Life in Somerton through the Centuries – An Outline History
The Parish of Somerton lies along the east bank of the Cherwell about 16 miles north of Oxford. The village itself is on the limestone escarpment rising up to the tableland which forms the watershed between the Thames and the Ouse. The village has a number of springs and rich water meadows along the river. From Domesday Book it is clear that the village was settled in Saxon times, and its name shows that then as now the water meadows provided summer pasture for the livestock kept on the tableland to the east.
The recorded history of the village revolves around the Manor and the Church. The Manor does not survive, but the Church of St James does. It is a grade I listed building with fine monuments and several traces of the village’s history.
This outline of the village’s history is intended to provide a framework for articles on specific aspects of the village’s life over the centuries. (The chronology that follows is largely based on the Victoria County History where not otherwise specified).
The Norman Period
After his victory at the Battle of Hastings in 1066 the new King William gave most of the lordship of Somerton to his half-brother, the turbulent Bishop Odo of Bayeux, who features in the Bayeux tapestry (which Odo may indeed have commissioned).
This section of the tapestry shows a scene from the middle of the Battle of Hastings and portrays Odo as being in the thick of it.. Men and horses crash to the ground, the lower border is strewn with slaughtered troops and animals. Bishop Odo appears fighting with a club and encouraging his followers. Odo uses a club rather than a sword as clerics were not supposed to shed blood.
In 1086 in the Domesday Book he is recorded as sharing Somerton with Miles Crispin, the son-in-law of Robert d’ Oilly, the Constable of Oxford Castle, but the under-tenant of the whole lordship was Wadard, a close associate of Odo (who also appears in the Bayeux tapestry) .
This section of the tapestry shows a feast being prepared in the open air after William and his men have landed in England- chickens on skewers, a stew cooked over an open fire and food from an outdoor oven. Wadard (mounted on the left of the upper panel) was a follower of Bishop Odo. Was he perhaps involved in the foraging expedition which found the food for the feast? In Domesday Book (1086) he was recorded as the under tenant (ie the effective Lord of the Manor) of the whole of the lordship of Somerton
Though nothing now remains of the medieval castle at Somerton, and its origin is unknown, it seems reasonable to speculate that it may go back at least to the early days after the Conquest. If so, it may have been little more than a stockade. It would have commanded the track leading across the river to North Aston and Deddington where Odo had one of his many residences.
By contrast the original church building on the current site is believed to have been erected within eight years of the Conquest, but the only part of that structure which remains is the blocked-up Norman door in the south wall.
The date of the preaching cross on the north side of the church is also obscure, but it is clearly medieval. Such crosses often go back to Saxon times and were frequently built on pagan sites.
After Odo’s disgraceand banishment back to his bishopric in 1087,and Miles Crispin’s death, Somerton was granted to the Arsic family and became part of the Barony of Cogges near modern Witney.
The Arsic Legacy
Throughout the 12th century the lordship of Somerton stayed in the Arsic family. They were wealthy local landholders and may have been responsible for the major building work on the church at this time. The lower part of the nave probably dates from the 12th Century, and possibly also some of the North aisle.
The Lordship Divided
In 1230 Robert Arsic died leaving his estates to his two daughters Joan & Alexandra and from then on the lordship of Somerton remained divided until the early sixteenth century. Joan & her husband soon sold their half to Walter de Grey, Archbishop of York. His family who were major landholders in Oxfordshire, built the medieval castle in Somerton, described in 1295 as having a court with dovecote, fishponds, cartilages (ie surrounding land) & gardens. It is commonly supposed that the present Old School House and old schoolroom stand on the site. The remains of the fishponds can still be seen.
The de Greys and their descendants held their share of the manor until 1485. It reverted to the Crown in 1485 when Francis Lord Lovel was attainted (outlawed). It remained with the Crown till 1512.
After the division of the lordship in 1230 Alexandra’s share passed through marriage to the Gardinis family and then to their relatives, the Giffards. The Giffards seem never to have lived here having preferred their estates in Twyford.
The church saw much development during this period. The chancel probably dates from the late 13th Century. On the south side of the nave there are two 14th Century arches showing that there may have been a longer, south aisle before the Fermor Chapel was built. The bell tower was also probably built in the 14th Century. On the outside of its north wall is a finely carved holy rood probably made at the same time as the tower was built.
