A History of the County of Oxford: Volume 6. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1959.
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The ancient parish covered 822 acres, (fn. 1) and there was no change in its area until its union with Newton Purcell in 1932. The joint parish now covers 1,424 acres. (fn. 2) Shelswell's boundary used to extend almost to Newton Purcell village on the east, on the north it skirted Mixbury Plantations, and on the south-west it cut through Shelswell Plantation and Shelswell Park. (fn. 3) The parish lies partly on the Great Oolite and partly on the Cornbrash, both, however, being mostly covered with drift gravel. (fn. 4) The ground rises from south to north and reaches a height of just over 400 feet on the northern boundary. No major road passes through the parish, but lanes connect Shelswell House and Home Farm with Newton Purcell, Hethe, and Cottisford. A minor road from Mixbury to Hethe runs along the western edge of Shelswell Park. (fn. 5) The north-eastern corner of the parish is crossed by the former Great Central Railway from Brackley to Quainton Road, constructed in 1899, (fn. 6) and the station called Finmere, on the outskirts of Newton Purcell village, is in the former parish of Shelswell. Between 1923 and 1947 the line was a part of the L.N.E.R., after which it was transferred to British Railways (Midland Region).
A spring which has long since disappeared probably determined the site of the medieval village: the earliest form of the place-name suggests that it meant the spring or stream of Scield, the personal name of some Saxon settler. (fn. 7) Near the village the stream formed a line of wet and useless ground— there were 10 acres of marsh in 1581 (fn. 8) —which was excavated, probably in the 18th century, to form the Fish Pond. (fn. 9)
The moats, shown on the ordnance map near Home Farm, (fn. 10) probably mark the site of the medieval manor-house. The site of St. Ebbe's church and the lost medieval village adjoins them. The manorhouse was standing and was inhabited in 1530, when Margaret Verney referred to the 'great chamber' in it in her will. (fn. 11) Inclosure and the consequent depopulation were completed by 1601. (fn. 12) The parsonage, which lay to the north of the church, was still standing in 1634, (fn. 13) but was unoccupied. The 17thcentury lords of the manor were non-resident, and the larger of the two houses of Shelswell, recorded in the hearth-tax returns of 1665, (fn. 14) may have been the Home Farm. A large house, but no village, is marked on a map of 1677. (fn. 15) The Trotmans are said to have built in the early 18th century a new manor-house, on the site of the present Shelswell House. (fn. 16) In 1875 a stone bearing the date 1699 was found. Fiennes Trotman (d. 1782) enlarged this house and greatly improved the park, with plantations. (fn. 17) In 1875 Edward Slater-Harrison pulled down nearly the whole of the house and replaced it by the present mansion, designed by William Wilkinson of Oxford. (fn. 18) It bears the date 1875 and the crests of Slater and Harrison. In 1956 it was untenanted and falling into disrepair.
Flora Thompson has given a vivid description of the celebrations connected with Queen Victoria's Jubilee in 1887 in 'Skeldon' (Shelswell) Park. She has also given a glimpse in 'Lark Rise' of the excitement caused to the children by the sight of 'Squire Harrison's four-in-hand, with ladies in bright summer dresses . . . on the top of the coach', and the white-hatted squire handling his four greys.
Before the Conquest SHELSWELL, assessed at 10 hides, was held by Edwin, son of Burred, and in 1086 by Geoffrey, Bishop of Coutances. (fn. 19) On the latter's death in 1093 his estates passed to his nephew Robert de Mowbray, Earl of Northumberland, who forfeited his lands to William II in 1095. Shelswell may have been subsequently granted to Robert FitzHamon and may have passed to Robert, Earl of Gloucester, who married FitzHamon's daughter, (fn. 20) or it may have been granted directly by Henry I to Robert, who was his illegitimate son. The earls of Gloucester were certainly overlords of Shelswell in the 13th century (fn. 21) and as late as 1560 the manor was said to belong to the honor of Gloucester. (fn. 22)
The tenant of Shelswell in 1086 was Herluin, who also held of the Bishop of Coutances an estate at Colly Weston (Northants), which in the 12th century passed to his son William. (fn. 23) A family deriving its name from Shelswell appears towards the end of the 12th century: a Nicholas 'de Scaldeswelle' is mentioned about 1180, and a Eustace 'de Saldeywell' in 1219. (fn. 24) The immediate lord of Shelswell in the reign of Richard I was William son of Ralph of Weston, lord of Colly Weston and possibly a descendant of William son of Herluin. (fn. 25) William of Weston's son Peter was known alternatively as 'of Weston' or 'of Shelswell', (fn. 26) so Nicholas and Eustace of Shelswell may have been kinsmen of the lord of the manor. William of Weston exchanged 2 virgates in Shelswell for two in Colly Weston with Ralph Purcel of Newton (fn. 27) and was dead by 1221, when his widow Alice de Bendinges was holding Shelswell in dower. (fn. 28) William's heir was his son Peter, (fn. 29) but Alice was still alive and in possession of Shelswell in 1243. (fn. 30) By 1255, however, the manor had passed to Nicholas of Weston, probably Peter's son. Nicholas held of a Thomas de Dunington, who held of the Earl of Gloucester, and Thomas's heir, another Thomas, was mesne lord in 1279 and 1285. (fn. 31) The 14th-century lords of Shelswell held directly of the honor of Gloucester.
