1066: Oxfordshire in the Norman Conquest
Courtesy of the media, by the end of the year we will all know rather more about the Norman Conquest than we ever perhaps wished to. But I’d put money on not one of our TV historians acknowledging that both the starting and finishing points for the seismic events of 1066 were in Oxfordshire.
The whole episode began three miles north of Oxford some 60 years before the Battle of Hastings. In around 1004, a prince was born in tiny Islip. He would be remembered by history as Edward the Confessor, and his decisions and way of life as an adult led to the tumult of 1066. So what was a royal prince doing being born in Islip?
Anglo-Saxon Islip lay on the edge of a royal hunting ground called the forest of Bernwood. Edward’s parents Ethelred and Emma were probably travelling to their palace at Headington, but when Emma went into labour they stopped off at their hunting lodge at Islip for the birth.
King Ethelred the Unready was a pious and humble young man, described as “[A] youth of graceful manners, handsome countenance, and fine person...” The feisty and beautiful Queen Emma was the sister of Duke Richard II of Normandy.
In spite of Emma’s beauty, Ethelred had chosen his wife for political reasons. England was plagued by the Vikings, who left havoc and devastation behind them. By marrying the Duke of Normandy’s sister, Ethelred hoped to enlist his help in preventing the Normandy coast from being used as a launch-pad for raids on England.
Edward’s parents gave thanks for his birth by building a chapel in Islip. The font used for the Confessor's baptism was repurposed during Oliver Cromwell’s Commonwealth as a vessel for mixing chicken feed. The chapel was finally demolished in about 1780, and the materials used to build that other place of worship, the village pub. Divine assistance against the Vikings was also sought soon after Edward’s birth by means of the refounding by Ethelred and Emma of Eynsham Abbey.
The Anglo-Saxon epithet “Unraed” actually translates as “ill-advised”. His courtiers were sycophants who told him what they thought he wanted to hear, rather than the truth. Partly owing to that useless counsel, the Viking king of Norway, Sweyn Forkbeard, eventually seized Ethelred’s throne in 1013.
Ethelred and Emma fled with the ten-year-old Edward and his younger brother Alfred to the court of Emma’s brother in Normandy. In 1017 Sweyn’s son Cnut took the throne. By this time Ethelred was dead so the pragmatic Emma, having no taste for life on the sidelines, returned to England to marry Cnut. Edward was left behind in Normandy, spending the next 28 years there.
However, Edward’s hour of triumph did eventually arrive. Cnut’s line died out, and in 1042 Edward was crowned king at the age of 39. He was pretty well forced by England’s most powerful earl, Godwin, to marry Godwin’s daughter Edith, but Edward made his distaste for the match clear by fathering no children with her.
Emma’s desertion of Edward as a boy, and her decision to return to England to marry his father’s enemy Cnut, had not gone unnoticed by her son. Edward complained that Emma neglected him as a child, but he more likely had an eye on her extensive property portfolio. Edward placed his mother under house arrest in Winchester Cathedral and helped himself to her land and fortune.
Even confined in a cathedral, Emma managed to get into trouble. Rumours emerged that the comfort that the Bishop of Winchester was offering Emma had strayed beyond the spiritual. The bishop in question was Aelfwine, lord of the manor of Witney. Emma was obliged to prove her innocence by walking barefoot across six red-hot ploughshares, which she did without injury. A relieved queen and bishop each gave nine manors to the church in gratitude for their deliverance – but Aelfwine hung on to valuable Witney.
Edward rewarded those who had been his supporters and protectors during his years in exile, like the monks of St Denis in Paris who were granted the manor of Northmoor near Stanton Harcourt. Not only did this favouritism cause resentment among Edward’s English earls, but it persuaded William of Normandy that the childless Edward’s promise to make him heir to the English throne was genuine. So when news of the death of Edward reached Normandy, an army of invasion crossed the sea to England.
We all know the result of that battle on 14th October 1066, but William still needed to take London. Finding that Harold had left the capital heavily defended at London Bridge, the Norman Duke moved along the south bank of the Thames, searching for a place to cross. One might reasonably argue that the Battle of Hastings ended only once William reached Wallingford.
By December, the English were tired of fighting and thoroughly demoralised. Wallingford itself had been utterly destroyed by the Vikings a mere sixty years earlier, so the townsfolk could perhaps be excused for wishing to avoid yet another rebuild. Edward the Confessor’s kinsman Wigod of Wallingford opened the gates and waved William and his army straight on in.
A peace delegation including the Archbishop of Canterbury arrived to make what today we would call the formal surrender to William, and for their co-operation the people of Wallingford were given an extra hour before curfew – 9pm instead of 8pm. The curfew bell still tolls just before nine today. William left the loyal Robert D’Oilly, to consolidate the Norman hold on Wallingford, and went on his merrily rampaging way to his coronation in London.
Robert D'Oilly began building a complex motte and bailey fortress. Meanwhile, Wigod realised that he would not hold on to his lands in such a vitally strategic spot, so he married his daughter to D'Oilly. By 1071, Wigod was dead, and Robert D’Oilly inherited all his lands. Robert moved to Oxford in 1071 as its sheriff. There he founded one of the religious houses that would eventually form the University of Oxford, and built a new stone castle in 1073.
The old Anglo-Saxon aristocracy was either wiped out or dispossessed, the plum church posts were given to foreigners, and every scrap of land was in the gift of the new king. But the Norman Conquest began with a royal birth in Islip, and finished with a formal surrender in Wallingford.
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