The connection between the manor and the church was particularly close in the fourteenth century when two members of the de Gardinis family were rectors for many years. Richard de Gardinis was rector from 1316 to 1349 and probably built a lady chapel and chantry. There is no trace of this now – perhaps it was in the south aisle [and later replaced by the Fermor Chapel]. William de Gardinis who became rector by 1377 and remained till 1392 was more controversial He was alleged to have committed robbery with violence!
John Aston, a relation of the Giffards by marriage also had land at Twyford and in 1438 he exchanged these for the Giffard estates in Somerton. John Aston apparently lived at Troy Farm (then called Somertons) He died in 1459 when he left 100 shillings in his will for repairs to Somerton church.
The Fermors Reunite the Lordship
John Aston’s son William Aston inherited, but in 1504, shortly before his death, his share was acquired by William Fermor.
Eight years later, in 1512, the Crown granted the de Greys share also to William Fermor who thus reunited the manor. William proceeded to build a fine Manor House, some remains of which can be seen behind Fermor House, to the east of the Heyford Road.
William was the second son of Thomas Fermor, a wealthy merchant from Witney. William held several positions of authority. In 1509 he was coroner and attorney in the King’s Bench Greenwich; he was a JP both for Oxfordshire and the City of Oxford; he was one of the Commissioners for the Ploughley Hundred , the subdivision of Oxfordshire taking in the north-east corner of the country including modern day Bicester)and served as High Sheriff for Oxfordshire in 1533 & 1543. He held onto these positions despite the fact that he was a staunch Roman Catholic. One local historian put it that “Mr Fermor showed no marked opposition to the King’s measures” when Henry VIII broke from Rome – unlike his older brother Sir Richard Fermor at Easton Neston in Northamptonshire, who being “a very zealous Romanist, fell under the King’s heavy displeasure” for supporting his imprisoned confessor and had all his estate confiscated. (Fortunately for the family, it was returned shortly before his death). The Fermors of Somerton by contrast managed to keep their heads down but did not disguise their faith.
Interestingly William Fermor appointed as Rector one Robert King, a distinguished conservative reformer who opposed those who “want to pull down the images of saints and who denied that the Virgin and Saints are mediators”.
William Fermor died in 1552, having been married four times but with no issue. He was buried according to his will “under the new arch, between the aisle of the south side and the choir wherein I used to kneel”…described as “a great raised monument of gray marble – thereon ye picture of a man and a woman in brass.”
Watercolour of tomb of William Fermor by Thomas Trotter for Royal Society of Antiquaries 1801
This was the first monument in what became the Fermor family mausoleum. The Fermor Chapel has a separate entrance to the south and it is interesting to speculate that William Fermor may have had it built so that he could quietly continue the old rites in a separate part of the church.
His heir was Thomas, the younger son of Richard of Easton Neston, who lived quietly at Somerton for 28 years and quietly resisted the changes of the Reformation period. There is evidence to suggest that there was still a medieval chapel in the castle yard at this time, which was used by Thomas and his recusant followers for Catholic services during Mary’s reign. When he died in 1580 he endowed a free school at Somerton for boys to be instructed in “virtue and learning”. The castle yard chapel was converted into a school building. (The schoolmaster’s house was built about 1750).
Thomas’s fine tomb in the chapel is well documented. Richard and Gabriel Roiley of Burton were to be paid the “full somme of Forty poundes of lawful mony of England”. Under the contract the creature at his feet is supposed to be a lion but is normally described as a dog. ( link to full description of church –The Printed Guide)
His young son Richard came of age in 1596 and bought Tusmore Manor which was to become the principal residence of the Fermors. Somerton, however, remained in the ownership of the family, and the manor house was still occupied by members of the family in 1665. The staunch Roman Catholic tradition of the family continued but Richard and his heirs continued be buried in the Fermor Chapel.
Early in the seventeenth century the Fermors appointed another distinguished cleric to be the Rector of Somerton. William Juxon subsequently became President of St John’s College in Oxford (when he continued to come to Somerton during the vacations), and then Bishop of London. As such he prayed with Charles I on the scaffold before the latter’s execution. (link to picture of execution). After the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660 he was Archbishop of Canterbury for the last years of his life. Juxon was of the ‘high church’ persuasion and would have been happy to accept the Fermors’ continued role in the church locally. By the eighteenth century however more and more of the rectors were non-resident and the church fell into decline.
