Country Houses in Oxfordshire

At our February meeting Alistair Lack made a return visit to the Society to talk about Country Houses in Oxfordshire. He reminded us that in much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries significant numbers of large country houses in Britain were demolished, including thirteen in Oxfordshire in the last hundred years. An exhibition illustrating this loss was staged at the V and A museum in 1975.

Alistair began and ended his presentation with Tusmore House situated a few miles north of Bicester. The original Palladian style house was completed in 1766 for William Fermore and passed through several families before it was eventually demolished in 1964. Tusmore has now been resurrected in a modern interpretation by Sir William Whitfield and built for the businessman Wafic Said in 2000 for £30 million.

In North Oxfordshire stands Rousham the delightful 15 acre estate of the Cottrell Dormer family. The original house was built for the Dormer family in the seventeenth century but the house and grounds we see today is the property modified and extended in the eighteenth century under the influence of the distinguished house and garden architect William Kent. The gardens at Rousham are a particular attraction, representing the first phase of English landscape design. Fine sculptures are displayed in the grounds to enhance a circular walk with ever changing vistas.

We are all somewhat familiar with Blenheim Palace, a veritable National Monument, often used to host visiting dignitaries, most recently the American President Donald Trump. The palace has its origins in a national award from Queen Anne to John Churchill who led the British armies to victory over the forces of Louis XIV in European battles notably at the village of Blenheim in Bavaria. Unfortunately the sums of money available were not well specified and this led to great conflict between Churchill’s wife Sarah and his friend John Vanbrugh, the chosen architect of the very large English Baroque building. Eventually Vanbrugh was released and banned from the property, to be replaced by Nicholas Hawksmore.

The impressive grounds at Blenheim were designed by Capability Brown who in his career was responsible for forty grand estates, including eight in Oxfordshire. Not everyone approved and the Cambridge critic Robert Owen said he hoped to die and go to heaven before Brown improved it! Brown’s masterstroke at Blenheim was to create the magnificent lake by damming the river Glyme with the “ most expensive bridge in Britain “ crossing it.

More evidence of lavish expenditure is the  £3000 Column of Victory in the grounds and the extensive use of Bath stone, for example in the Orangery. Apparently such stone often went missing from the yard to reappear later in Woodstock townhouses. William Kent also makes an appearance at Blenheim in his design for the Chapel.

Alistair next transported us to North West Oxfordshire and the Jacobean gem of Chastleton House, a National Trust property since 1991. The property was little changed in it’s lifetime and many features remain unaltered in four hundred years to give us a time capsule of Jacobean life. Several fine seventeenth century fireplaces adorn the house, having been commissioned to proclaim the wealth and standing of the then owners. Another gem at Chastleton is Bishop Juxson’s bible, used by him at the execution of Charles1. The grounds were famous for the Croquet Lawn and indeed the rules of the game were written down and formalised at Chastleton in 1866 by Walter Whitmore Jones.

The least visited National Trust House is Ashdown House near Lambourne. This modest but delightful seventeenth century country house or hunting lodge was built by the Earl of Craven for Elizabeth of Bohemia, the “ Winter Queen “ (see History Society talk May 2016). She was the aunt of Charles 11 who was a friend of Craven. Unfortunately she died before she was able to visit the Dutch designed house. It seems to be well worth a visit to swell the N.T. numbers.

PAGANS AND PURITANS (The Story of May Mornings in Oxford)

On Jan 10th Tim Healey gave us a fascinating and entertaining account of the customs associated with May Day celebrations.

First of all he reminded us that the First of May is not only a celebration of Spring, but also a political date, even with revolutionary undertones.

But May Day celebrations have their origins in the pagan rites associated with Flora the goddess of flowers, which began in Roman times and may have been connected to orgies. A painting by Tiepolo of 1745 depicted these rites.

In 1695 Anthony Wood described the celebrations as an invocation of Summer and at this time it was not considered of great significance. However in the period of the Commonwealth many Puritans found the practice abhorrent, and they did their best to suppress any celebration connected with May Day.

Singing from towers became a common custom in Medieval times and was known to take place in Oxford on New College Bell Tower. The urge to bring green things into the towns and indoors was also a feature of these rites and is depicted in a Book of Hours of 1500.  In the Thames Valley the Hawthorn and its blossom were very popular for garlands. It often (but not always) flowered at the appropriate time.