The lords of Shelswell in the 13th century held ½ knight's fee in Shelswell itself, and another ½ fee in the neighbouring parish of Newton. (fn. 32) The tenant of the latter under the Westons in the early 13th century was Niel of Newton, who was a benefactor of Bicester Priory. (fn. 33) Niel was dead by 1219, when his widow Alice was claiming her dower in Newton, and he was succeeded by his son Richard Fitzniel, (fn. 34) who was dead by 1243, and his grandson John, who was still alive in 1279. (fn. 35) By 1346, when the lord of Shelswell held 'a third of Newton', the Fitzniels' ½-fee seems to have been absorbed into Shelswell manor. (fn. 36)
Nicholas of Weston died in 1281 and was succeeded by his daughter Amice and her husband Ellis de Hauville, (fn. 37) who was granted free warren in Shelswell in 1289. (fn. 38) Amice survived her husband (d. 1297), (fn. 39) and by 1300 she appears to have married Sir Henry Maulever. (fn. 40) Walter de Langton, Bishop of Coventry and Lichfield, seems to have acted as an intermediary in a settlement made in the same year by which part of Shelswell was to be held by Sir Henry and Amice and part by Sir William Tuchet. (fn. 41) Amice alone, however, was lady of the manor in 1316. (fn. 42) Sir Henry may have died by 1313, (fn. 43) and Amice herself was dead by 1322, (fn. 44) in which year Sir William was executed for his part in the rebellion of Thomas of Lancaster. (fn. 45) Shelswell presumably fell into the king's hands, but by 1327 (fn. 46) it had been granted to Richard of Cornwall (de Cornubia), who had owned property in the manor from 1316 onwards. (fn. 47) Richard, described as 'the king's clerk and cousin' in 1327, may have been a younger son of Sir Richard of Cornwall, (fn. 48) illegitimate son of Earl Richard of Cornwall. Richard of Cornwall of Shelswell had been knighted by 1338 (fn. 49) and was still holding the manor in 1346. (fn. 50) He was succeeded by William Cornwall, who presented to Shelswell church in 1367, (fn. 51) and William Cornwall the younger, who in 1397 quitclaimed the manor to Thomas and Alice Stokes, the parents of his wife Cicely, by whom he had a son John and three daughters. (fn. 52) In 1398 the Stokeses leased Shelswell to Cornwall for 50 years, with the proviso that after the death of the lessors and lessee the manor should revert to Cornwall's heirs. (fn. 53) Presentations to Shelswell church were made between 1441 and 1466 by a John Cornwall, (fn. 54) perhaps by two Johns, father and son; it was no doubt the latter who in 1478, as John Cornwall, 'gentleman' of Shelswell, was exempted for life from being put on assizes and juries, perhaps on account of old age. (fn. 55) He was still alive in 1486, when the manor was recovered against him by John Swelyngton, in what was probably a fictitious action to establish Cornwall's title. (fn. 56)
Cornwall had two daughters, Jane, who married a man named Tomlyns, and Margaret, who married Henry Brothers. (fn. 57) Jane was given two closes in Shelswell, and Margaret seems to have come to an arrangement with Swelyngton by which she got the rest of the land. (fn. 58) In 1501 she and her husband were trying to establish their title to the manor and advowson. (fn. 59) Brothers died within a few years, and by 1508 his widow had married Leonard Verney, Esq. (fn. 60) By this time Jane was also dead, but her claim to half the manor was contested by her son, Roger Tomlyns, 'a poor man', who was unable to bear the expense of litigation. In 1507 he made an arrangement with Sir Henry Wyatt, a friend of Henry VII and Henry VIII and in the 1520's treasurer of the king's chamber, who was to help him recover his property, and in return was to receive the reversion of half of it. (fn. 61) The result of legal action and a complicated series of conveyances was that the Verneys got possession of the whole manor except for about 90 acres, which in the 1530's came to Brasenose College, (fn. 62) while Roger Tomlyns gave up his claim to half the manor and lost all his Shelswell lands. (fn. 63)
The Verneys lived at Shelswell and Margaret was buried in the church there. Although Peter Brothers, a son of her first marriage, survived her, she left Shelswell by her will, dated 1530, to her daughter Dorothy and her husband Richard Heath, who died in 1542. (fn. 64)
