Witney borough: Manor and Manor House ('Bishop's Palace')

Pages 68-73

A History of the County of Oxford: Volume 14, Bampton Hundred (Part Two). Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 2004.

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Witney Manor

In 969 King Eadgar gave the 30-hide estate of Witney to his 'minister' Aelfhelm. The estate was conterminous with the later manor and parish, but may have been assembled only since the mid 950s, when 17 hides at Curbridge formed a separate estate given by Abingdon abbey to Brihthelm, bishop of Wells. (fn. 1) The Crown recovered the Witney estate before 1044, when Edward the Confessor gave it to Aelfwine (d. 1047), bishop of Winchester, (fn. 2) and except for two brief periods during the 16th and 17th centuries the bishop's successors retained it until the mid 19th century, a long-running dispute with Winchester cathedral chapter having been settled in their favour in 1284. (fn. 3) From the 16th century the manor was leased, mostly to prominent gentry and from 1751 to successive dukes of Marlborough, who in 1862 bought it outright; at their purchase it still included land in all three townships as well as in the borough, together with manorial rights and courts. (fn. 4)

In 1551, following Bishop Gardiner's deprivation, the manor was briefly transferred with the bishopric's other estates to the Crown, which the same year granted it to Sir Andrew Dudley, gentleman of the privy chamber; (fn. 5) it was restored with the bishop's other temporalities in 1558. (fn. 6) Bishop Watson (d. 1584) leased it for 80 years from 1583 to the queen, who soon after seems to have given the lease to Robert Dudley (d. 1588), earl of Leicester; (fn. 7) on his death he was succeeded as lessee by Stephen Brice (d. 1620), whose family had held the demesne and probably the manor house from the late 15th century. By 1605 Stephen was joint lessee with his son Thomas (d. 1638), who in the 1620s and 1630s held jointly with Robert Brice, probably his son, manorial courts being held in both their names. (fn. 8) Robert was sole lessee by 1644 (fn. 9) and was still lord about 1647, when, following sequestration of the bishopric's estates, he paid rent arrears for the manor to a local Parliamentary Committee. (fn. 10) In 1649, however, the Parliamentary Trustees sold the manor to William Basill and Edmund Warcupp, (fn. 11) agents acting apparently for the Speaker William Lenthall, and the lease seems to have expired or been revoked: Lenthall was lord certainly by 1652, and in 1654 settled the manor on his son John, (fn. 12) though Brice may have remained lessee of the demesne and manor house, where he was assessed for hearth tax in 1665. (fn. 13) The 80-year lease to the Crown was still mentioned in 1649 but apparently not later. (fn. 14)

The bishopric's estates were restored in 1660, and in 1661 both manor and borough were let to Sir Henry Hyde (d. 1709), Viscount Cornbury and (later) earl of Clarendon. (fn. 15) From possibly 1693 and certainly 1698 the lord, under later leases, was Hyde's younger brother Lawrence (d. 1711), earl of Rochester, succeeded by his son Henry (d. 1753), earl of Rochester and (from 1723) earl of Clarendon. (fn. 16) Henry settled it in 1735 on his son Henry (d. 1753), Viscount Cornbury, (fn. 17) with whom he sold it in 1751 to Charles Spencer (d. 1758), duke of Marlborough. (fn. 18) In 1759 the lady of the manor was the duke's widow Elizabeth, guardian of their son and heir George; he succeeded in 1760, and the manor passed to successive dukes of Marlborough as lessees until the mid 19th century, being held from 1828 in trust for the then marquis of Blandford, who became 6th duke in 1840. (fn. 19) In 1833 the bishop of Winchester granted to the benefice of St Michael's, Winchester, an annual rent charge of £25 from the manor, still payable in the 1920s when it was apportioned among various farms. (fn. 20)