Henry head of the Fermor family in Tusmore during the Civil War kept a prudent neutrality during the hostilities, but in the Fermor Chapel there is a floor slab to Colonel Thomas Morgan, killed at the battle of Newbury in 1643. He was husband of Jane Fermor, Henry’s aunt.
Cecily moreover the widow of John Fermor, Henry’s eldest son who had died in 1625, held the lands at Somerton “in dower” after her first husband’s death and had then married Lord Arundel of Wardour, the head of another leading catholic family. He too rallied to the support of the King and in 1646 all his estates, including his wife’s lands at Somerton were sequestered, but the family managed to buy them back in 1653 for £1,609 15s 10d.
At their greatest extent the Fermor lands stretched from North Aston in the west to Godington in the east taking in not only all of Somerton, but also some or all Fritwell, Stoke Lyne, Hardwick, Tusmore , Souldern, Croughton and Cottisford on the way.
Throughout their estates the Fermors gave quiet protection to ‘recusants’ (those who refused to attend the Protestant services). In Somerton therefore there remained a significant number of Roman Catholics.Replying to a questionnaire from the Bishop in 1738 the Rector wrote
“Our Parish has always been remarkable for a great many Papists, which I suppose proceeds from most of the Inhabitants being Tennants to Mr. Fermour a Roman Cathk. gentlm. who lives at Tusmore about three miles from us ; I am informed that formerly near half ye Families in ye Parrish were Papists, but they are considerably diminished of late years, there being now 148 Church of England men, and 47 Papists, nineteen of whom are youn’g Children, Servants and Boarders.”
In 1512 shortly after his arrival in Somerton William Fermor had attempted to enclose some of the open-fields but this was checked, and while Fermors still lived at Somerton there were no further efforts to enclose the fields but in 1765 another William Fermor gained an Act of parliament to enclose the open fields. This was a fairly simple matter for, except for the glebe(ie church) land, he owned the whole parish .
Somerton was a small but comparatively prosperous village for much of its history. In the 1780s the quiet life of Somerton must have been greatly affected by the construction of the Oxford Canal along the Cherwell Valley (link to article on Canal to follow soon) This must also have been profitable for the Fermors. For some years it was the main artery between London and the Midlands until the Grand Union Canal was built.
Even more traffic was taken from it by the construction of the railway in Victorian times. This must have had an enormous impact. A village which had hitherto been relatively isolated even had its own railway station. The railway station and signal box (both now gone) feature prominently in the Cotswold Club film about Somerton’s Village Produce Association in the Second World War.
The speed of change increased through the twentieth century. Farming remained the main employment but fewer and fewer labourers were needed. The tied farm labourers’ cottages were sold off or rented out to RAF or US service personnel from the Upper Heyford base (link to article on base to follow soon). Few families stayed in the village for more than one or two generations. Local traditions started to die out. ( article on May Day)
William Barnes of Great Duryard in Devon bought the patronage of the parish of Somerton and with it the advowson (the right to nominate the Rector) and in 1875 nominated his son George Edward Barnes who was the Rector between 1875 and 1923. He was no absentee. He lived in considerable style in what is now the Old Rectory and was dedicated to the life of the parish (link to article about the Barnes family to follow soon). Thus was ushered in the last great period of restoration in the church. He introduced many changes to the church installing, probably at his own or his father’s expense, most of the pews in the nave and the magnificently carved pews in the chancel. He commemorated his father in the remarkable window by Christopher Whall.
The Fate of the Manor
William, the last of the direct male line of the Fermors, sold Somerton to the Earl of Jersey in 1815 for £90,000. By then the Manor House in Somerton was a ruin. It is said that much of the stone was taken for building in the Fermors home at Tusmore [? Photo?] but useful building materials probably found their way into other houses in the village . The Jerseys in turn sold the estate (The Sale of Somerton) in 1919 in several different lots.
The largest part of the Jersey lands in Somerton were sold to Thomas Edwin Emberlin who became lord of the manor. The Emberlins later built themselves a new Manor House to the west of the Heyford road. In her will Miss Sybil Emberlin, the last of the family, left half the proceeds of the sale of this house to the church when she died in 2006. This made possible the major programme to restore the church, conserve its monuments and fit it out to become again a major focus of village life – a programme of which this website and historical project is a minor part.
This article is heavily based on the articles to which it refers and on the chapter on Somerton from the Victoria County History. This can be accessed at http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=63749&strquery=Somerton.”