Heath's marriage into a county family and his acquisition of the manor is of particular interest. He was the son of Michael Heath, (fn. 65) an Oxford brewer and the holder of many civic offices, who had acted as overseer of Margaret Verney's will. (fn. 66) Richard Heath was also active in civic affairs. Various payments were made to him by the town in 1523, e.g. 20s. 'for makying of iii boks for the Kyng's subsidie', (fn. 67) and in 1541 he was made a bailiff. (fn. 68) He made provision in his will for his second wife Jane (Bush), and admonished his eldest son Robert to 'applye his lernyng', and to allow his brother Percival and a partner temporarily to occupy his father's lands at Shelswell and elsewhere. (fn. 69) Percival Heath continued the family tradition of civic service, being admitted a hanaster of Oxford corporation in 1542–3. (fn. 70) The Shelswell and estate ultimately passed to Robert, who died in 1558, (fn. 71) and to his widow Katherine, daughter of Thomas Carter of Swyncombe, who married Philip Mordaunt of Essex as her second husband and died in 1560. (fn. 72) Robert's eldest son Thomas Heath, who married Jane, a daughter of John Denton of Ambrosden, succeeded to Shelswell and was living there in the late 16th century. (fn. 73) He seems to have had no children, and in about 1595 he sold the reversion of the manor on his own death and that of his wife (probably his second wife) Elizabeth to Sir Anthony Cope of Hanwell (d. 1615). (fn. 74) After Thomas Heath's death in 1605 (fn. 75) Elizabeth married Devorax Barrett, and Cope leased the manor from them for £400 a year, £100 more than it was worth, according to him. Barrett died in about 1621, but Elizabeth was still alive in 1624, when Sir Anthony's son Sir William Cope was at law with her over the terms of the lease. (fn. 76)
On her death the Copes acquired the manor, and it remained in the family until the death of Sir Anthony Cope, 4th Bt., in 1675. He left his property, including Shelswell, to his brother, Sir John, for life, but not to his brother's children. (fn. 77) Although Sir John lived until 1721, he may have sold Shelswell to the Trotmans in the 1680's. In 1686 Samuel Trotman of Siston (Gloucs.), the eldest son of Samuel Trotman (d. 1685) of Bucknell, and his brother Lenthall were parties to a fine levied on the manor, (fn. 78) and there is evidence in the early 18th century pointing to the ownership of the manor by the Trotmans. From 1705 Samuel Trotman of Siston (d. 1720) and then his nephew Samuel, son of Lenthall Trotman of Bucknell, presented to Newton Purcell church, (fn. 79) and this is significant, as since the 16th century the advowson of Newton had descended with Shelswell manor. Samuel Trotman appears to have settled Shelswell on his younger brother Edward, who was buried at Newton Purcell in 1743. (fn. 80) In 1746, when Edward's only daughter Susannah married the architect Sanderson Miller, he was described as 'Edward Trotman, Esq., of Shelswell'. (fn. 81) His son Fiennes, who succeeded him, died without issue in 1782 and was buried like his father in Newton Purcell church. (fn. 82)
The reversion belonged to Fiennes's nephew Samuel Trotman, but the latter sold it during the life of his uncle. The manor was purchased by Gilbert Harrison, a London merchant (d. 1790), whose son John attained his majority in 1802 and died in 1834. John Harrison was unmarried and he made his nephew John Harrison Slater, son of his sister Ann Harrison and John Slater of Margate, his heir, on condition that he assumed the surname Harrison. John Slater-Harrison died in 1874 and was succeeded by his only surviving child Edward. The latter died in 1911 and his second wife Emma Cecilia (née Cartwright) continued in possession of Shelswell until her death in 1943, when she was succeeded by John Francis Dewar-Harrison, grandson of her husband's sister Augusta, wife of William W. M. Dewar of Cotmore House, Fringford. (fn. 83)
