's and queen's stables. Some buildings were adapted to the needs of government: many payments were made in the king's wardrobe there, and in 1240 an exchequer or counting house was ordered for the hall, displaying the verse Qui non dat quod amat non accipit ille quod optat. A building for the Chancellor and his clerks was maintained at royal expense outside the park on an unidentified site in Hensington; in 1232 Ralph Neville, the Chancellor, was given 40 oaks to complete his buildings there, (fn. 92) and they were regularly repaired until 1286. (fn. 93)
The spring and pond preserved as Fair Rosamund's well, west of the site of the king's houses, was the focus of a separate group of 12th-century buildings, called in the 13th century Everswell, but persistently associated with Henry II's mistress and later known as Rosamund's well or bower. Works at the spring were carried out in 1155-6, and Rosamund's chamber there was mentioned from the early 13th century; later the whole group of buildings was referred to as Rosamund's. In the 13th century the buildings stood within an enclosure entered through a gatehouse, and comprised, besides Rosamund's chamber, chambers for the king and queen, a chapel, cloistered pools, and gardens; a larger and smaller pool were mentioned in 1235-6, and in 1239 a great pool was added. (fn. 94) In the 17th century there were three linked pools below the spring, and a separate, larger pool. (fn. 95)
Close parallels have been drawn between the circumstances of Henry II and Rosamund and the 12th-century romance Tristan and Isolde, with its setting of an enclosed garden, cloisters, and pools. It has been suggested that such a rural pavilion as Everswell, unique in England, may have followed Sicilian examples known to the Angevins. From the 14th century the legend of a maze or labyrinth 'of Daedalian workmanship' through which Rosamund was traced by the jealous Queen Eleanor was recorded in literary sources, (fn. 96) but no unusual structures were mentioned in building accounts. Later writers implied secret passages, (fn. 97) but a vaulted tunnel discovered nearby was almost certainly associated with water-supply to the king's houses. (fn. 98)
The buildings at Rosamund's well continued to be used as a rural retreat by the court, and were maintained into the 16th century; a new chamber was built there in the 1360s, Rosamund's tower was repaired by Edward IV, and in 1571-2 a fallen building there was rebuilt in timber. In 1577 Sir Henry Lee held Rosamund's 'house' and a ruined dovecot there, but by 1599 only a few walls and doorways were standing. (fn. 99) In 1642 Aubrey saw substantial ruins, but they were slighted for defensive reasons during the Civil War, leaving only the ponds, the low walls of an inner and outer enclosure, and the ruins of a 'noble gatehouse' at the north-east corner. The surviving Rosamund's well was probably the uppermost of the three linked ponds. (fn. 1)
The king's houses were repaired, sometimes extensively, throughout the Middle Ages, but few notable additions were made except for a new tower over the king's chamber in the mid 15th century. Henry VII spent over £ 4,000 on works at Woodstock between 1494 and 1503, including major alterations to the hall, probably reroofing. Although not mentioned in accounts the large gatehouse, which contained some 14 rooms, (fn. 2) was attributed to Henry VII in an inscription, and he was said to have built the front and the outer court. (fn. 3) He was probably also responsible for a tennis court mentioned in 1528 and repaved in 1541-2. Aubrey, from the ubiquity of shields and 'cognizances' of Henry VII found there, concluded that he had rebuilt much of the older structure. (fn. 4)
In 1498-9 a conduit was built to carry water to the king's houses in a vaulted tunnel. When the system was repaired in 1536 with lead taken from the dissolved priory of Canons Ashby (Northants.) it included pipes laid in the tunnel; others, encased in wood, were carried on stone piers across valleys in the park. The tunnel, which culminated in a cistern house, was given new vents to provide air for the men working within it. Presumably the conduit supplied the great fountain in the principal courtyard, mentioned in 1593-5, and the baths attributed to Henry VIII in 1599. (fn. 5) Improvements to the conduit in 1623-4 included heightening a cistern near Rosamund's well and enlarging a 'force house'.
