Legend has it that King Alfred stayed here in the year 890 although the first firm evidence of a Royal Domicile is during the reign of Ethelred the Unready (976-1016) when he is known to have held at least one council (Witan) here. This suggests the presence of a lodge, or some sort of palace, large enough to accommodate the King and his entourage. The building does not stand today, and it is not known where it stood.
The arrival of Norman Kings brought about great changes to the Country and its inhabitants. The sport of hunting became very important to the monarchy, and large areas of forest were given over to hunting with the Saxon inhabitants being driven away. Those of the ‘Clearing in the Woods’ that was Woodstock were no exception, and there is a strong belief that they were the founders of ‘Old Woodstock’ which lies to the north of the River Glyme.
The youngest son of William the Conqueror, Henry I is the first to be credited with enclosing what is now Blenheim Park, and it is said that parts of the old wall can still be seen. He also built a manor within the wall which stood on the mound which stands across what is now the lake from the Palace we see today. After Henry’s death came nineteen years of anarchy and civil war until the accession of Henry II (Plantagenet) in 1154.
Documents from the year 1279 suggest that Woodstock was founded by Henry II, to provide hostelries for his retinue of servants when he made his frequent visits to his royal hunting lodge at Woodstock Manor. It was here that Henry kept his beloved mistress, Rosamund Clifford, “The Fair Rosamund”. Of course, eventually, Queen Eleanor found out, but that’s another story. Suffice to say that Rosamund’s presence in the area brought regular and frequent patronage of the king. Soo, a weekly market, on Tuesdays was established, as well as a three day fair at the feast of St. Matthew.
By the end of the Thirteenth century, this ‘new town’ Woodstock had grown important enough to be taxed as a borough. But it wasn’t until 24 May 1453 that the town finally received its royal charter from Henry VI, which confirmed the many ancient liberties and customs that it had long enjoyed. The town enjoyed the status of a Borough, which it retained until 1974.
In 1705, following the victory at Blindheim the crown granted Woodstock Park, thereafter called Blenheim, to John Churchill the first Duke of Marlborough. The old manor stood until 1715 until it was replaced by Blenheim Palace. The construction of the palace and the remodelling of the grounds by the great architect Vanbrugh, and later the eponymous Capability Brown, provided great commercial opportunities for Woodstock and added to its prosperity.
Numerous new buildings were added to Woodstock itself, and many of the old timber-framed buildings were given new fronts of coursed stone and reroofed using slate from nearby Stonesfield. Woodstock became renowned for two crafts, those of glove making and decorative steelwork. Woodstock steel, said to be made from horseshoe nails, was cut to make jewellery and other decorative items.
By 1718 the British passion for travel became firmly established, first with the turnpike network of roads, which included the London to Oxford and the Oxford to Stratford roads. Coaching became all the rage and in 1808 there was a regular coach service between Woodstock and London running three times a week. The fad with coaching was soon overtaken by railway mania, though it wasn’t until the 8th Duke commissioned a branch line from Kidlingtonm to Woodstock that the age of steam finally reached the town. The single-track line opened in 1890 and the engine was named “The Fair Rosamund”. The line closed in 1954.
The Town Hall, built in 1766, dominates Market Place. To the south is the world-famous Bear Hotel dating back to the 13th century. Across Park Street, behind the Town Stocks, Fletcher’s House – a 16th-century merchant’s house – is home to the Oxfordshire County Museum. Park Street – quiet and tree-lined – leads to Blenheim Park and one of the most breathtaking views in England. In contrast, Market Street and High Street bustle with activity, as does Oxford Street, the main thoroughfare. Each is a pleasing mix of small shops, inns and private houses where car parking is convenient and free.
Over the last one hundred years, Woodstock has been the beneficiary of its proximity to Oxford. Initially, it was employment opportunities at the Cowley car plant of Lord Nuffield’s Morris Motors, and then later by the burgeoning of high tech industries and publishing no doubt facilitated by the Oxford’s academic establishment. The explosion of the tourism industry has also underpinned the town’s prosperity with easy access to London and Heathrow.