Oxford Archaeology’s 2003 publication, Oxford Before the University, tells the story of the town in the centuries before the university came into being and how Oxford has played its part in some of the most significant and formative events of the medieval period. The city is rich in archaeological evidence of its past, and this book includes reports on some 18 previously unpublished excavations, and discusses what we have learnt from half a century of archaeological work.
The story begins in the time of the legendary Anglo-Saxon princess St Frideswide, the patron saint of Oxford. By the end of the 7th century AD, the broad, shallow floodplain of the Thames at Oxford had become a natural crossing place for people and goods travelling between the midlands and the trading centres of the south coast. The route ran along the line of the present-day St Aldate’s, where people could make their way with their animals and goods across a series of channels and islands, across fords and a wooden bridge. The hoofprints of some of these cattle even survived on the muddy bank of an excavated island - the original Ox ford at Oxford - and timbers from the bridge were recorded and radiocarbon dated in excavations in the 1980s and 1990s.
The legend of St Frideswide tells of a minster church founded at Oxford by Frideswide’s father, where Frideswide herself is said to have ruled as abbess during the early years of the 8th century. No remains of this church have yet been found, although if the legends are true it is likely that it would have been located near the site where Oxford Cathedral now stands. We now know that there was a large cemetery here during the Anglo-Saxon period, and this could have been the minster’s graveyard. Excavations in Christ Church, near the cathedral, have revealed over 50 burials. A number of these have been radiocarbon dated to the Anglo-Saxon period, and the earliest - a middle-aged woman - died some time between 620 and 690 AD.
The first evidence that a town had been established at Oxford dates from the second decade of the 10th century. For nearly a hundred years the Vikings had been attacking and plundering the wealth of Anglo-Saxon England. King Alfred the Great led a successful campaign of resistance in the 870s and 880s, culminating in a treaty dividing the country into English territory and Viking territory (the Danelaw). A major part of Alfred’s defensive strategy was the establishment of a network of fortified defensive centres, to guard critical strategic points and provide a place of refuge for the people of the surrounding countryside. Oxford was one of these places, known as burhs by the Anglo-Saxons. We do not yet know whether King Alfred himself was responsible for developing the burh at Oxford, or whether this was carried out by his son and successor, Edward the Elder. However, Oxford seems to have been planned from the first as a defended town, rather than simply a fort. The town was established on land granted from the king’s estate of Headington, and it was laid out with a grid of stone-surfaced streets. Around the outside there ran a defensive earthen rampart with a wooden facing and a deep ditch beyond, presenting a formidable obstacle to would-be attackers. The rampart and the distinctive stone-surfaced streets have been uncovered in numerous archaeological excavations, and a coin of Edward the Elder dating from around 920 was found lodged among the stones on the original Saxon surface of New Inn Hall Street. One of the town’s main functions would have been to provide a local centre for royal administration, and important activities such as the minting of coins took place within the safety of its defences.
Once peace had been made with the Vikings, the country rapidly regained its earlier prosperity and Oxford flourished during the last century of Anglo-Saxon rule. By the early 11th century the main streets were lined with buildings, shops and stalls, and there were several churches in the town, in addition to the old minster of St Frideswide’s. Archaeology provides us with evidence for the trades and crafts of the townspeople: the working of metals, horn and bone, the manufacture of linen and woollen cloth, leatherworking and shoe-making. Food remains from this period have often been found in considerable quantities in excavations. Cereals such as wheat and barley would have been used to make bread and beer; beef and mutton were probably bought at market, but people seem to have been rearing pigs, chickens and pigeons in their backyards in town. Quantities of fish bones and seafood remains include eel (probably caught locally in the Thames), but also cod, herring, flat fish, oysters and mussels - which must have been brought from the coast. Deer, hare and wild birds were hunted, and the remains of a hunting bird, a peregrine falcon, were found at a site in St Aldate’s. The prosperity of the town was also reflected in new building. The stone tower of the church of St Michael at the Northgate dates from the period 1010-1060, and the old wooden facing of the rampart had been rebuilt in stone. In the last decades before the coming of the Normans, Oxford would have been an imposing sight in the surrounding countryside.
Everything changed after the defeat of the English at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. William the Conqueror placed Oxford in the hands of two of his followers, Robert d’Oilly and Roger d’Ivri, and the western quarter of the town was cleared to make way for d’Oilly’s motte and bailey castle. Many of the pre-Conquest houses in the town seem to have been abandoned, and much of Oxford was reported as waste in the Domesday survey of 1086. The town’s fortunes revived towards the end of the 11th century, when d’Oilly (so it is said, to atone for his earlier greed) undertook the construction of a huge stone causeway across the Thames, later known as the Grandpont. Archaeological recording has shown that this survives within the core of modern St Aldate’s and the Abingdon Road even today.
Oxford was one of the most important towns in England during the 12th century. King Henry I built a palace outside the north walls, at Beaumont (now Beaumont Street), and spent the Easter of 1132 there. After his death the country was plunged into the long and grim civil war known as the Anarchy, as his daughter the Empress Matilda and his nephew Stephen of Blois fought for the crown. Oxford was often at the very centre of events at this time, and Matilda was even besieged by Stephen in Oxford Castle. Peace returned in 1154, with the accession of Matilda’s son as King Henry II. The town grew rich on trade in corn, cloth, wool and leather, and the leading citizens no doubt benefited from the frequent presence of the royal family and important lay and ecclesiastical visitors . The citizens were granted privileges by successive kings, and had acquired a town seal by 1191, showing a walled city with the figure of an ox superimposed on it. The increasingly popular cult of St Frideswide brought pilgrims and prosperity to the old minster, which was completely rebuilt during this period. New religious houses were founded, too, including the Augustinian Oseney Abbey and the aristocratic Benedictine nunnery of Godstow, where Henry II’s mistress Fair Rosamund was buried. The town was soon to outgrow its old Anglo-Saxon limits, and new suburbs developed outside its walls and along its approach-roads.
From its modest beginnings as an Anglo-Saxon river crossing, Oxford had survived the Vikings, the Norman Conquest and the Anarchy, to become a prosperous and favoured medieval town. At the end of our study period, in the late 12th century, we see the first signs of the fledgling academic community that was ultimately to transform the town’s future and turn it into one of the world’s most celebrated centres of learning.