A BRIEF HISTORY OF CUMNOR PARISH AND MANOR
The earliest history of the Cumnor area is unclear. No evidence has yet appeared of Neolithic settlement but the area would have been crossed and hunted by peoples from settlements on the extensive gravel terraces on the western side of the Thames, using river crossings at Swinford and Bablockhythe. Archaeological excavation has revealed that the meadows at Farmoor were settled at least periodically in the Iron Age from 400 B.C.
In the Romano-British period the Cumnor area lay within a large triangle of regional roads but was relatively isolated, cut off to the east by the Thames floodplain. Artifacts of the period have been found at river crossings and on Wytham Hill. No Roman building has been found but indigenous groups pastured their livestock on the river meadows and cultivated lands at a higher level.
The Saxons invaded the region after the fall of the Roman Empire. The land within this northern loop of the Thames, 'Hornemere', was the northern limit of Wessex. Small settlements were established on the higher ground and at intervals along the Thames, which became a natural frontier with Mercia. 'Cumnor' is probably derived from 'Colmenora' - 'Cuma's hilltop.'
The ministry of St.Birinus at Dorchester-on-Thames in the 7th century, brought the local people, the 'Horningas', under Christian influence. Certainly from 968, and perhaps earlier, Cumnor was a possession of the Benedictine Abbey at Abingdon and remained so for more than half its recorded history. The Abbot's possession was confirmed in the Domesday Book of 1086 (q.v. Menu: DOCUMENTS).
In the late Saxon period, the church at Cumnor appears to have served as a minster, with chapels-at-ease at Wytham, Seacourt, the Hinkseys and Wootton. The latter two remained with Cumnor until the early 18th century. Cumnor parish itself was one of the largest in Berkshire and for ease of administration was divided into tythings: Cumnor, Stroud, Swinford, Hill End, Whitley, Chawley, and Botley, with three out-lying one-farm estates: Bradley, Henwood and Chilswell
Bound by feudal obligations and struggling to meet both their own subsistence needs and the demands of the Abbot, the many landed tenants were self-sufficient in most respects.River fisheries added to the rural economy. Their lives were dominated by the Church, the Abbot and the seasons. Around 1330 the monks established what became known as Cumnor Place, a place of refuge and a manorial centre.
The Black Death, arriving in late 1349, had a severe impact on parts of the parish. Its aftermath, with recurring epidemics, led to the breakdown of the feudal system, here and elsewhere, and was marked in Cumnor by the consolidation of many small land holdings into larger units and the leasing of demense.
The Dissolution in 1538 brought the closure of Abingdon Abbey. The retiring abbot spent his last days at Cumnor Place. After his death Henry VIII sold Cumnor Place to one of his physicians, George Owen. Under a succession of new lords of the manor, the pattern of tenure and land use changed little, but in marketing and buying produce the focus moved from Abingdon to Oxford, encouraged by a new causeway from Botley to Oxford. The demand for victuals by both city and university was increasing.
The Thames at this time was the boundary dividing Berkshire from Oxfordshire and the diocese of Salisbury from Lincoln. Cumnor parish was not taken into an Oxford Diocese until Victorian times.
Anthony Forster purchased the lordship of Cumnor manor in 1561, already being a tenant at Cumnor Place. He was a cultured man who enjoyed the patronage of Robert Dudley, later Earl of Leicester. It was in Forster's time, 1560, that Amy Dudley (nee Robsart) met her untimely and mysterious death at Cumnor Place, an event to which Sir Walter Scott's novel 'Kenilworth' in 1821 drew much interest and notoriety. Forster was the last, perhaps the only, lord of the manor to reside in Cumnor Place. It was afterwards to fall gradually into decay and ruin, being demolished in 1810.
Cumnor was affected by the Civil War. Lieutenant Godfrey and Captain Peacock, local yeomen, fought for the King's cause. When the Parliamentarians lay seige to Oxford (burning down Botley Mill which was part of Cumnor Manor), an epidemic of 'seige fever' spread and caused many deaths in the parish. In 1644 Parliamentary troops raided the village for supplies and carried away the church weathercock.
Over the 17th to the 19th century, change occured only slowly in the rural parish. For more than 250 years Cumnor was one of the many estates owned by successive Earls of Abingdon (the Bertie family), whose seat lay at Rycote near Thame and later at Wytham. Until the early 20th century the parish economy depended almost solely on agriculture. Gradually the old yeomen's copyholds were converted to 'farmer's' short-term leases and some of the old open fields with their strips were enclosed by local consent. The manorial system came to an end in the 19th century. Enclosure in 1814 had little effect on employment but changed the landscape with the introduction of hedged, smaller field boundaries.
Cumnor gained further literary recognition through the poetry of Matthew Arnold, who enjoyed walking the hillsides. His elegaic poems 'The Scholar Gypsy' and 'Thyrsis' are both set in the area.
In Victorian times Cumnor was still a parish of labourers. By 1841 the population exceeded 1,000. A parish school was built in 1861. Until the end of the century there were no resident 'gentry.' The fortunes of the parish reflected those of agriculture and in the recession that followed the repeal of the protective Corn Laws, the parish suffered neglect and a decline in population.
The first significant event following the First World War was the decision by the 8th Earl of Abingdon in the 1920s to sell the freeholds of his Cumnor properties. This co-incided with the introduction of local bus services and the further growth of Oxford, encouraging exploitation. Thus the 20th century saw a rapid rise in suburban development, limited by a belated and sometimes fragile Green Belt policy. North of the Eynsham Road the environmental concerns of the purchaser of the Wytham Estate safeguarded the slopes of Wytham Hill and in 1943 the estate was gifted, and in part sold, to Oxford University. Conditions of the deed inhibited development.
The growing population of the parish was increasingly dependent on Oxford for employment and by the late 1950s high land values and house prices were influencing the socio-economic spectrum.
Boundary changes conveyed half of Botley tything to North Hinksey. In 1974 local government reorganisation transferred Cumnor from Berkshire to Oxfordshire and created the Vale of White Horse District of which it is a member.
Short Reading List
Lambrick G. & Robinson M. 'Iron Age and Roman riverside settlement at Farmoor', O.A.U., 1979
Hanson W.J., 'A History of Cumnor', Cumnor Hist. Soc. 1989
Taunt H., 'Matthew Arnold's Scholar Gypsy and Thyrsis and the Country they illustrate.', Taunt, Oxford 1912.
Bartlett A.D., 'An Historical & Descriptive Account of Cumnor Place.', Parker 1850.
Hanson W.J. & Dix N., 'The Changing Faces of Cumnor and Farmoor..', Boyd R. 1996
Evans R., 'A Short History of St. Michael's Church, Cumnor', Church Publishers, 2000
Hanson W.J., 'The Development of Modern Farmoor 1900-1974', 1992 Parish Record, 'Cumnor Parish 2000'.