Wytham village and Wytham Woods

Our ancient village of Wytham is a quiet, remarkably unspoilt and extraordinary setting. History is all around the pub, church, woods, stream, and stone built houses with names not numbers.

The village hall and the pub bring the community together as well as welcoming adventurers to ‘the sticks’ of the city.

Farmland and woodland reign around us. The remains of Godstow Abbey on the way here from Wolvercote rally the curious while Wytham Woods welcomes wildlife and wanderers alike.

There is no shortage of history to the village of Wytham, and the war memorial tells of its more recent challenges. Yet over the centuries there has been no shortage of goings on.

We’re rather fond of this perspective from 1909 written by Fred S Thacker in ” The Stripling Thames”.

In the strawberry season all Oxford resorts to Wytham, whose name has been shortened down from the old spelling Wyghtham, meaning, perhaps, the village at the bend. It lies but three quarters of a mile from Godstow Bridge, and has an abbey, the seat for centuries of the Earls of Abingdon, originally erected under Henry VI, but now mainly Elizabethan. The Harcourts once held it, between the present lords and the de Wightham family, who died out under the first Edwards. Much of the stonework is said to have been brought from Godstow Priory; and Lysons says it was formerly moated. Lord Williams of Thame, the ancestor of the Earls of Abingdon who purchased the estate, was the principal co-adventurer with Sir Walter Raleigh in his Guiana expedition. [In his additions and corrections Fred added: There is a curious little story told about the passing of this estate from the possession of the Harcourts. Robert Harcourt, after the heavy failure of the Guiana venture, in which he also was involved, had to sell his properties; and having parted with Ellenhall in Staffordshire vowed that, if he had to sell anything further, he would let loose a pigeon and dispose of whatever lands the bird flew over. When released it circled above Wytham Hill, which thus passed from him. ]

On Wytham Hill, five hundred and thirty-nine feet high, are the mound remains of a castle built by Kinewulf, King of the West Saxons, in his long running fight with Offa, him who built the great dyke along the Welsh marches, and, say some, the ancient wall of Oxford. He was King of Mercia: “the vague Mercian land whence we get our weights, our measures, and the worst of our national accent. ” Kinewujf had just lost a strong fort down at Bensington to Offa, in 777, before he built this one, whence also in 779 did Offa expel him, scaring away the nuns from Wytham at the same time, and destroying the nunnery; though some will have it that the nuns demolished the place themselves, the castle so disturbing their sense of propriety. This battle was probably fought in the meadow valley between the Wytham and Cumner hills, which the armies respectively occupied. There used to be a place-name Holderfield, the field of corpses; no doubt a reminder of this old baresark fight.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records a battle at Wytham earlier still, in 571, between the British and the West Saxons under Cuthwulf, the first outbreak of the latter after their great victory at Mount Badon in 520. This battle was, however, probably fought from the neighbouring Beacon Hill, on which signs of a British camp are very plain to see. This hill is said to have borne one of the beacons that signalled the approach of the Spanish Armada. I will not omit an account of this Kinewulf’s death in 784, because of the example it affords of the splendid devotion of comradeship that compelled these ancient men.

Kinewulf had gone thinly attended to visit a lady at Merton (was it in Surrey? ), and his enemy Cyneheard, hearing of his coming, collected a band and broke into the lady’s bower upon the king, who defended himself bravely, and seeing his chief enemy hurled himself upon him and wounded him, but was forthwith slain. The lady’s cries meanwhile brought up Kinewuif’s slender guard of thegns,’each running as fast as he could,’ to whom Cyneheard, having no quarrel with them, offered peace. But they would have no peace, nor follow a man who had killed their captain; and the fighting continued, but against such odds that all these thegns took death rather than fail in their loyalty, however unavailing. His murder occurred, by an ironic stroke, during the very year in which he had been in conclave, with Offa, upon the business of a papal legation ‘to renew the faith and the peace which St. Gregory had sent us by the Bishop Augustin.’

As you walk from Godstow Bridge Wytham nestles like a pretty quakeress under its green hill, alluring in saintly grey and russet red. At a cattle gate in the lane an ancient lunatic beggar woman droned her chant at every footfall: “My brudder was a-psalm singin’ in der church; my brudder was a-” … “Dea magna, dea Cybebe, dea domina Dindymei, Procul a mea tuos sit furor omnis, era, domo Alios age incitatos, alios age rabidos. ‘ Not that she is violent; the poor old creature looks even more ruinous than the priory itself. A raised plank footway for flood time borders the lane across the meadows; and a little grey bridge spans the County Stream, which, rather than the main stream, here divides Berkshire from Oxfordshire, laving the feet of the Wytham flower gardens that lean down to its waters. This little stream seems at one time and another to have been almost by way of becoming the main channel. Turning over some old papers I came upon a report of a committee of the House of Commons, printed in 1793, wherein one Josiah Clowes “thinks the Navigation ought to have gone down the Witham Stream, but he can’t speak with certainty, not having surveyed it himself. ‘Another Witness was of the same opinion; thought “it would have been much better, and less expensive, to have gone by the Witham Stream.’