An estate of 90 acres became detached from the manor in about 1500. It consisted of three closes in the eastern corner of the parish— Barley and Drake Closes (sometimes called Nast Field) and Pasture Mede. After passing through various hands including those of William Spencer of Adderbury they were bought in 1533 for £162 from William Fermor of Somerton by John Claymond, President of Corpus Christi College. (fn. 84) He gave them in the same year with other property to Brasenose College to endow scholarships. (fn. 85) The college leased the property as two estates, often to neighbouring gentry, such as Richard Heath and later Fiennes Trotman of Shelswell or the Ardens of Kirtlington. (fn. 86) Eleven acres were sold to the Great Central Railway in 1895. (fn. 87) The college held the rest of the property, called Barleyfield farm, in 1955. (fn. 88)
Domesday Book records that in 1086 there was land for 7 ploughs, all of which was apparently being cultivated, for there were 3 ploughs on the demesne, where there were 2 serfs, and 4 ploughs worked by 7 villeins (villani) and 7 bordars. A considerable advance in prosperity since the Conquest is indicated by the increase of the value of the estate from £5 to £10. (fn. 89) In 1279 some 24½ virgates of arable appear to have been under cultivation. The demesne consisted of 8 virgates, beside meadow and pasture, and 7 villeins held 11½ virgates, working and being tallaged at the lord's will, and all paying money rents as well: the rent paid is only recorded in one instance, where a villein holding 2½ virgates paid 8s. Of the other villeins 3 held 2 virgates, and 3 held 1 virgate each. There were 3 free tenants, of whom 2 held 2 virgates each, one for 1s. rent, the other for 7d. and for performing suit of hundred and county twice a year for his lord. The third, the Prior of Bicester, held 1 virgate in free alms and had a subtenant, but his rent is not recorded. (fn. 90) In 1297 the manor was worth £10 a year. (fn. 91)
The number of tenants at Shelswell had fallen between 1086 and 1279, and it is possible that the decline of the village had started comparatively early. Fourteen people were assessed for taxation in 1316, and eleven in 1327. (fn. 92) The total assessment fixed after 1334 at £1 19s. 8d. was comparatively small, but indicates that Shelswell was about as prosperous as the neighbouring villages of Cottisford, Hardwick, and Tusmore. (fn. 93) The decline of Shelswell evidently continued, for by 1428 there were less than ten resident householders. (fn. 94) By the end of the 16th century inclosure had virtually completed the destruction of the village. In 1497 Henry Brothers, husband of the lady of the manor, had destroyed 2 houses, evicted 11 people, and put down to pasture 60 acres of arable land. (fn. 95) There were 200 acres of arable in the manor in 1501 to 400 acres of pasture, and 20 acres of meadow. (fn. 96) In 1523 there were six contributors to the lay subsidy in Shelswell, only one of whom, Leonard Verney, (fn. 97) was a man of substance: (fn. 98) in 1569 Shelswell was assessed jointly with Newton Purcell and there were only five contributors in both villages. (fn. 99) William Spencer of Adderbury, who in 1528 held two closes of 60 acres in the parish, was alleged to be responsible for further evictions. (fn. 100) By 1581 the arable land of the manor had decreased to 100 acres, and the pasture showed a corresponding increase to 500 acres. (fn. 101) In 1601 inclosure was said to be complete, (fn. 102) and the first half of the 17th century probably saw the destruction of the last vestiges of the medieval village. (fn. 103)
The construction of Shelswell House and the coming of the Trotman family to live in the parish in the late 17th or early 18th century (fn. 104) must have started a modest repopulation. There were, however, still only three families in the parish in 1768 according to the incumbent's report, (fn. 105) but by 1801 the population was about forty. (fn. 106) In 1786 there were at least two farms—the Home farm, and another on the estate (fn. 107) of about 90 acres which Brasenose College had acquired in 1533, and which had then, it may be noted, consisted of three closes. (fn. 108) Division of the large closes had started by 1670, and 18th-century terriers suggest that the estate was principally used as pasture: a close of 22½ acres was called Dairy Ground in 1752, and one of the farms was let to a grazier, the son of a yeoman who had been the college's tenant. (fn. 109) By 1816 there were two farms on the college estate, (fn. 110) one of them, Barleyfield, taking its name from one of the closes of 1532. (fn. 111) In the middle of the 19th