The Making of Chipping Norton: A Guide to its Buildings and History to 1750

The Making of Chipping Norton: A Guide to its Buildings and History to 1750

by Janice Cliffe, Adrienne Rosen


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The Making of Chipping Norton: A Guide to its Buildings and History to 1750 by Janice Cliffe, Adrienne Rosen

This book is the result of a two-year project by the Chipping Norton Buildings Record. It focuses on Chipping Norton before 1750, bringing together what we can learn from the built environment with documentary evidence from printed sources and national and local archives. The first part looks at ‘The medieval town, 1000 to 1540’, ‘The age of Henry Cornish, 1540 to 1660’ and ‘Rebuilding the town, 1660 to 1750’, whilst the second part is a series of walks along each of the medieval streets in turn, to see what remains today of its early fabric.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780750981163
Publisher: History Press Limited, The
Publication date: 11/01/2017
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 6.14(w) x 9.21(h) x (d)

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CHIPPING NORTON is a medieval town, planned and laid out on a hillside. As far as we know the site was at that time uninhabited, but the landscape around it had already been shaped by settlers, farmers and travellers over many centuries. Flint and pottery finds in the area and monuments including the Rollright Stones nearby are evidence of prehistoric settlement and clearance, and in Roman times there was a villa or small settlement to the south-east near Glyme Farm, but the origins of Chipping Norton lie in an Anglo-Saxon village whose location is unknown.


The earliest document to mention Chipping Norton is Domesday Book, which in 1086 listed the settlement of 'Norton' with fifty-three households, or between 200 and 300 people. The name Norton means 'north settlement or estate' which suggests that it was established as a northern outpost of either Shipton-under-Wychwood, a royal manor, or Charlbury, which like Shipton had an important minster or mother-church. The need for a source of water, and the location of the church, both point to a location for the Anglo-Saxon settlement of Norton in the valley near the Common Brook. Traces of the early village must survive in the ground and no doubt they will be discovered one day by archaeologists.

Domesday Book also recorded the name of the new Norman lord of Chipping Norton, Ernulf de Hesdin from Picardy. Ernulf was given many manors in southern England by William the Conqueror, and he proved to be a skilful estate manager whose lands had increased in value by 1086. A document sealed in the 1090s by Ernulf in his house at Norton, in the presence of his wife and daughter, his sons, his chaplain and the knights of his household, tells us that he built a residence on his new estate, most likely a motte-and-bailey castle (a wooden tower set on an earthen mound or motte) on the earthwork now called the Castle Banks, or perhaps on the natural mound to the west now occupied by the Victorian house called The Mount. There was also a church at Norton. Ernulf and his wife Emmelina were generous benefactors to monasteries and they gave Norton's church to the Benedictine abbey at Gloucester. This early church may have occupied the same site as the present parish church, but none of the original building has survived. The relationship between Chipping Norton's church and Gloucester has endured for more than 900 years, and the Dean and Chapter of Gloucester as successors to the abbey are still today the patrons who nominate each vicar.

The settlement was well connected with the wider world. From the north-west a major route from Worcester, Evesham and Stow-on-the-Wold passed just to the south of the modern town of Chipping Norton and on to Charlbury, Woodstock and Oxford. The name of Salford, a few miles to the west, indicates a route used for the transport of salt from Droitwich in Cheshire to south-east England. Another Anglo-Saxon route (the modern A361) ran from Banbury to Chipping Norton and then south to Shipton-under-Wychwood, Burford and the Thames crossing at Lechlade, and between these roads a network of trackways connected local communities.

Ernulf's lands at Norton descended to his daughter Avelina and then to his grandson William Fitzalan, whose descendants were to be lords of Chipping Norton for many generations thereafter. Their principal estates were in Shropshire where the Fitzalans were powerful barons in the Welsh Marches. Chipping Norton was remote from their strongholds at Oswestry and Clun, but it was a profitable estate in prime sheep-farming country and conveniently situated on a route between the family's Shropshire lands and London. It was also within easy reach of the royal palace at Woodstock and the Forest of Wychwood where medieval kings enjoyed hunting with their nobles and counsellors. By 1300 the Fitzalans had transformed Norton with the construction of a stone castle, a church, a priory and a new town.

Impressive earthworks called the Castle Banks can be seen today to the north-west of the town, but very little is known about the castle that stood there and the site has never been excavated. The mound is divided into two by a bank and ditch, and in both sections it is evident that the remains of stone buildings lie beneath the surface. Another bank to the east partially encloses a further small area, which could be the site of Ernulf de Hesdin's original motte and bailey. Below the steep north-west escarpment is the Brook where banks enclose a large medieval fishpond, now drained and known as Pool Meadow. The location of the castle's main gate is uncertain: was it on the north where there is a gap in the outer bank, on the east facing uphill to the town, or on the south looking towards the road from Shropshire?

