The History of Woodstock
Woodstock’s history revolves around two great residences: the first an ancient royal manor; the second the palace of the Dukes of Marlborough.
Legend has it that Alfred the Great stayed in the area where Woodstock now stands, but the story is far from certain; whereas Ethelred the Unready did indeed hold a Witan (great council) there during his reign. Perhaps like the Normans after them those Saxon monarchs were attracted by the hunting in the forests beyond Woodstock – a name which means clearing in the woods.
Our third Norman monarch Henry I made royal use of the land more permanent, building a manor there atop an earth mound, having enclosed the land for his personal use and driven the Saxon occupants away. Henry enjoyed the hunting, the recreational nature of the place enhanced by the menagerie kept there.
Royal demands and the large numbers of courtiers and guards who would accompany the king meant that traders moved nearby to service their needs; thus a town grew on the edge of the royal park, its centre by an entrance to the royal domain. The Bear Hotel , still in existence, was opened in the 13th century as a tavern.
Henry II lodged his mistress Fair Rosamund, later killed some say by Eleanor of Aquitaine , at Woodstock. A market held on Tuesdays was established to provision the manor and town alike; and eventually a three-day fair began around St Matthew’s Day. The town attracted notable residents like Chaucer ’s son; and in 1330 The Black Prince was born at Woodstock Manor.
It was another Henry , the sixth of that name, who gave the town a royal charter in 1453. At that time it had become, albeit briefly, a weaving centre, its market dealing in cloth and wool as well as provisions. In the following century Woodstock was prosperous enough to open a grammar school, founded in 1585. Some of that prosperity came from the gloving industry which thrived there from medieval times until the 18th century.
During the Civil War , unsurprisingly given its royal associations, Woodstock supported King Charles ; eventually this rebounded badly on the place: in 1646 the manor was besieged by the Roundheads, falling to them on April 26; and the town clerk was dragged before the Commons to apologize for Woodstock’s stance.
The manor house was badly damaged during the siege, and was demolished on the orders of Sarah Churchill when the second great residence at Woodstock – Blenheim Palace - was being planned and created. The palace was built at crown expense to honour John Churchill , first Duke of Marlborough, following his great victory over the French and Bavarians at Blenheim. Begun in 1705, the work halted for two years from 1710 because Sarah fell from grace with Queen Anne . Once restarted, work continued until the middle of the century. The building was designed by John Vanbrugh , though he resigned from the project in 1716 exasperated by Sarah’s interference. The magnificent gardens were the work of another great figure of the 18th century, Capability Brown .
The Marlborough family played a major role in civic life in Woodstock, including ownership of The Bear; and it was they who financed the erection in 1766 of the Town Hall.
As the gloving industry declined another specialism rose in Woodstock – the manufacture of fancy polished steel items such as scissors, jewellery and small boxes.
The 18th century, with employment provided for many years by the building of Blenheim Palace, was a time of prosperity for Woodstock. By contrast the 19th saw a decline, not helped by the failure to build a railway line to the town until the eighth Duke in 1890 had one constructed from nearby Kidlington . But at least that century saw the birth of Woodstock’s most famous son: Winston Churchill who was born at Blenheim Palace in 1874.