In 1862 the bishop of Winchester sold reversion of the manor to John Spencer-Churchill, 7th duke of Marlborough, whose successors retained it until the 20th century; at the duke's purchase it comprised 1,649 a. in Witney, Hailey, Crawley, and Curbridge, together with quitrents, heriots, tolls, and other manorial income, much of the copyhold land having become effectively freehold since the 17th century. (fn. 21) Part of New Mill, Burycroft in Hailey, and Curbridge farm, leased separately from the manor since the 16th century, were retained by the Ecclesiastical Commissioners with Church Leys, and were sold to other purchasers in 1883, 1890, and 1956. (fn. 22) In 1872 and 1880 the 7th duke bought another 380 a. in Crawley, (fn. 23) but in 1886 his successor sold around 250 a. in Witney, Crawley, and Curbridge, including the former manor house. (fn. 24) Later piecemeal sales included all the Crawley farms in 1921 and 1948, Park and Burwell farms (in Curbridge) in 1948–9, and Farm and Crawley mills in 1952 and 1960, (fn. 25) and by 2003 the Blenheim estate held no land in Witney or its townships. (fn. 26) Many surviving copyholds were enfranchised during the late 19th and early 20th century and the rest in 1926, (fn. 27) though quitrents were not extinguished until 1935, and the duke was still called lord in 1939. (fn. 28)

Manor House ('Bishop's Palace')

History and Occupation

34. Reconstruction of the medieval manorial curia, from archaeological, documentary and map evidence. (Buildings in heavy black excavated 1984–92).

The medieval manor house, from the 18th century sometimes misleadingly called the bishop's 'palace', (fn. 29) stood immediately east of the church, within an extensive curtilage which ran from the churchyard wall to the river Windrush, and which included the site and grounds of the modern Mount House. (fn. 30) Excavation from 1984 found no evidence of any structures predating the substantial early 12th-century stone buildings, and if there was an earlier manor house it was perhaps on a different site. (fn. 31) In the earlier 13th century bishops and royalty visited frequently, their visits often preceded by repairs or new building; from the 14th century bishops' visits were fewer, though the house continued as an occasional residence and as accommodation for their bailiffs and other officers throughout the Middle Ages. (fn. 32) Probably by 1474 and certainly by 1509 it was leased with the demesne, notably to members of the resident Brice family who remained tenants until the mid 17th century, (fn. 33) though at first the bishop may have retained right of access: manor courts were presumably held there as later, and in 1478–80 the bishop paid for extensive repairs and for a new chamber perhaps in preparation for an intended visit, if so the last one recorded. (fn. 34)

From the later 17th century most of the demesne and the agricultural buildings were leased separately from the house, which was occupied by relatively minor figures with small amounts of land and, from 1705, with the shambles and the right to shovel dung in the streets; tenants included the farmer John Warwick, and in 1741 the wealthy Witney currier Walker Middleton. In 1757, following the manor's acquisition by the duke of Marlborough, the house was let to the local solicitor James Gray (d. 1791), then deputy steward of the manor court, who seems to have largely rebuilt it and to have demolished any remaining medieval buildings; (fn. 35) the name Mount House, presumably reflecting its elevated position when viewed from the river meadows to the east and south, dates probably from that period, reflecting its conversion into a gentleman's residence. (fn. 36) Later lessees included, from 1795, members of the Dolley family, local blanket-makers, by 1818 Charles Henderson, bailiff of Witney and ranger of Wychwood Forest, and in the later 19th century members of the Early family, who sublet it to a succession of Wesleyan ministers. (fn. 37) Manor courts continued to be held there throughout that period. (fn. 38) In 1886 the duke of Marlborough sold the house to a retired bookseller, who in 1905 was succeeded there by the blanket-manufacturer J. F. Marriott (d. 1929), owner of the adjacent Mount Mills. Probably it was Marriott who built the existing Mount House soon afterwards. (fn. 39)

Medieval Buildings

Excavations in the 1980s were mostly confined to the south-eastern area of the manorial curtilage, with some limited excavation on the north; other details of the site have been derived from documentary evidence (Fig. 34). (fn. 40) The earliest excavated buildings, all of stone and on a massive scale, included a keep-like rectangular solar tower probably several storeys high, lit at ground-floor level by windows with internal splays, and containing private chambers; an abutting domestic range, probably of two storeys, projected northwards, and was heated by an external chimneystack. Probably those buildings were erected in the 1120s or 1130s, though a date earlier in the 12th century has been suggested. The site was enclosed by ditches and possibly by a curtain wall, with an entrance, as later, on the north towards the later town, but the location and extent of other early 12th-century buildings is unknown.

