Oxford Diocese: History and Description

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The diocese of Oxford was created by King Henry VIII out of the ancient diocese of Lincoln, and was the last of the dioceses to be created in that monarch’s extensive diocesan reforms of the 1540s. However, the town itself had a long ecclesiastical history: indeed it grew around the shrine of St Frideswide (d. c. 735), the daughter of a Mercian prince, who had supposedly founded a nunnery at ‘Benton’ (Binsey?). A monastery bearing her name was established in Oxford before the Norman Conquest, and her shrine was a place of pilgrimage until it was despoiled in 1538.

The first bishop for the region appears to have been Birinus (d. 649/50), the apostle to the West Saxons who was consecrated bishop in Genoa and landed in Wessex in 634, converting and baptizing the king of the West Saxons, Cynegils, in the following year. Cynegils established Birinus with a see at Dorchester. The bishopric embraced an area from Dorset to Buckinghamshire and from Surrey to the River Severn, although the instability of the political geography of pre-Conquest England saw its writ intermittently both shrink and extend (at one point it extended as far north as the Humber). In c. 1072–3, however, Bishop Remigius transferred the see to Lincoln (in 1969 the see of Dorchester would be recreated as a suffragan to Oxford). The county of Oxford remained under the jurisdiction of Lincoln until the Reformation.

The creation of a new see for what had been the archdeaconry of Oxford (coterminous with the county) in the diocese of Lincoln was proposed in a list of potential bishoprics composed in 1539, and the plan was implemented in 1542. The letters patent issued on 1 September of that year established the see in the former Oseney Abbey, founded in 1129 to the west of the town. The abbey, of which almost no trace now remains, was a substantial complex of buildings. The crown had gained possession of the abbey on the resignation of the abbot, Robert King, who was named as the first bishop in the letters patent. The bishop’s palace was established at Gloucester Hall in what now became the City of Oxford.

These arrangements did not endure for long. In 1545 a commission was authorised to accept the surrender of both the new foundation of Oseney from the dean and chapter and also that of ‘King’s’ (formerly ‘Cardinal’) College, which had been founded by Cardinal Wolsey out the former St Frideswide’s priory, suppressed in 1524. The surrender of the see took place on 20 May 1545; and on 2 June Bishop King was regranted his authority pending a new settlement. This was established in new letters patent issued on 4 November 1546, authorising the transfer of the see from Oseney to the former priory of St Frideswide, the priory church of which now became the cathedral, while the college in which it was situated took the name of Christ Church. Under Edward VI the bishop of Oxford who had lost his cathedral church was also relieved of his palace, as Gloucester College was reserved to the crown (it eventually became Worcester College). In this case there was no alternative provision, and the bishops henceforth lived on one or other of their scattered estates until Bishop Bancroft established the palace at Cuddesdon, some six miles to the east of Oxford in 1635. Shortly after the royalist garrison at Oxford burnt this new residence down, and it was not until after the Restoration that the palace was restored by Bishop Fell on the same site.

The diocese thereafter retained its boundaries intact until the reforms of the nineteenth century. Its history was not, however, untroubled. Its early years were marked by prolonged vacancies in the see: Bishop King died in 1557, but with his chosen Marian successor Thomas Goldwell not in possession by the death of Mary he never took up the post, which remained vacant until Hugh Curwen was appointed in 1567. On Curwen’s death in 1568, the see was left vacant for no fewer than twenty-one years with the revenues taken into the queen’s hands, John Underhill finally taking office in 1589. Underhill died in 1592, whereupon another lengthy vacancy ensued, this time of eleven years, during which time its patrimony was ‘a prey to the most part to Robert, earl of Essex, to whom it proved miserably fatal’ (mars1882: 118, quoting Anthony Wood). Thereafter matters improved, in this respect at least.

In 1711 ecto1711 adjudged the see worth £381 11s. ½d. By 1835 its value had risen to some £2,648 net, which still left it among the poorer bishoprics, if nowhere near as poor as the worst instances.

The territory of the diocese

In the 1830s the diocese covered some 752 square miles with a population of some 140,000. It was thus one of the smallest mainland dioceses – indeed only Rochester was smaller (though much smaller: a mere 384 square miles, nevertheless home to almost 200,000). Oxford was also small in terms of the number of benefices: 209.

The diocese was roughly coterminous with the county and archdeaconry, and in fact several of the peculiar jurisdictions lay on the margins, enhancing the sense of a compact jurisdiction. The most northerly point in the diocese was the parish of Claydon, from which the boundary abutting Northamptonshire and the diocese of Peterborough headed south-east for a few miles before turning west along the southern boundary of the parish of Cropredy, which with Claydon and Banbury, the next parish encountered as the boundary headed south again, formed a peculiar of the Lincoln chapter. County and diocesan boundaries then followed the River Cherwell south until near Clifton it turned east to meet the diocese of Lincoln in the form of Buckinghamshire beyond the parish of Mixbury. In the next parish, Finmere, the boundary turned south again, leaving an isolated pocket of both county and diocese marooned between Northamptonshire and Buckinghamshire at Lillingstone Lovell. The boundary now continued south to Waterstock. Here it headed east again to Thame (another peculiar), where it once more headed in a southerly direction to meet the Thames at Henley, where boundary followed the river south west to the southern extremity of the diocese at Caversham on the boundary with Berkshire. From here the boundary followed the Thames for the remainder of its southern boundary, between Benson and Clifton Hampden passing a number of parishes in the peculiar of Dorchester, which with that of Thame virtually divided the archdeaconry of Oxford into two unequal halves at its thinnest point (little more than seven miles across) between Great Milton and Dorchester. The diocesan boundary bid farewell to the Thames at Kelmscott, then heading roughly north along the Gloucestershire border past Burford to Chastleton, at which point it began to head north-north-east abutting Warwto Swalcliffe, where it took a more decided turn to the east before heading more northerly for a short distance to Claydon.