Chipping Norton's castle appears to have been a fortified residence rather than a fortress. Due to its position on the side of a hill it had no moat, although there is a ditch on the south and west sides. It has been suggested that the castle was built in the early twelfth century or during the turbulent reign of Stephen, though it is not mentioned in written records, and the building probably underwent several phases of construction as the Fitzalans' plans for Chipping Norton changed. The formidable scale of the earthworks shows that someone amongst its medieval owners had plans for a grand residence, and the ambitious landscaping of the valley with its fishpond – similar to the medieval 'pleasaunce' or pleasure-ground laid out near the Fitzalans' castle at Clun – was probably associated with this phase, but it is not certain that plans for a substantial building were carried out. For much of its history the castle at Chipping Norton seems to have been occupied only intermittently. By the reign of Henry VI in the mid-fifteenth century a survey records that it was in poor condition and all that remained of its buildings were an 'ancient hall', a barn, a dovecote, a thatched cow-shed and a sheepcote, while the banks were used for grazing livestock.


Enterprising landowners across England and Europe created towns in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries as a way of maximising the income from their estates, as towns attracted trade and generated rents, tolls and fines. In Oxfordshire the towns of Burford and Banbury were well established by the mid 1100s. New research by Antonia Catchpole has concluded that Chipping Norton was probably founded in the mid to late 1100s, at the same period as the Bishop of Winchester's new town of Witney.

If this date is correct, the lord responsible for creating Chipping Norton was William Fitzalan, who succeeded his father in 1160 and died in 1210. In Shropshire he inherited the lordship of Clun and laid out a new town adjoining its castle. At Chipping Norton, his grandmother Avelina had founded an Augustinian priory and hospital at Cold Norton between 1148 and 1158 on the site of the present Priory Farm, and gave the priory the family's manor of Over Norton. The grant was confirmed by William in 1204. The Fitzalans' act of piety would diminish their own income, but the foundation of a town, if successful, would far outweigh the loss.

The basic requirements of a new town were a large central market area; house or burgage plots along the main streets; back lanes providing access to the backs of the plots, which could later be developed into streets if demand for housing increased; a church for the townspeople; roads to bring customers to the town; and in some cases a new residence for the lord. These elements were sufficiently flexible to be adapted to the geography of the chosen site and could incorporate existing roads or buildings, so no two town plans are exactly the same. In the case of Chipping Norton the founders saw no need to provide a lordly residence or a new parish church in the town as the castle and St Mary's stood nearby. The church was certainly rebuilt, and traces of a large twelfth-century arch in the east wall of the tower suggest that reconstruction coincided with the establishment of the new town. The size of the early church, close to its present length, reflects the intention to provide for a large community.

William Fitzalan's surveyors chose a site for the new town at some distance from the castle, the church and the early settlement of Norton. We can only guess at their intentions, but the site they selected on the hillside above the castle and the church offered ample space to lay out all the necessary facilities on a grand scale. The rocky slope was unsuited to cultivation so the new buildings would not occupy valuable arable land. Evidence of the area's earlier use for digging stone has been found in recent archaeological excavations on the plots behind the White Hart and nos 7-10 High Street which discovered quarry-pits of the eleventh or twelfth century. Below ground, the geology of the hillside offered building stone and firm footings for substantial masonry. The upper side of the market place stands on bands of the local Chipping Norton Limestone and Clypeus Grit, while buildings on the lower side are on mudstone or clay. Most importantly, the site offered a reliable water supply as an alternative to the Brook, as the alternating strata of limestone, clay and marlstone result in springs which emerge from the hillside, notably along the line of Spring Street. The selection in the twelfth century of this site on the side of a hill, rising from 175m at the west end of New Street to over 210m above Albion Street, has had practical consequences throughout Chipping Norton's history and the steep slope is still one of the town's defining characteristics.

The line of High Street and the market place probably followed an existing track. Medieval routes tended to be corridors consisting of several parallel tracks, especially when crossing difficult terrain such as a hillside, so that the traveller could choose the path with the surest footing. Modern Albion Street appears to have been the main trackway on the Banbury-Shipton route, continuing as the main route south from Chipping Norton along the Burford road. A line of field boundaries suggests another parallel track further up the hill east of Albion Street, meeting the Burford road at the junction with The Green, while lower down was another parallel path, which continued southwards to the village of Churchill. From these alternatives the medieval surveyors chose the lowest as the high street of the new town, with Albion Street as the back lane providing rear access to burgage plots. Long-distance routes now entered the town at the north-east from Banbury, Stratford and Oxford, and at the south-east from Woodstock and Charlbury.

The road from Worcester and Stow from the west (now the A44) did not originally pass through Chipping Norton, however, but crossed the Common (where a hollow way still shows the medieval route) to join the Burford road south of the town on the way to London. In order to bring travellers into the market place, the road was diverted further north and became known as New Street. We cannot tell whether New Street was created when the town was established, or in the fourteenth or fifteenth century, and its name only appears in documents from 1545.

