The village of Souldern lies about half way between Bicester and Banbury, and forms the north-east corner of the BLHS area.
The name Souldern, or “Sulthorn” as it was earlier known, is derived from the Old English “Sulh-þorn”, meaning “Thornbush in a gully”.
Early in the 12th century Jordan de Say, a Norman nobleman who owned the manor of Kirtlington, seems also to have owned the manor of Souldern. He married his daughter, Eustache, to Hugh FitzOsbern, by whom the manor became part of the honour of Richard’s Castle in Herefordshire. Hugh and Eustache’s sons took their mother’s surname de Say, and overlordship of the Honour of Richard’s Castle, including Souldern, remained with the family until about 1196, when their grandson, Hugh de Say, died leaving Richard’s Castle to his daughter Margaret. She married three times and the castle eventually passed to the heirs of her second husband, Robert Mortimer. The Mortimers kept the castle until Hugh Mortimer died in 1304, leaving it to his daughter Joan. Joan married twice and with her second husband, Richard Talbot, had a son, John, who was recorded as overlord of Souldern in 1346.
By 1196 Hugh de Say, grandson of Hugh FitzOsbern, had transferred lordship of the manor of Souldern to his brother-in-law, Thomas de Arderne. By 1279 the Ardernes were mesne lords, collecting rent from the de Lewknor family. By 1307 the de Lewknors had conveyed Souldern to the Abberbury family of Donnington, Berkshire. Sir Richard Abberbury, knight of the shire for Oxfordshire in 1373 and 1387, granted lands at Souldern to both Donnington Hospital and a house of Crutched Friars at Donnington. Sir Richard’s nephew, another Richard Abberbury, inherited the remainder. The younger Richard seized the Crutched Friars’ land at Souldern and granted it to William de la Pole, 1st Duke of Suffolk, in 1448. The remainder of Richard’s land at Souldern passed to his nephew Sir Richard Arches, MP for Buckinghamshire. Souldern was then inherited by his daughter, Joan, and her husband, Sir John Dynham. When their son, John Dynham, 1st Baron Dynham, died in 1501, Souldern manor was divided into four parts which remained in separate hands until the 1590s.
One part passed to Thomas Arundell, of Lanherne, Cornwall, whose mother was a Dynham, and remained in the Arundell family until Sir John Arundell sold it to John Stutsbury, Robert Weedon and his son, John Weedon, who together already owned one of the other parts. Robert married Stutsbury’s daughter and by the time he died in 1598 Robert had acquired a third part. In 1604 John Weedon acquired the fourth and final part of Souldern by quitclaim, eventually reuniting the manor after just over a century of division.
The Stutsbury and Weedon families were recusants and during the English Civil War the Parliamentarians confiscated the Weedons’ estates. After the English Restoration the Crown restored the estates, which then stayed in the family until John Weedon died in 1710. John left his manor to Samuel Cox, the infant grandson of Richard Kilby, of Souldern. The Cox family lived in Farningham, Kent, and were largely absentee landlords. In the 1860s Lieutenant-Colonel Richard Snead Cox, of Broxwood, Herefordshire, was listed as lord of the manor of Souldern, but thereafter the lordship was allowed to lapse.
John Stutsbury was recorded as a recusant in 1577 and 1592. John Weedon and his wife were fined for recusancy in 1603 and the Weedons were said to have mortgaged land to a house of Benedictine nuns in Dunkirk. The Kilby family were recusants and were said to have mortgaged land to the Benedictine Douai Abbey. The Cox family were also Roman Catholics. The number of recusants recorded in Souldern was nine in 1643, 21 in 1676, 19 in 1690 and 25 in 1703. For the remainder of the 18th century the number fluctuated between 10 and 14.
The manor-house had a Roman Catholic chapel hidden in the attic. But, with no resident priest, they would have relied on visiting clergy to celebrate Mass. In 1778 Parliament passed the Papists Act and in 1781 Souldern’s hidden chapel ceased to be used. The attic chapel was used again from 1852 until 1869 when it was succeeded by Saint Joseph’s chapel, which the Gothic Revival architect Charles Hansom created by adding a brick extension to convert the manor house’s stone-built coach house. These developments helped to revive Souldern’s Roman Catholic community which by the end of the 19th century comprised about nine families.
The parish church of the Annunciation to the Blessed Virgin Mary originally dates back to the 12th century. The church was enlarged and altered at various times between about 1200 and 1500. The mediaeval chancel fell into disrepair in the 18th century and was demolished after 1775. In 1896 the Gothic Revival architect Ninian Comper rebuilt the chancel and in 1906 G.F. Bodley dismantled and rebuilt the Norman tower and tower arch.
From 1161 until the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1539 the Benedictine Eynsham Abbey owned the advowson of the parish. After 1623 John Williams, Bishop of Lincoln, granted it to St John’s College, Cambridge.
The parish had a rectory that was built before 1638 and had fishponds well-stocked with carp by 1723. The poet William Wordsworth stayed there in 1820. Afterwards he wrote the sonnet A Parsonage in Oxfordshire, and in another sonnet called the house “this humble and beautiful parsonage”. In 1890 this historic house was demolished and replaced with a new one designed by the Gothic Revival architect E.G. Bruton.
Souldern Mill is on Ockley Brook, just west of the village. The oldest known record of it is from 1279. By the latter part of the 17th century there were two mills, but the second mill did not survive. The mill was independent of Souldern Manor, and being on the county and parish boundary with Aynho it may have served both villages. A watermill between the two villages was still working in 1920.
The parish’s open field system of farming was ended at a relatively early date. Early in the 17th century the lord of the manor wished to terminate all common land rights but the freeholders opposed him and the case went to court. The judge advised the parties to accept the arbitration of the Recorder of Banbury, Sir Thomas Chamberlayne, who ruled that the parish be “measured, divided and inclosed”. The parish was duly surveyed and in 1613 the division and awarding of land was ratified by the Court of Chancery.
Before enclosure much of the parish was arable, but afterwards farmers converted the major part of their land to pasture and meadow, apparently to minimise the amount of tithes that they had to pay. Most of the conversion was by sowing sainfoin, which by 1700 had doubled the value of the land. The good pasture supported the development of cheese-making in the parish. Early in the 20th century up to 15 cheese-makers were employed at the manor house.
Souldern’s economy was unusually diverse for a village. In the 17th century it included two tailors, a weaver and a mercer. At a later date there were three tailors and a milliner. At one time Souldern had three lace-making schools and in 1851 there were more than 30 lace-makers in the parish, but the trade declined towards the end of the 19th century.
Souldern’s first purpose-built village school was paid for by William and James Minn and opened in 1816. In 1820 Sarah Westcar died, leaving £200 to be invested for the school to pay the salary of a National School master. The School was affiliated to the National Society for Promoting Religious Education by 1847.
The school eventually outgrew its premises, and in 1851 James Minn died leaving land for a new school building and cottages for two teachers. These were completed in 1856. After 1871 the school was enlarged again and a new house added for the schoolmaster. In 1930 it was reorganised as a junior school, with senior pupils being sent to Fritwell. By 1951 it was a voluntary controlled school and by 1954 the number of pupils had declined to 17. It has since closed.