century there were four farms, two on the college estate and two on the SlaterHarrison estate, of 51, 43, 207, and 364 acres. Seventeen acres were let to a farmer outside the parish, and 124 acres were in the hands of the lord of the manor. In 1849 there were 272 acres of arable, 405 acres of meadow and pasture, and 91 acres of woodland. (fn. 112) Shelswell Plantation (26 a.), Pondhead (27 a.) at the northern end of the Fish Pond, and Spilsmere Wood (40 a.) were the largest tracts of woodland in 1952, the last two being perhaps the remains of the extensive woods in the parish mentioned in 1581. (fn. 113) During the 19th century the only occupations were agriculture and service at Shelswell House. In 1939 there were two farms—Home farm and Barleyfield (fn. 114) —and there remained only about 60 acres of arable. (fn. 115)
Shelswell has always been one of the least populous places in the hundred. In 1676 only 21 adults were recorded at the Compton Census. The estimated population was 42 in 1801 and it increased slightly during the century: it was 51 in 1901. (fn. 116)
The original church building at Shelswell has gone and the earliest documentary evidence for the existence of a church comes from the collation of a chaplain, Robert Basset, by the bishop in c. 1215. (fn. 117) There can be little doubt, however, that there was a church here at an early date. Between 1093 and 1095 Robert de Mowbray, Earl of Northumberland, was lord, and the church was dedicated to the Northumbrian saint St. Ebbe.
From 1250 to 1251 the advowson followed the descent of the manor. In 1306 the bishop collated because of a dispute between Sir William Tuchet and the Maulevers, who were sharing the manor. (fn. 118) The latter evidently won, for in 1313 Lady Amice Maulever presented. In 1372, on unknown grounds, Sir Robert Hotot, lord of Clopton, was patron. When in 1398 the Stokeses leased the manor to the Cornwalls, they kept the advowson, for in 1409 and 1422 Thomas Stokes presented. No patron is named in 1417, and in 1435 the bishop collated by lapse. After this the descent of the advowson followed that of the manor.
From 1573 Shelswell and Newton Purcell, which had the same patron, were held together, (fn. 119) and Shelswell was usually referred to as a chapel of Newton. (fn. 120) In 1850 the ecclesiastical parishes were united. (fn. 121)
Shelswell was a very poor parish, valued at only 15s. in 1254 (fn. 122) and not included in the taxation of 1291. In the later Middle Ages it was taxed at £2 13s. 4d. (fn. 123) In the reign of Henry VIII its value had risen to £4. (fn. 124) In later valuations it was included with Newton Purcell, although the tithes were separately commuted in 1849 for £186. (fn. 125) After the Reformation the income of the parish came from tithes, for the glebe, which had been worth 6s. 8d. in the 14th century, (fn. 126) was absorbed into the lands of the manor by inclosure and had disappeared by 1601. The Rectory of two bays was still standing in 1634; next to it were Parsonage Close and Parsonage Orchard, but Parsonage Barn had by that time disappeared. (fn. 127)
The church of ST. EBBE has completely disappeared. It stood to the north-east of the house on the site now occupied by the stables of Home Farm. From the wills of Margaret Verney and Richard Heath, who were both buried in the church, it is known that it had at least two altars, (fn. 128) and from the Edwardian inventories of 1552 that there were two bells. The church also possessed a cope, two sets of vestments, a silver-gilt chalice and paten, and two pewter candlesticks. (fn. 129) It was standing in 1618 but was probably no longer used, as there were no 'mounds' round the churchyard. (fn. 130) In the early 18th century the church was described as a dilapidated chapel, (fn. 131) and in 1740 it was reported that no services had been held in it in 'the memory of man'. (fn. 132) The reports continue in much the same strain—in 1757 the chapel was described as decayed and gone to ruin (fn. 133) —until 1795; but in 1796 the chapel had been taken down. (fn. 134) Two stone-carved recumbent figures from the church, one male, the other female, in the dress of the late 16th century, are possibly memorials of members of the Heath family, and are in the grounds to the north-east of Shelswell House.