During the succeeding century additional buildings were erected, existing ones modified, and the curtilage possibly extended. Probably in the later 12th century a raised terrace was made alongside the eastern side of the tower and its abutting range, and a chapel, aligned east-west and possibly two-storeyed, was built at the terrace's north end; a garderobe block was added to the tower's east side soon after, the terracing was extended probably into a raised garden, and the chapel's ground floor was infilled, perhaps following its replacement by a chapel on another site. A storeyed block abutting the tower on the west, incorporating chambers and garderobes and associated possibly with adjacent service buildings, was added probably in the late 12th century, replacing the garderobe block to the east. The tower was radically altered by insertion of a huge central pier presumably to support a stone vault, the tower being possibly heightened at the same time, and there was some embanking around its south and west walls; in the late 12th century its interior may have been entirely rebuilt, and an extension was added on its south side. (fn. 41)

The location and date of buildings in the unexcavated areas is less certain, although as medieval accounts generally mentioned only repairs rather than new building, most of those recorded existed presumably by the early 13th century. The hall, mentioned from 1211–12, stood apparently on the west side of the curtilage, aligned north-south; in the 13th century it had a 'great chimney', glazed windows, and a porch, and by the earlier 14th century there was an adjoining tower at one end, used in the 1380s as a bailiff's chamber. Services, including a pantry and buttery, a 'chamber next the hall', a wine house or cellar, and a kitchen and bakehouse, stood probably south of the hall, and were also mentioned from the 13th century. Accommodation for officers, including warrener's, sergeant's, clerk's, esquire's, knight's, and almoner's chambers as well as bailiff's accommodation, stood possibly in the curia's unexcavated north-eastern part. Little is known of the buildings' elevations, though excavated fragments suggest high-quality 12th-century stonework, some of it with lozenge and beakhead decoration, and most external walls were rendered. (fn. 42)

A moat, replacing the earlier ditch, was created probably in the later 12th century, its eastern arm apparently respecting the site of the chapel. A curtain wall, with a small gatehouse on the north, was added or rebuilt about the same time, its relatively slight construction suggesting that, like the moat, it was probably not primarily defensive. By the 1220s the gatehouse had a room above, and a portcullis was apparently added in the 13th century. A high-status domestic building with a fireplace, tiled roof, glazed windows, and possibly a garderobe was built against the curtain wall west of the gatehouse in the late 12th or early 13th century, perhaps reflecting the emergence of a courtyard plan with buildings grouped around the curia's perimeter; an abutting range, running southwards along the western curtain wall, was added soon after. An 'outer enclosure' with its own gate, mentioned from the earlier 14th century, lay probably beyond the moat and curtain wall on the north, and several lesser gates were mentioned also.

The barnyard lay east of the main curia, bounded on the north by Farm Mill Lane, and on the east by the river Windrush; by the mid 13th century it was evidently walled. Agricultural buildings, mostly on the yard's west side, included a barn with a porch, a byre, a cowhouse, a pigsty, a bullock house, and a hen house; a dovecot seems to have stood nearby in the 14th century, and another stood near the bakehouse, presumably within the main curtilage. Fishponds, apparently distinct from those at Witney park, were mentioned in the 13th and 14th centuries: in 1739 some survived by the river in the Conygree, immediately south of the manorial curtilage, and in the 1840s there were traces of others adjoining the river to the north. (fn. 43)

35. 'Witney Palace' by Samuel Buck, drawn c. 1729.