The heart of a medieval town was its space for markets and fairs. Chipping Norton's cigar-shaped market place as originally laid out was one of the largest in Oxfordshire, extending nearly 500m from north to south and 75m from east to west, even broader than it is today because the building frontage on the upper side has gradually moved forward. Entrances to the market place were narrow in order to control access. Further down the hill New Street widens out considerably, and this area was used as a suburban market place for cattle in the seventeenth century. West Street too has several points at which the roadway widens into possible suburban market areas.

William Fitzalan's surveyors laid out house plots along both the upper and lower sides of the market place. The aim was to attract settlers who would construct their own buildings, so the plots were offered as 'burgages', free from the manorial services required from the lord's tenants in the countryside and subject only to a small annual rent. Analysis of medieval town plans has shown that burgages in planned towns were generally laid out according to standard measurements based on a statute perch (a length of 161/2ft or 5.03m). Measurement of the building frontages along the upper side of Chipping Norton's market place shows that the original plots were 11/2 perches, and no. 19 High Street still occupies an original plot of that width. The length of the plots varies with the curve of Albion Street as their eastern boundary, and one of the longest plots in the centre of High Street, White Hart Mews, extends to 120m. These long narrow plots are typical of medieval burgages in prime commercial areas where the aim was to maximise the number of plots with a frontage to the market place. Wealthy purchasers could combine adjoining plots to construct impressive houses, such as no. 23 High Street (the Crown & Cushion) which stands on a 21/2-perch plot with a frontage of 13.27m created from one original burgage plus most of the neighbouring plot.

While the burgage plots on the upper side of the market place stretched up the hill, those on the lower side were laid out on an equally steep downhill slope and most of them had no back lane. In order to make plots on the lower side equally attractive with an area similar to those on High Street, the lower side burgage plots were wider at 2 perches (about 10m) and about 17 perches (87m) long. No. 15 Market Place, for instance, occupies a 2-perch plot with a frontage of 10.13m. Areas of ridge and furrow – medieval strips formed by ploughing, preserved as undulating grassland when the fields were later enclosed for pasture – can still be seen north-west of the town on the eastern side of the Brook, and the open fields of the original settlement may well have extended further south, with Church Lane, Church Street and Diston's Lane originating as slightly raised field-paths between blocks of strips. The western boundary of the house-plots on the west side of Spring Street between Church Street and Church Lane has a slight reverse Sshaped curve which may reflect an original field boundary or field strip.

Another block of burgages stood on the west side of West Street as far as no. 11, while on the east side of West Street the plots form part of the High Street series of burgages bounded by Albion Street, extending as far south as the King's Arms at Burford Corner. It is not clear whether the plots along the north side of New Street were part of the original town plan; they ran back to the line of a watercourse and appear to be of similar length to those above the market place, although later development has obscured the plot boundaries. On the south side of New Street the picture is even less clear, and if plots were laid out here when the town was founded they were either not taken up or were abandoned later.

A new town was a speculative venture and not all medieval foundations were successful, but Chipping Norton attracted settlers and traders from the outset and in 1204 King John granted William Fitzalan an annual three-day fair in the town. The weekly market was probably already well established without a royal grant. The success of the new town also resulted in an addition to its name, when the prefix 'chipping', meaning market, was added to Norton. A document from 1218 is the earliest found so far to use the new name, and by 1300 the town was known as 'Chepyngnorton'.


Once a medieval town was laid out, its buildings and street-plan could be adapted by the inhabitants to suit their own needs. Chipping Norton appears to have been planned by the Fitzalans as a large settlement, intended perhaps as a major Cotswold wool-marketing centre, but before long it must have become clear that the blueprint had been too ambitious. Perhaps it proved difficult to attract tenants for all the plots available. The solution was to shorten the market place to about half its original length. At the southern end, the original entrance may have been by the King's Arms at Burford Corner; if so, a new narrow entrance further north was created in the twelfth or thirteenth century by extending the building line on the east side of West Street further into the roadway. The extension created a right-angled south-east corner to the market place which is mentioned in a document of 1302, so this must have been an early change to the original town plan.


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Copyright © 2017 Adrienne Rosen and Janice Cliffe.
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Table of Contents

About the Authors 6

Preface and Acknowledgements 7

Abbreviations 9

Part I People, Town And Buildings Of Chipping Norton to 1750 11

Chapter 1 The Medieval Town, 1000-1540 12

Chapter 2 The Age of Henry Cornish, 1540-1660 45

Chapter 3 Rebuilding the Town, 1660-1750 67

Part II A Town Trail 87

Walk 1 High Street 88

Walk 2 Horsefair, Goddard's Lane and Middle Row 116

Walk 3 Market Place and Market Street 142

Walk 4 Spring Street, Church Lane and Church Street 166

Walk 5 West Street 198

Walk 6 New Street 222

Glossary of Architectural Terms 236

Further Reading and Sources 242

Picture Credits 245

Index 247

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