Past Talks

Lost Villages of Oxfordshire

Date: 20th June 2016
Speaker: Deborah Hayter

Lost Villages of Oxfordshire – Deborah Hayter

The term ‘deserted mediaeval village’ is universally used to describe settlements which have been lost from the landscape.  Although convenient, the description is often inaccurate, since many settlements were not completely deserted; were not deserted in the mediaeval period or were not actually villages.

In Oxfordshire, the Domesday Book records 251 vills.  By the early 14th century this number had increased to about 350. 

Widford, near Swinbrook is an example of a village where the location is known, but all but the church has disappeared.  Sexintone has completely disappeared, but is believed to have been in the Bucknell area.  The mediaeval village of Nuneham Courtenay was moved from the grounds of Nuneham House by Lord Harcourt in 1760 (emparking).  Astwick, Lower Chalford (nr Enstone), Wretchwick (nr Bicester), Coat (means cottage) and Ditchley represent over one hundred deserted Oxfordshire villages discovered by the 1960s.  We now know of about one hundred and fifty settlements which have either shifted, contracted or disappeared.

Reasons for the decline, decay or desertion of the villages are varied.  Common factors include the settlement being small or dispersed; there being a lack of basic services; the land being bought by an outsider; the disintegration of the community; the village not being a manorial centre and it being a later settlement on poorer soil.  The black death and the introduction of sheep grazing are suggested as possible explanations, but the background is more complex.  The black death resulted in a 30%-50% reduction in the population, and was widespread.  This cannot wholly explain why some places declined and some survived.  Other factors include the change in the climate.  In the 1200s, the climate was favourable and there was political stability, economic expansion and population growth.  New towns and markets were set up – Bicester’s market charter dates from 1239.   By the 1300s the climate had become wetter, there was not enough land to sustain the population and the period from 1310 to 1320 saw a succession of bad harvests and serious famines.  In 1341/2 King’s Commissioners discovered significant tracts of uncultivated land in the county.   The black death of 1348/9 exacerbated the collapse of the feudal system and village systems where the open fields were worked in common.  The population didn’t recover to its former levels until about 1600.

Small villages, particularly those in the hands of a single landlord, were vulnerable as he could enclose the land or force evictions.  Sheep were often seen as the culprits, the wool trade being highly profitable.  In the early 16th century Cardinal Wolsey formed a commission to investigate depopulating enclosure.  Enclosure didn’t necessarily lead to desertion.  Adderbury, Somerton, Aynho and Tackley all reported large areas of enclosure, but survived.  The Lord of the Manor at Tusmore was taken to court in the 15th century for having enclosed his land.  He contended that everyone had died of the black death, so enclosure and conversion to pasture was the only option.

In the 1950s the investigation of deserted mediaeval villages was a new field of study.  The Deserted Mediaeval Village Research Group was formed in 1952 and Maurice Beresford published Lost Villages of England in 1954.  They embarked on archaeological and documentary research.  Aerial photography undertaken by the RAF after WW11 has enhanced our understanding of deserted sites.   The Group produced a map and gazetteer of deserted sites in Oxfordshire in 1965.  The Oxfordshire Record Society published the latest survey in 2010 – The Historical Atlas of Oxfordshire.  This includes mapping of deserted and shrunken sites.  Current research takes a wider focus beyond the ‘how and when’ of desertion, looking at origins, development, change and growth or decline.

Most recent publication: Deserted Villages Revisited by Christopher Dyer and Richard Jones.