The village itself is a miniature of gables and thatch, of ivied walls and curiously clipped yews. The church was originally built about 1480; if not, as some say, in the eleventh century. It was small, and had in 1801 a boarded roof; you may see a print, if you wish, in the Bodleian. The Lord Abingdon of 1811 almost entirely rebuilt it with material from Godstow Nunnery and Cumner Place. Close by the gate, in the lane, is a pointed archway brought from Godstow, and bearing the date 1372. And the entrance arch to the churchyard bears, in the stately Roman characters: JANVA VITAE VERBVM DOMINI. This is from Cumner; as also are the delightful old painted glass in the various windows (a piece in the north of the nave contains portraits of Edward II and his queen Isabella, placed there perhaps by pilgrims on their way to the monarch’s shrine at Gloucester-” he who,” says Fuller,”being no saint in his life became half a saint after his death”); the fine grotesque corbel of a piper towards the northwest corner; and the east and some of the smaller windows. Under the matting by the chancel rail are two brasses of a man in armour and a woman; and on an adjacent stone is engraved:

Robert de Wightham marryed Juliana daughter of Sir John Golaifre of Fyfield in this county by whom he had issue Richard and seven daughters. He / She } died in the yere { 1406 / 1408

This “John Golaifre” cannot be that John Golafre who founded the chantry in Fyfield church- he of the skeleton Death, of whom I will tell you later. He died in 1442; and this “daughter” thirty-four years earlier after bearing eight children. The pious founder was perhaps a grandson of her father, and nephew to herself. There is the human touch seldom far to seek under similar details. Alice Denton, a daughter of one of the eight children, and a relation of the Harcourts who succeeded the de Wighthams, set up these brasses and a circumscription; which Montague, Earl of Abingdon in 1735, seeing to have become much mutilated and hardly legible, and touched with her filial piety and affection, generously replaced with the present stone telling the whole story.

During a further search of the church floor I discovered what I had not seen mentioned elsewhere: a slab, partly covered with pews, to Edward Purcell, the “eldest son of Mr. Purcell of the Royal Chapel, and brother of Mr. Henry Purcell so much renowned for his skill in music. ” He,” after sundry good service,”was gradually advanced to the honour of lieutenant-colonel,” was under Rooke at Gibraltar; and when “decayed with age and broken with misfortunes he retired to the house of the right honble. Montague earl of Abingdon and died June 20, 1717. Aged 64 years’; living thus to just twice the age of his more famous brother. One would like to know the history of the fine, broken gentleman; and what ground he had for relying upon the munificence of Lord Abingdon. A tablet within the altar rails on the north wall has the finest bit of illiterate spelling I have seen on stone:


Chatting with a fine old yeoman,”born and bred in the place,” quoth-a! I found he knew nothing of the Saxon castle. “But there’s Godstow Bower below here, you know,” said he; “and over at Cumner Hall Amy Robson used to be. ” He dared say I had read all about her. Under the blaze of a mid-September sun I climbed Wytham Hill to see the woods and find the “castle. ” All the land lay drowsy in heat. I caught a side view along the front of Wytham Abbey; and then, looking back, beheld through foliage Oxford in the valley with all her towers and spires. Presently I was crossing a huge stretch of meadow, a quarter of a mile square, and surrounded with tall elms. And here were high mounds, running long and wide across the field; and I wondered if these were the castle of Kinewulf. They are not; they are probably, however, the remains of a quarry worked by Offa to build his “terrible fortress or castle not farre from the great ashe which is a land mark. ” I entered the woods by what was once a well kept drive, now left wild; a circular woodland route of about six miles for the abbey family’s pleasure-taking. There stood the quaint toy milestones by which they measured their distance. And then I came out of the wood, and beneath me lay the illimitable west country, from Cumner sitting upon its hill amongst the trees round to Kidlington spire gleaming white northwards in the haze. In the foreground Eynsham Bridge spanned the Thames; as tiny as a baby’s hand across a thread of water. Beyond were little curves and gleams of the Stripling; and with a secret thrill I discerned Pinkhill still islanded in immemorial verdure.

As I left the wood and set foot upon the open common there were other mounds and hollows, more abrupt and cramped than those in the meadow, yet commanding these great tracts of country; while those others give now no soldier’s outlook at all, whatever they once afforded. Let experts decide if this was the castle I do not think there is much doubt about it. Conjecture, and the burst of westward landscape, summed up all Wytham Hill for me. If you are curious you may read an old chapbook in the British Museum entitled The Berkshire Tragedy, or the Whittam Miller. The terrific woodcut on the front is worth the effort. Early in the eighteenth century one John Mauge, a miller, slew his sweetheart Annie Knite, and men printed and reprinted the sordid old story, as a warning to youth.

My tender Parents brought me up, provided for me well, And in the Town of Whittam then Did place me in a Mill By chance I met an Oxford lass,

and she yielded to John’s blandishments; and not the only one, I gather. She and her mother besought him to marry her, but in vain; and then

About a month since Christmas last (O cursed be that Day) The Devil then did me perswade To take her Life away. I called her from her Sister’s House

At eight a Clock at Night Poor Creature, she did little dread I bore her any Spight. He does her to death; and “Then Home unto my Mill I run, But sorely was amaz’d; My Man he thought I’d Mischief done, And strangely on me gaz’d;

and his end was as you may behold in the woodcut, whose hideousness resembles that of the original as nearly as I could compass it. Just above Godstow Bridge, on the right bank, stands the black boundary stone of Oxford city. Here is the outfall of the County Stream, dividing Oxfordshire from Berkshire. A little higher can be seen from the towpath the spire of Cassington church away in the northwest. And the wide emerald meadows on the left bank are not devoid of ancient interest. Following on Port Meadow, first Pixey Mead and then Oxey Mead border the River, divided by the stream that leaves the Thames opposite King’s weir. The Yarnton farmers still draw lots as of old, every returning July and early on a Monday morning, for the various portions of mowing grass in these meads, the ballot balls being kept at Mead farm near Yarnton church. When the grass is short the pegs dividing the various lots become easily visible. The arrangement, however, does not appear to work altogether satisfactorily, as it often happens that one purchaser’s plot is quite spoiled by the trampling of a neighbour’s horse and waggon across it for another load further on. The names of these two meads are said to be derived from pigs’-hay and ox-hay; perhaps the respective first syllables may be correct.