Somerton is a village in the Cherwell valley, about 6 miles north-west of Bicester.
The Domesday Book of 1086 records that William the Conqueror’s step-brother Odo, Bishop of Bayeux, held the manor of Somerton.
In 1230 the manor was divided between two heiresses. Then, in 1245, Walter de Grey, Archbishop of York, granted one of the halves to his nephew, also called Walter de Grey. The de Grey manor house seems to have been on low-lying land near the Cherwell and by 1295 it had a court, dovecote and fishponds.
The manor was passed down through the de Grey family, and then to their descendants, the Deincourts, and then to the Lovells of Minster Lovell. In 1485 Francis Lovell was created 1st Viscount Lovell. He is believed to have been killed in 1487 during the Battle of Stoke Field at the end of the Wars of the Roses. After his death the Crown held the manor for 25 years.
In 1512 the Crown granted the manor to William Fermor of Witney. William built a new manor house above the village, in contrast to the de Grey manor house that had been close to the Cherwell. It remained the Fermor home until about 1625 when Richard Fermor made Tusmore the family’s principal home. In the 18th century most of Somerton manor house was demolished, but part of the hall wall still remains.
In the 16th century the south aisle of St James’ church was converted into the Fermor family chapel. However, after the Reformation the Fermors were recusants and had a private Roman Catholic chapel at the manor house.
When Thomas Fermor died in 1580 his will provided for the founding of a “free school” for Somerton boys to be instructed in “virtue and learning”. The old school building today dates from the 19th century, but includes a late 16th-century window which may be from the original building.
During the English Civil War, Henry Fermor stayed neutral but his kinsman by marriage, Henry Arundell, 3rd Baron Arundell of Wardour, another recusant, was a Royalist who fought for King Charles I. As a result, in 1646 the Commonwealth sequestered Arundell’s estates, including Somerton. However a relative bought Somerton from the sequestrators and in 1660 the manor was restored to the Fermors.
In 1815 William Fermor sold the manor to George Villiers, 6th Earl of Jersey. As the Free School accepted only boys, Julia, Lady Jersey, opened a girls’ school in the village. A century later George’s son Victor Villiers, 7th Earl of Jersey, died and the Somerton estate was sold.
The parish church of Saint James the Apostle is known to have existed by 1074 and a Norman carved doorway in the nave dates from this period. But much of the building, including the bell tower, is Decorated Gothic from the early 14th century. St James’ also has features from the 13th, 15th and 16th centuries.
Even after the Fermors moved to Tusmore, the Roman Catholic Mass continued to be celebrated at the Somerton manor house chapel. In 1738 the rector of St James’ Church reported that 47 Catholics attended Mass at the manor house chapel once a month. Somerton’s Catholics were respectful to the Anglican rector, good farmers, and so neighbourly to Anglican fellow-villagers that there were numerous intermarriages between the two denominations. The rector concluded that the two denominations “are so blended and united together” that it would be inadvisable to enforce the laws against Catholicism that made it an offence to celebrate the Mass or for anyone to harbour Catholic clergy.
Somerton was farmed in an open field system of four fields until William Fermor secured an enclosure act from Parliament in 1765. Thereafter the village’s population grew, reaching 400 in the 1841 census.
The stretch of the Oxford Canal between Banbury and Tackley was completed in 1787. It runs along the Cherwell valley and passes between the river and the village. Somerton Deep Lock was built just to the north of the village.
Construction of the section of the Oxford and Rugby Railway between Oxford and Banbury began in 1845. In Somerton it threads along the valley between the Oxford Canal and the foot of the hill on which the village stands. A bridge carries it over the road to North Aston. The GWR opened a station just south of the bridge in 1855; originally named Somerton, it was renamed Fritwell & Somerton in 1907, although Fritwell is about two miles away. The station attracted the opening of a public house, the Railway Inn. But British Railways closed the station in 1964 and the Inn has since followed suit.
Some of the land on which the railway was built belonged to the Free School; some of the money that the GWR paid in compenstation was spent on repairs to the school. In the 19th century the village population grew and the school population grew with it. In a reorganisation of schools in 1930 the Free School became a junior school and senior pupils from Somerton had to go to Fritwell. The school was still open in the 1950s but has since closed.
After the First World War the Rev Dr Barnes, who had been Rector of Somerton since 1875, organised the building of the first village hall. Barnes retired in 1923, then the hall was completed in 1924 and it was named the Barnes Memorial Hall in his memory.
By the 2000s the first hall was suffering from subsidence and a leaking roof. In December 2008 the Big Lottery Fund granted its trustees £311,000 to rebuild the hall for the village. The new Barnes Memorial Hall was then completed in May 2010.