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Oxfordshire

Oxfordshire. In Roman times the region belonged to the Dobunni tribe. Until 1972 the southern boundary of the county was the Thames, flowing past Kelmscott to Henley, a distance of some 70 miles: to the north, east, and west, the boundary was roughly the watersheds of the rivers Windrush, Evenlode, Cherwell, Ray, and Thame. Since they came together near Oxford, the shire had a pinched waist. 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, providing a north–south crossing at Hinksey. 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. The Normans began building Oxford castle in 1071. 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 seems to have held the region in the earlier part of the 7th cent., but surrendered it to Mercia. After Cuthred's victory at Burford in 752 it reverted to Wessex, only to be retaken by Offa after Benson in 777, together with some land south of the river. 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. The county was therefore based upon a central strong point, like its neighbours Gloucestershire, Warwickshire, Northamptonshire, Worcestershire, and Buckinghamshire.

Ecclesiastical organization fluctuated in similar fashion. An early bishopric was established at Dorchester in 634, possibly because, along with Bicester, 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, with the cathedral at Osney abbey, one of the recently suppressed monasteries. The last abbot became the first bishop. Three years later it was amalgamated with Christ Church.

Despite the intellectual and ecclesiastical importance of Oxford, the shire remained rural and secluded. Camden, in the reign of Elizabeth I, thought it rich and fertile: ‘the lower parts cultivated into pleasant fields and meadows, the hills covered with great store of woods’. 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’. The Victoria County History in 1907 seemed to find this deplorable: ‘the county is prevented, as if by fate, from ever attaining to the position of a great industrial centre’. The University Press, with 650 employees, was the largest industrial enterprise in Oxfordshire. Unknown to VCH, fate had already intervened in the shape of William Morris, who had opened a bicycle-repair shop at Oxford in 1901—the forerunner of the great car factory at Cowley.

The Thames crossing remained for centuries of great strategic importance. In the civil wars of Stephen's reign, Oxford changed hands, Matilda being besieged in the castle for three months in 1142. During Richard II's reign, de Vere, earl of Oxford, was defeated at Radcot Bridge.

In the Civil War of the 17th cent., Oxford was the king's capital. The royalist Parliament met there and it was a forward base against London. The parks and quads became encampments, trees and shrubs were cut down, and attendance at lectures languished. One of the first actions of the war was at Chalgrove Field near Watlington, where Hampden was mortally wounded and took himself off to die at Thame; and a much-needed royalist victory in the summer of 1644 was at Cropredy Bridge, north of Banbury. 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 county representation was in the hands of Tory country gentlemen and though the election of 1754 was one of the fiercest contests of the century, it was uncharacteristic, since there was no other contest between 1710 and 1826.

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 one of the finest of all landscaped parks.

J. A. Cannon

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Oxfordshire

Oxfordshire or Oxon, county (1991 pop. 553,800), 749 sq mi (1,940 sq km), S central England. The county seat is Oxford. The county comprises five administrative districts: Cherwell, South Oxfordshire, Oxford, Vale of White Horse, and West Oxfordshire. The terrain is generally flat except for a branch of the Chiltern Hills in the southeast. The county is drained by the Thames River (or Isis as it is sometimes locally called) and its affluents, the Windrush, the Evenlode, the Cherwell, and the Thame.

The chief occupation is farming (wheat, barley, and oats), with some dairying and sheep raising. Ironstone and limestone are found. Oxford is the industrial center (automobiles and steel products). In the Middle Ages, Oxfordshire was a part of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia. During the English civil war it was a stronghold of royalist resistance. The Univ. of Oxford dates from the 12th cent. Near Woodstock, rich in historical associations, is Blenheim Park.

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Oxfordshire

Oxfordshire County in s central England, bounded in the nw by the Cotswolds and in the se by the Chilterns, and drained by the River Thames. The county town is Oxford. The county was the scene of fighting during the Civil War period. It lies mostly within the Thames basin. Its economy is based on agriculture, with sheep and arable farming, dairying and beef production. Industries: motor vehicles, pressed steel, light engineering. Area: 2611sq km (1008sq mi). Pop. (2000 est.) 611,800.

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Oxfordshire

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