In Roman times the region belonged to the Dobunni tribe. It covered the area between the Cotswolds at Chipping Norton and the Chilterns at Watlington and, until modern times, much of it was heavily wooded.
The town of Oxford owed its existence to a ford and later a ferry. It developed early as an important Saxon centre. Councils were held there in the early 11th cent. and in 1066 it was the sixth largest town in the kingdom. As late as 1901, the population of 50,000 was almost double that of all the other towns in the county combined: Banbury had 7,300, Chipping Norton 3,700, Henley 3,500, Thame 2,900, Witney 2,800, and Bicester 2,700.
In the 7th and 8th cent. the area was disputed between Wessex, south of the Thames, and Mercia the midlands kingdom. Wessex regained it after Ellendun in 825. It became a shire in the early 11th cent. when Edward and *Æthelfleda were reorganizing Wessex's defences against the Danes, who burned Oxford in 1009.
Ecclesiastical organization fluctuated in similar fashion. An early bishopric was established at Dorchester in 634, possibly because it had been a Roman town. But after 680 it was placed under Sherborne, a Wessex diocese. When Mercia regained control, the see was moved to Leicester. Dorchester recovered its position c.870, probably because Leicester had been overrun by the Danes. The bishopric stayed at Dorchester until after the Conquest but was transferred to Lincoln in 1072. For five centuries the shire remained a rather remote part of the vast Lincoln diocese, until a new see was created at Oxford itself in 1542.
Despite the intellectual and ecclesiastical importance of Oxford, the shire remained rural and secluded. Those industries which did develop were agriculturally derived and small in scale—cloth manufacture of different kinds at Witney, Chipping Norton, and Banbury, saddles at Burford, lace and slippers at Bicester, leather at Bampton, brewing at Henley, glove‐making at Oxford and Woodstock. As late as the 1830s, the shire could be described as having ‘no manufactures of any account, being chiefly agricultural’. But in 1901 William Morris opened a bicycle‐repair shop at Oxford—the forerunner of the great car factory at Cowley.
In the Civil War of the 17th cent., Oxford was the king's capital. The parks and quads became encampments, trees and shrubs were cut down, and attendance at lectures languished. Oxford surrendered in 1646 a few weeks after Charles I had fled, disguised as a servant. Politically city and county continued to be royalist in sympathy. In 1681 Charles II summoned Parliament there and routed his Whig opponents.
The Oxford canal, opened in 1790, and the network of railways which developed in the county in the 19th cent. speeded up internal communication, but did little to promote any great industrial growth. The Local Government Act of 1972 extended the shire south of the Thames, bringing in Abingdon, Wallingford, and Wantage—yet another victory for Mercia over Wessex. The M40 bisects the county from south‐east to north‐west, from Aston Rowant to Banbury. But north Oxfordshire remains peaceful and unspoiled, and Blenheim, once a Whig bastion in a Tory countryside, is perhaps the finest of all landscaped parks.
Subjects: British History.