The Celtic Beltane feasts and Valpurgisnacht were also associated with May Day rites.

In 1250 the University banned all Maytime revels and this reflected the tension which developed between Authority and the revellers. But the Church attitude was often ambiguous, partly since the profits from the sale of Church Ale were used to fund church maintenance. The University colleges, too, sometimes hosted the Morris Dancing. In 1605 there was Morris Dancing in front of the King at Christchurch college.

In the 16th century we see the first mentions of Morris Dancing in relation to May Day celebrations, including depictions of men dressed as women (which had been forbidden in the Bible).

The Puritan backlash against Morris Dancing and other forms of popular entertainment originated with the English Church’s break with Rome in the 16th Century. The Bible was the supreme arbiter, and anything that was condemned there was abhorrent to the Puritans. Banbury was a hotbed of Puritanism, and the authorities there forbade all May celebrations. The Royalists considered these things to be harmless. In 1633 St Peter’s Church tried to stop a Garland from coming into the Church. The Maypole was often erected as a provocation to the Puritans.

At the Westminster Assembly in 1644 Maypoles were banned, but at the Restoration, and the return of Charles II, they reappeared.

By the 1740s the revelries around the Maypole had become more “polite” and in tune with the new Romantic sensibility. The dancers began to include women and girls, and small boys blowing horns (the whithorns) as they might have done in the fields while herding cattle and sheep. On Magdalen College Tower the Choir sang the Hymnus Eucharistus.

In the 19th Century, with the Industrial Revolution in full swing, the popular image of the Countryside became more and more idealised, and writers and artists (including Tennyson, Holman Hunt and Ruskin) helped to create the image of May Day revels that we recognise today. The Maypole became an object with ribbons round which people danced, a Garland was brought in, the May Queen appeared (only occasionally with a May King), and songs were written and sung. But still there were more subversive elements, such as Jack in the Green, a man covered from head to foot with greenery, and often accompanied by chimney sweeps.

In the 20th and 21st Centuries the trend towards popular involvement increased, with events such as the Magdalen Bridge celebrations as the Choir sings from Magdalen Tower, followed by further revels up the High Street. This particular event attracts people in huge, sometimes frightening numbers. But on the other hand, May Day is still celebrated in small communities with dances round the May Pole, a Queen of the May, and garlands from the countryside.

600 Years of Morris Dancing

Speaker : Mike Heaney – himself a member of Eynsham Morris Dancers.

There are broadly 3 types of Morris Dancing – Cotswolds/South Midlands – distinguished by complex steps, slow capers and distinct tunes and dances; Welsh Borders/Midlands – distinguished by raucous behaviour, sticks, blacking up and simple steps; North West – distinguished by clog-wearing, slings, steps and kicks and processional movements.

There are many theories as to the origination of Morris Dancing but the most credible is that it came to England in the 15th Century from Flanders where the wealthy Burgundian/Flemish court had Morisch (Moris) entertainment.

In England the first recorded evidence of Morris Dancing was in 1448 when the Goldsmiths Livery Company of London employed Morris Dancers at its grand annual banquet. Shortly afterwards Sir john Folstaf from Norfolk commissioned a tapestry containing images of Morris Dancing. The Livery Companies perpetuated the employment of Morris Dancers at their annual Mid-Summer London banquets with the use of Morris Dancers reaching the Royal Court in 1511 under Henry V111.

Morris Dancing then filtered down to the general population initially under the auspices of the Church (Church Ale festivals). However, it fell out of fashion under Puritan Rule culminating in an Act of Parliament effectively banning Morris Dancing in 1654.

Morris Dancing returned but no longer under Church control with Whitsun Ales and Rushbearing ceremonies taking place within local communities. The revival of Morris Dancing, however, commenced at the end of the 19th Century with enthusiasts DArcy Ferrars, Percy Manning and Cecil Sharpe researching and reinventing Morris Dancing in the old style.

As far as Abingdon is concerned the first recorded mention of Morris Dancing was in 1560 where Church Records detail the purchase of bells for the uniforms of Morris Dancers to attend a Church Ales festival. Today there are 2 sets of Morris Men in Abingdon with the famous Mock Mayor election celebration a highlight.

Morris Dancing would appear to be in a healthy state today with new groups around the world developing new styles of Performance.