Later evidence suggests that the conduit approached the king's houses from the west or south-west. Aubrey, discussing the labyrinth at Rosamund's bower, claimed that a vented freestone vault, still visible, led from the bower towards Combe church. (fn. 6) What was presumably the same vault was described in the early 19th century as an arched and paved tunnel running from the site of the palace to the edge of Combe Bottom, the valley now partly occupied by the western arm of the lake. By then the tunnel contained no pipes and was considered to be associated with Rosamund's labyrinth. (fn. 7) Almost certainly it was the remains of Henry VII's conduit, aligned towards Combe to tap springs on the high ground on the west side of the park, perhaps near the present High Lodge. (fn. 8) The section of conduit raised on piers presumably crossed Combe Bottom.
In 1539 repairs to the manor house cost £200 but by 1551 it was said to have been 'for many years decayed and prostrated', (fn. 9) reflecting diminishing royal interest. When Elizabeth I was taken there in 1554 only four rooms were prepared for her and only three doors could be made secure. (fn. 10) Her rooms were evidently in the east range, not, as frequently stated, in the gatehouse; her graffiti scratched on a window were an object of curiosity by 1600. (fn. 11) The manor house was repaired sporadically, notably in 1593-5 when Sir Henry Lee's repairs included c. 90 chimneys, in 1608-9, and in 1623-4. (fn. 12) Most expenditure at Woodstock in the earlier 17th century was on the park.
By then the house occupied a site of over 3 a., and was built around three courtyards, of which the principal or great court, entered through a gatehouse in the west range, covered ¾ a. (fn. 13) Its north, west, and south sides included chambers known respectively as the prince's, the Lord Treasurer's, and the comptroller's lodgings; the east range contained the hall, chapel, and bishop's lodgings, and north of the hall were the presence chamber, council chamber, and the privy lodgings. The last, which probably stretched into the small conduit or wardrobe court (½ a.), contained separate king's and queen's suites, including another chapel and Queen Elizabeth's chamber. The wardrobe court, which contained a second fountain, included the Lord Chamberlain's lodgings and the wardrobe. There was a kitchen or pastry court, a privy garden surrounded by buildings and accessible by a stair from the privy lodgings, and on the south side of the manor house a large garden called Lockley green. The tennis court, reroofed in 1593-5, was on the east side, and on the west was Lodge green, on which presumably stood High Lodge, demolished with other out-buildings during the Civil War. (fn. 14)
A palisaded curtain embankment was built to protect the manor house during the Civil War. (fn. 15) Although fired upon during the siege the house was judged 'fitter to stand than be demolished' in 1649. Of the king's personalty little survived besides a few tapestries. (fn. 16) The purchasers of Woodstock manor in 1652 were charged £1,500 for the house, (fn. 17) and later it was said that of three joint owners two at once demolished and sold the materials, while the third retained his share. (fn. 18) The prominent Oxfordshire parliament-arians William Draper and Thomas Appletree allegedly bought materials to rebuild, respectively, Nether Worton manor house, which bears the date 1653, (fn. 19) and Castle House at Deddington, dated 1654. (fn. 20) Materials were also used by Colonel John Butler, one of the lessees of Woodstock manor in 1650, to rebuild Begbroke House. (fn. 21)
By 1660 the manor house was 'almost turned into heaps of rubbish', but retained a few habitable rooms. (fn. 22) In 1665 Charles II was considering rebuilding 'a noble house' in Woodstock Park. (fn. 23) John, Lord Lovelace, in reduced circumstances when granted Woodstock manor in 1668, repaired some rooms at the Crown's expense and seems to have occupied the gatehouse, where he died in 1670, and his son John's seat was recorded as at Woodstock in 1673; (fn. 24) Aubrey c. 1670 mentioned only ruins on the site. (fn. 25) James II dined at the palace during a progress in 1687, but in 1706 the manor house was 'altogether ruinous'. (fn. 26) The ruins, as depicted in the 17th century and early 18th, were extensive, (fn. 27) and Sir John Vanbrugh, while working on Blenheim Palace, made part habitable. The buildings were levelled in 1723, although masonry from the site was said to have been used as late as the 1760s. (fn. 28) Medieval masonry, including 12th-century work, has been found in the Grand Bridge, and another likely survival from the king's houses is some 16th-century panelling at Hordley manor. (fn. 29)