Post-Medieval Buildings

Most later-medieval building work was confined to repairs and remodelling: the north curtain wall was rebuilt in the late 14th century, the range running north from the chamber tower was refloored and replastered, and numerous repairs were recorded to other buildings. (fn. 44) The Brices, as lessees of the demesne, may at first have occupied the entire complex, but though some buildings were repaired or remodelled during their tenancy (fn. 45) the history of the site during the 16th and 17th centuries is problematic. A drawing of the manor house produced by Samuel Buck about 1729 (Fig. 35) shows substantial standing remains, including the lower part of the solar tower and adjoining ranges, albeit in a semi-derelict state, and an inhabited range to the north with chimneys and a large Romanesque doorway, the whole still surrounded by a curtain wall and with a gatehouse on the north. Archaeology confirms that most excavated buildings remained standing until probably the mid 18th century, though some others, among them the range running north from the tower, were demolished in the mid 17th, and the relatively low assessment of nine hearths in 1662 and 1665 suggests a fairly modest inhabited house. (fn. 46) A map of 1662 showed a single inhabited range (possibly that depicted by Buck) with three tower-like gables, with outbuildings to the north and east but no ruins or curtain wall. (fn. 47) Probably the contradictions reflect merely that the inhabited part of the site slowly contracted to a small group of remodelled buildings, much of the rest falling derelict; even so it seems odd that topographers describing the town and church in the late 17th and early 18th century failed to note the impressive remains depicted by Buck, which has prompted a suggestion that the drawing may be a reworking of an earlier, lost original. (fn. 48) By the 1690s the house may have faced eastwards to a 'great yard' or barnyard rather than to Church Green, perhaps also reflecting its decline into a small working farmhouse. (fn. 49)

The surviving medieval buildings were demolished probably soon after 1757, when James Gray was allowed to demolish a stable and to use the materials for a proposed addition to the house, and received a large rent reduction to allow for rebuilding and repairs: the date accords with archaeological evidence for demolition of the north curtain wall, gatehouse, and surviving south-eastern area, and no standing remains were noted later. (fn. 50) In 1852 'massive foundations, narrow windows, and remnants of arches' were allegedly still visible at the site, though about the same time the local antiquary William Langford, usually an acute observer, reported that 'scarcely a vestige' of ancient buildings remained save for fragments of perimeter walling on the south and east. The house occupying the site in the 19th century, called 'modern' in 1852, was presumably that built by Gray, and was T-shaped, comprising a large northsouth range with hipped roof and tall end-stacks, and an eastward projection of 2 storeys and attics with a short, single-storeyed range at its east end. Access was by a carriageway on the west, and in 1886 the house had five bedrooms. (fn. 51) Probably soon after 1905 it was replaced by the existing Mount House, built presumably for Marriott, and designed possibly by H. Wilkinson Moore. (fn. 52) Vestiges of Gray's house survive at the rear, together with the 18th-century perimeter wall and gate piers, and the cellars are probably also those of the earlier house.

Some agricultural buildings remained in 1698 when a 'great barn' and the lower part of the 'great yard before the house' were separately leased, reserving a dovecot at the great yard's lower end. Presumably the great yard was the medieval barnyard east of the house, where a large barn and a circular dovecot survived in the mid 19th century; the barn was probably that let with adjacent land in 1739, when it had ten bays and was partly used as a stable. The dovecot was demolished shortly before 1876, and the barn soon after 1898 to make way for Mount Mills. (fn. 53) Buildings on the northern edge of the Mount House site in the 19th century included the surviving No. 29 The Green (formerly the Cottage), apparently the house standing in 1738 on waste 'next to the yard of the capital messuage of the lord of the manor'; the reference to waste suggests that those buildings lay outside the manorial site, rather than being encroachments within it. (fn. 54)

Though sold by the Marriotts in 1955 (fn. 55) Mount House remained a private residence until 1983, and in 1993, following various abortive schemes, was bought by Oxfordshire County Council. The excavated parts of the medieval manor house, in the grounds to the south, were opened to the public in 1992, protected by a permanent teflon canopy erected the previous year. (fn. 56)


