Legend has it that King Alfred stayed here in the year 890 although the first firm evidence of a Royal Domicile is during the reign of Ethelred the Unready (976-1016) when he is known to have held at least one council (Witan) here. This suggests that there must have been either a lodge or some sort of palace large enough to accommodate the King and his entourage. The building does not stand today and it is not known where it stood.
The arrival of Norman Kings brought about great changes to the Country and its inhabitants. The sport of hunting became very important to the monarchy and large areas of forest were given over to hunting with the Saxon inhabitants being driven away. Those of the ‘Clearing in the Woods’ that was Woodstock were no exception and there is strong belief that they were the founders of ‘Old Woodstock’ which lies to the north of the River Glyme. The youngest son of William the Conqueror, Henry I is the first to be credited with enclosing what is now Blenheim Park and it is said that parts of the old wall can still be seen. He also built a manor within the wall which stood on the mound which stands across what is now the lake from the Palace we see today. After Henry’s death came nineteen years of anarchy and civil war until the accession of Henry II (Plantagenet) in 1154. He was the first monarch to subdue the Barons and unify the country under one authority. For the first time ‘Kings Justice’ was available to all – high or low born. He introduced trial by jury and built a professional Civil Service.
With his wife Eleanor D’Aquitaine, Henry Plantagenet held sway from England through to the Pyrenees in the South of France. Henry II often stayed at Woodstock with his mistress ‘The Fair Rosamund’ and during his time spent here granted parcels of land to build hostelries for the use of his men. A weekly market, on Tuesdays was also established and a three day fair at the feast of St. Matthew.
By the end of the Thirteenth century this ‘new town’ Woodstock had grown important enough to be taxed as a borough. The official date of this was May 24th 1453 according to the charter of Henry VI. The old manor stood until 1715, it had probably been subjected to considerable bombardment during The Civil War, and it was demolished by order of Sarah, the 1st Duchess of Marlborough.
The Palace that stands today was built in 1715 by the architect Vanbrugh with the park landscaped by Capability Brown. With the building of the new palace came much new building in Woodstock itself and many of the old timber-framed buildings were given new fronts of coursed stone and reroofed using slate from nearby Stonesfield. Woodstock became renowned for two crafts, those of glove making and decorative steel work. Woodstock steel, said to be made from horseshoe nails, was cut to make jewellery and other decorative items.
The Town Hall (http://www.woodstock-tc.gov.uk/), built in 1766 dominates Market Place. To the south is the Bear Hotel, world famous and dating back to the 13th century. Across Park Street, behind the Town Stocks, Fletcher’s House – a 16th century merchant’s house – is home to the Oxfordshire County Museum. Park Street – quiet and tree-lined – leads to Blenheim Park and to one of the most breathtaking views in England. In contrast, Market Street and High Street bustle with activity, as does Oxford Street, the main thoroughfare. Each is a pleasing mix of small shops, inns and private houses where car parking is convenient and free.
From pre-Conquest times closely associated with a royal manor and ducal palace, the town nevertheless developed its own character through glove making, bell foundry and manufacturing steel articles. A fine church, elegant houses and substantial inns are visual reminders of this market town’s prosperity.
This walk begins in the centre of the town in Park Street, opposite the church. FLETCHER’S HOUSE dates from the 16th century, although the front is some 200 years later. Today it is the County Museum, but it began as the home of Thomas Fletcher, an Alderman who died in 1545. Turn into Chaucer’s Lane and descend the steps of Hoggrove Hill.
Walk to cross the Causeway, where WOODSTOCK MILL stands. It was a corn mill, but took on a new role in 1870 as a pumping station. The first cottage after the mill has a plaque recording the raising of the first Blenheim Orange Apple here by George Kempster. MANOR FARM has a 17th century front and a 13th century chimney on the older back part. It is said that the Black Prince was born here.
Now return from Old Woodstock along Oxford Street: notice, on the left, OCTAGON HOUSE, converted from a chapel. Further along, also on the left, is WEBLEY TERRACE AND OLD GLOVE HOUSE – reminders of the cottages and factory owned by a Worcester glover of that name in the 1880s. On the wall of number 34 is a lion. The MARLBOROUGH ARMS dates from at least 1730 and there is a fine Venetian window on the left. Turn next into Market Street. On the wall of the Old Dorchester Hotel is a carved 14th century figure found in its cellar and put here in 1960. Look for another Venetian window at BARTHOLOMEW HOUSE, number 9.
In 1766, the 4th Duke of Marlborough commissioned Sir William Chambers to design THE TOWN HALL (http://www.woodstock-tc.gov.uk/). On its south wall, the sundial is supposed to be from the former market cross. On the north side of the Market Place, see the five-hole STOCKS. On the south side of the Market Place, THE BEAR HOTEL occupies three buildings: the middle one, of 1700, has a doorway showing two bears fighting for grapes. At the corner of the churchyard, GARRETT HOUSE has a plaque to Edmund Hiorne, Town Clerk during the Civil War, who suffered disgrace for his loyalty to King Charles.
Walk on along Park Street to CHAUCER’S HOUSE. Although this building dates only from 1752, it is a reminder that the poet’s son had a property here. Park Street ends at Woodstock Gate. This TRIUMPHAL ARCH was designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor in 1723 and it provides a splendid view of Vanbrugh’s Blenheim Palace. Take the turning into Rectory Lane, where BISHOP’S HOUSE, the former rectory rebuilt by Bishop Fell of Oxford in 1865, seems to have echoes of Blenheim. Continue along to Park Lane. Here, note the odd carving above the date stone on the front of THE KING’S HEAD, possibly the oldest pub here.
Where Park Lane joins the High Street, first turn to the right. Number 28 High Street is known as CROMWELL’S HOUSE. Dating from around 1640, it has bow windows and a substantial canopy over the front door. It owes its name to the slight tradition that Oliver Cromwell lodged here in 1646, during the siege of Woodstock Manor.
Now cross Park Lane to walk westwards to look at number 20, High Street. Called the ANCIENT HOUSE, it has details from the early 17th century onwards that repay close study: the richly carved bargeboard, the decoration of the centre window and the elaborate brackets. On the opposite side of the High Street, note the large shop window of what had been, until 1980, BROTHERTON’S, an ironmongers trading in the town since 1712. The carving of a horseman in the pediment dates from about 1830.
Continue eastwards along the High Street to arrive at Oxford Street. There, at the junction with Hensington Road, stands HOPE HOUSE. It is an extraordinary building, like Bishop’s House in Rectory Lane, owing something to Vanbrugh’s Blenheim. It dates from 1720. On the opposite corner of Hensington Road, THE PUNCH BOWL, housed, for a time during the 19th century, Woodstock’s Grammar School, founded in 1585. This building was also known as The Pyed Bull Inn. Cross the street and walk along Oxford Street in a southerly direction. Almost immediately on the west side are the almshouses, built and endowed, as the plaque states, by Caroline, Duchess of Marlborough, AD 1797. Today these are flats for elderly people and the name has been changed to CAROLINE COURT. Notice a fine doorway with hood, decorated with a shell-pattern motif.
Finally, few town walks end so spectacularly as this does, at HENSINGTON GATE. Designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor and carved partly by Grinling Gibbons, the massive piers were moved here in the 1770s.