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High-tech key to secrets of the past
Anyone with a computer can fly about in time these days like a butterfly in air. For instance, I clicked Listed Buildings in the vicinity of my home the other day — and came across a Royal Palace that had flourished from the time of King John (1167-1216) until as late as 1614, in which Henry VIII courted Anne Boleyn, and Edward IV (1442-1483) probably first came across his future bride, Elizabeth Woodville, of which I had never before heard.
Always a sucker for romantic ruins — any bump in the ground sets my heart racing — I hurried off to investigate. What I found was a farmhouse, disappointingly Victorian in style, but bearing two large stones inscribed with the letters ‘H E’ — for Henry VII and his wife Elizabeth of York. Thrilling.
And nearby were plenty of bumps, too. They were the remains of Langley Palace, a substantial hunting lodge on the edge of Wychwood Forest, which Henry VII had enlarged after marrying Elizabeth — thereby uniting the Lancastrians and Yorkists and so bringing to an end the Wars of the Roses.
What a wonderful fragment of history to come across only a mile or two from my home in Milton-under-Wychwood. Little wonder the farmhouse is listed Grade II*. A bridleway off the road takes you on a weird sort of walk through history in which the landscape opens up like a romantic novel. It leads through farmland, enclosed at the time of the disafforestation of Wychwood Forest in 1856, to the modern day — in the shape of the Leafield Technical Centre, a former radio transmission station, which has turned itself into a sort of high-octane research facility for the motorsport industry. What, I wondered, would Henry and Elizabeth have thought of it?
The farmhouse — private, of course, so it is important not to disturb the owner, or trespass on his land — was mainly built in 1858, just after the Royal forest was destroyed. But the changes that the landscape presents (there are even boundary stones for the old forest still standing or lying about in West Oxfordshire) did not come about without strife.
In July 1549, for instance, a serious rebellion against the boy King Edward VI and his Lord Protector, the Duke of Somerset, manifested itself across Oxfordshire. It started when several hundred people attacked the recently enclosed deer parks in Thame and Rycote, belonging to Sir John Williams, where they killed his deer and sheep and drank his wine.
Then they progressed through Oxford to Woodstock and on to the Wychwood area. Here Lord Grey of Wilton, at the head of about 1,500 horsemen and infantry, attacked them mercilessly. Edward VI’s journal records that “more than half of them ran their ways, and others that tarried were some slain, some taken and some hanged”.
Where exactly this bloody engagement took place is unknown, though it happened somewhere on “the open highway” near Chipping Norton — where the vicar, Henry Joyes, one of the ringleaders, was hanged from his own church tower. The vicar of Barford St Michael, James Webbe, was taken away to Aylesbury and hanged, drawn and quartered — though John White, of Combe, initially sentenced to death, was later pardoned along with 11 others.
This rebellion had much to do with religious change in the aftermath of the dissolution of the monasteries, but was also associated with discontent at the enclosing of commons to form hunting parks. There was also discontent 300 years later when Wychwood was cut down — and emigration from West Oxfordshire to the New World grew to a higher level than anywhere else in England except Cornwall.
As for that computer, my point here is that anyone anywhere in England can now uncover interesting history on their doorstep with a click or two.