The north-western section of the diocese thus took in some of the rolling Cotswolds, just as the south-eastern fringes embraced the Chiltern escarpment. The Cotswolds were historically one of the most important wool-producing regions of the country, and in the eighteenth century Oxfordshire was still a leading producer. As a whole, however, the county was characterized by a mixed farming regime, with arable crops being grown in the flatter areas, while the water meadows around the many rivers of the county provided important pasture. At the end of the period covered by the CCEd Oxfordshire remained a predominantly agricultural county, with no significant industrial centres – in the 1830s the principal manufactures were blankets at Witney, gloves and polished steel at Woodstock, and textiles at Banbury; there was also much lace-making in the southern part of the county. Apart from Oxford there were no large towns: the major centres of population were the borough and market towns of Banbury and Woodstock, and the market towns of Bampton, Bicester, Burford, Chipping-Norton, Henley upon Thames, Thame, Watlington, and Witney.

Shortly after the end of the period covered by the CCEd the diocesan map of Oxford was significantly altered. An order-in-council of 10 October 1836 transferred the county of Berkshire to the see from the diocese of Salisbury; then in 1837, an order-in-council transferred Buckinghamshire from the diocese of Lincoln. These changes greatly increased the size of the diocese, and with it the pastoral challenge facing its bishop: hence in part the reputation acquired by Samuel Wilberforce when he assumed office in 1845 in succession to Richard Bagot, who had refused to take on Buckinghamshire during his tenure unless he was given a new episcopal palace and Cuddesdon was transferred out of the diocese (best1964: 325).

The parishes and structure of the diocese

The diocese benefited from being effectively coterminous with a county, and a compact one at that. There was a single archdeacon, the archdeacon of Oxford, whose jurisdiction in the 1830s encompassed the deaneries of Oxford, Aston, Bicester, Chipping-Norton, Cuddesden, Deddington, Henley, Witney, and Woodstock. While the parishes of the diocese varied in size, there were few especially large parishes, although those in the Cotswolds were predictably larger than thise in the Thames valley.

When the Ecclesiastical Commissioners offered their returns relating to the diocese of Oxford in 1835, based on a survey covering the years 1829–31, they reported as follows. The 196 benefices they considered (eight had failed to make returns) had an average gross and net income significantly below the national average: £262 gross (national average £303) and £250 (£285), although well above the lowest figures returned for England (£181 and £175 in Carlisle). They recorded 103 curates with an average annual stipend of £78, three pounds below the national average (and strikingly £5 less than the average in Carlisle).

The patronage of these livings in 1831 was as follows: 12 were in the gift of the crown; 13 were in episcopal hands; 22 were controlled by ecclesiastical corporations aggregate, 16 by single dignitaries or incumbents; 59 (almost a third) were the property of universities or hospitals, reflecting the presence within the diocese of one of the two ancient universities; and 78 were in the hands of private patrons.

The bishop of Oxford himself presented or nominated to only seven Oxford livings: Banbury, Burford with Fulbrook, Cropredy with Waddington and Moddington, Culham, Hook Norton, Stanton Harcourt with South Leigh, and Wheatley. He could also appoint the incumbents of Bray in the diocese of Salisbury; of Orton with Twycross and Stewkley in Lincoln; and Sibbertoft with Welford in Peterborough. He was thus one of bishops least equipped with useful diocesan patronage before the reforms of the ecclesiastical commission, no doubt a reflection of the late date of the creation of the diocese.

Peculiar jurisdictions within the diocese

There were a number of peculiar jurisdictions within the diocese. Reflecting the origins of the diocese, several retained links with the diocese of Lincoln. The peculiars of Banbury (Banbury, Claydon, Cropredy, Horley and Horton, Mollington and Wardington) and of Thame (Great Milton, Sydenham, Tetsworth and Tame itself) both fell under the jurisdiction of the dean and chapter of Lincoln; that of Langford (with Little Faringdon) under a single prebendary of the cathedral, the prebendary of Langford Ecclesia. The peculiar of Dorchester (Benson, Chiselhampton, Clifton, Hampden, Drayton St Leonard, Dorchester, Marsh Baldon, Nettlebed, Pishill, Stadhampton, Toot Baldon and Warborough), which originated in the jurisdiction of the abbey of Dorchester before the Reformation, was a lay peculiar (in 1754 according to ecto1754, for example, it was held by Thomas Fettiplace, Esq). The single-parish peculiar of Newington-cum-Britwell, in contrast, was in the jurisdiction of the archbishop of Canterbury.

Extra-diocesan peculiars of the Bishop of Oxford

The bishop had no extra-diocesan peculiars.

Treatment and coverage of the diocese of Oxford in the CCEd

The diocese of Oxford contains only one archdeaconry virtually coterminous with the couty save for the interruptions of peculiar jurisdiction. A single CCEd region has therefore been created, ‘Oxford’, coterminous with the county.

See also Christ Church Cathedral Oxford.