  • 1. M. Gelling, Early Charters of Thames Valley (1979), pp. 46, 131, 133; Blair, A-S Oxon. 133 and n.; above, volume intro. (parish bdies).
  • 2. Gelling, Early Charters of Thames Valley, p. 141; for a fanciful story concerning the grant, involving Aelfwine's alleged relations with Edward's mother Emma and her trial by ordeal, Ann. Mon. (Rolls Ser.), ii. 21–5; Dugdale, Mon. i. 194–5.
  • 3. VCH Oxon. i. 401; Chartulary Winchester Cath. ed. A. W. Goodman (1927), pp. 189–90; below. For royal control during vacancies, Hyde, 'Winchester Manors', 47, 51–3.
  • 4. Below.
  • 5. Acts of PC 1550–2, 359; Cal. Pat. 1550–3, 153; cf. Reg. Gardiner and Poynet (Cant. & York Soc.), pp. xix–xx.
  • 6. Cal. Pat. 1557–8, 147.
  • 7. Hants RO, 11M59/B1/285–6; PRO, C 54/3418, mm. 39–41; Complete Peerage, vii. 549–52.
  • 8. Hants RO, 11M59/B1/287–318; ORO, Misc. Je. I/1, ff. 17, 35v., 40v., 42v.; ibid. MSS Wills Oxon. 4/6/29, 295/1/24; below, Curbridge, econ. hist.
  • 9. Hants RO, 11M59/E2/159517/158, Wit. 32.
  • 10. PRO, SP 28/213, f. 33.
  • 11. Ibid. C 54/3418, mm. 39–41.
  • 12. Berks. RO, D/ELl F18/1; Bodl. MS Top. Oxon. d 215, f. 115. Curbridge farm was sold separately: Bodl. MS Top. Oxon. d 211, f. 130.
  • 13. Hearth Tax Oxon. 214, s.v. Rob. Price [sic]; in 1662 the manorial lessee Sir Henry Hyde was assessed: PRO, E 179/255/4, pt i, f. 28. Brice was also taxed on a house in Crawley.
  • 14. PRO, C 54/3418, mm. 39–41; below.
  • 15. Hants RO, 11M59/E2/154967/5–8; 11M59/E2/154949/ 27; Complete Peerage, iii. 266–7.
  • 16. Complete Peerage, iii. 268; xi. 49–51; Hants RO, 11M59/E2/154967/3–4; Blenheim Mun., box 156, leases 1693–1730; ORO, Welch V/i/10–11.
  • 17. ORO, Misc. Lem. I/1; Blenheim Mun., box 156, leases 1736–46; Complete Peerage, iii. 268–9.
  • 18. Blenheim Mun., box 152, sale 27 July 1751; Complete Peerage, viii. 499–500.
  • 19. Blenheim Mun., shelf C1, box of 18th and 19th-cent. pps., list of lords and stewards [c. 1857]; ibid. 'Notes on Hist. Witney Manor' (1857), pp. 5–6; Hants RO, 11M59/E2/248950, no. 6; Complete Peerage, viii. 499–503.
  • 20. Hants RO, 11M59/E2/154967a; Sale Cat., Outlying Portions of Blenheim Estate (1921): copy in ORO, SC 191.
  • 21. CE Rec. Centre, 20325, pps. re manor and sale 1858–62; Hants RO, 11M59/E2/155514, pp. 89–107; for copyholds, below, Crawley, econ. hist.
  • 22. Below, Curbridge, estates; Hailey, estates; econ. hist. (mills). For Church Leys, sold to the rector in 1892, 'Witney Par. Diary', 83–4.
  • 23. Sale Cat., Manor and Showell Fms. (1872) and Sale Cat., Copyhold Estate at Crawley (1880): copies in Blenheim Mun., shelf C1, box of 18th and 19th-cent. pps., noting purchases.
  • 24. Sale Cat., Mount House [etc.], 24 June 1886: copies in Blenheim Mun., shelf C1, box of 18th and 19th-cent. pps., noting purchasers; most of the Crawley farms were withdrawn.
  • 25. Sale Cat., Outlying Portions of Blenheim Estate (1921): copy in ORO, SC 191; Sale Cat., Burwell Farm (1956): copy in COS; Blenheim Mun., shelf G5, bdles of modern sales 1899–1990.
  • 26. Inf. from the librarian, Blenheim Palace.
  • 27. Below, Hailey, econ. hist.
  • 28. ORO, Witney UDC III/i/8, pp. 67–8; Witney Methodist [See p. 70 for n. 23 cont. and n. 24]. Ch. deeds, no. 75 (Dec. 1935); Kelly's Dir. Oxon. (1939).
  • 29. Bodl. Gough Maps 26, f. 60; Giles, Hist. Witney, 39.
  • 30. Allen, Mount House, 193–7, 202–6, and passim.
  • 31. Ibid. 201–6; above, intro. (origin and devpt).
  • 32. Winch. PR 1208–9, ed. Hall, 17; above, intro. (social life: Middle Ages). For bailiffs' and other officers' chambers, below.
  • 33. Allen, Mount House, 9–10; Hyde, 'Winchester Manors', App. VI; below, Curbridge, econ. hist.
  • 34. Hants RO, 11M59/B1/206–7; cf. Hyde, 'Winchester Manors', 202–3.
  • 35. Allen, Mount House, 9–10, 197–200; below.
  • 36. Recorded from c. 1814: Hants RO, 11M59/E2/248950, no. 6; Allen, Mount House, 197.
  • 37. Allen, Mount House, 10.
  • 38. Gardner's Dir. Oxon. (1852); for cts., below, Crawley, local govt.
  • 39. Sale Cat., Mount House [etc.], 24 June 1886: copy in Blenheim Mun., shelf C1, box of 18th and 19th-cent. pps., with notice of sale; Witney Gaz. 8 July, 22 July 1905; Allen, Mount House, 10.
  • 40. Following account based on Allen, Mount House, 193–226 and passim; for an alternative, slightly earlier chronology, ibid. 204–6.
  • 41. For an earlier chronology, suggesting a military context for some of those changes during the Anarchy, ibid. 204–6, 230.
  • 42. Ibid. 161–7, 202; below, Fig. 35.
  • 43. Allen, Mount House, 193–4; Hyde, 'Winchester Manors', 145; ORO, Witney and Curbridge tithe maps; Blenheim Mun., box 156, lease 10 Sept. 1739. For fishponds at Witney park, below, Curbridge, intro.
  • 44. Allen, Mount House, 193–7, 225–6.
  • 45. Ibid. 9–10, 72–5, 225–6; Hants RO, 11M59/B1/206–7.
  • 46. Allen, Mount House, 74–6, 114, 200, 226; PRO, E 179/255/4, pt. i, f. 28, s.v. Hyde; Hearth Tax Oxon. 214, s.v. Rob. Price [sic].
  • 47. Map by J. Jennings (in private possession); for a less detailed 19th-cent. copy, Bodl. MS Top. Oxon. d 212, ff. 10–11, reproduced (with incorrect ref.) in Allen, Mount House, 199.
  • 48. Allen, Mount House, 199–200.
  • 49. Below.
  • 50. Allen, Mount House, 10, 74–6, 114, 197–200, 226.
  • 51. Ibid. 197–8, with refs. at p. 200; Giles, Hist. Witney, 39.
  • 52. Above, intro. (bldgs: houses 1800–1950).
  • 53. Allen, Mount House, 10, 197–8; Blenheim Mun., box 156, leases of 1697/8 and 1739.
  • 54. Allen, Mount House, 198.
  • 55. ORO, B1/A/5, 8 Feb. 1955.
  • 56. Allen, Mount House, 10–12.