A short history of Banbury
“Ride a cock horse to Banbury Cross,
To see a Fyne lady ride on a white horse.
With rings on her fingers and bells on her toes,
She shall have music wherever she goes”
This nursery rhyme, a favourite with children throughout the English-speaking world, was first seen in print in the year 1784, although it was known in its current form in at least 1760. The ‘Fyne’ lady is generally thought to be a member of the Fiennes family, ancestors of Lord Saye and Sele who own nearby Broughton Castle.
However, the north Oxfordshire town of Banbury dates back much further than the rhyme.
Until a few years ago, the first signs of habitation in the area went back to a Roman villa at Wykham Park from the period around 250AD. However in 2002, during excavations for the building of an office development alongside Hennef Way, the remains of an Iron Age settlement dating back to 200BC were unearthed. The site contained almost 150 items, including pottery and grinding stones, and indications of buildings from the period. The foundation holes and markings show that the buildings were circular and it is thought that the occupants would have comprised a large family unit with their lives based on agriculture.
It was not until Saxon times, in the latter half of the 5th century that Banbury first developed when they built a settlement to the west of the River Cherwell. Indeed, the name Banbury is said to be derived from ‘Banna’, a local Saxon lord who settled there in the 6th century. On the opposite bank they built Grimsbury, which was later incorporated into Banbury.
In the year 913AD a band of Danes – who had settled in Northampton – travelled along Banbury Lane and ravaged much of north Oxfordshire. The Danes were known to be great traders who established market towns. The outcome of their attacks is likely to have benefited Banbury by aiding the development of the town centre. This is reflected in the triangular shape of Banbury’s Market Place, a typical Danish feature.
The Doomsday Book of 1086 has an entry for ‘Banesberie’ (Banbury).
Banbury stands at the junction of two ancient roads: ‘Salt Way’ leading from Droitwich, Worcestershire to London, was used for the transportation of salt. It is still used today as a bridle path to the west and south of the town The other, ‘Banbury Lane’, which began near Northampton and fairly closely followed the modern 22-mile-long road, before running through Banbury’s High Street and on towards the Fosse Way at Stow-on-the-Wold.
Alexander, Bishop of Lincoln, built Banbury Castle in the year 1135AD. The castle stood on the north side of the Market Place – the site now occupied largely by the Castle Quay shopping precinct. Over the centuries the castle was extended and rebuilt.
In the 13th century it had grown to become an important trading centre as the townspeople traded in wool, ale, cakes and cheese. Wool was first referred to in the year 1268 and cheese was manufactured from the 15th to the 18th centuries.
As a rural communications centre, livestock has also been traded in the area for centuries. Indeed, until its closure in 1998, Banbury boasted the largest livestock market in Western Europe. This was located in Merton Street in nearby Grimsbury.
On 26th July 1469, during the Wars of the Roses (1455-87), Edward IV suffered a defeat at the Battle of Danesmoor (or Edgcote Moor), near Banbury, when the Earl of Pembroke’s Yorkist’s army was defeated by a Lancastrian force, led by Robin of Redesdale. Banbury eventually developed into a planned medieval burgh and was eventually granted a Charter of Incorporation on 26 January 1554 by Queen Mary. The Charter gave the town the right to have a Common Council consisting of a Bailiff, 12 Aldermen and 12 Capital Burgesses.
During the 16th century Reformation, Banbury had three crosses….
The ‘Bread Cross’ was situated at the corner of High Street and Butchers Row and was a large, covered cross, made of stone with a slate roof, so that the butchers and bakers who had their market stalls there could keep dry in wet weather. This cross was associated with the distribution of bread to the poor each Good Friday. A cross on this site was first referred to in 1441.
The ‘High Cross’, otherwise known as the Market Cross, was situated in Cornhill, just off the Market Place. This was a focal point used for public proclamations. It had a flight of eight steps with a single shaft of carved stone 20 feet high on top, and was probably referred to as far back as 1478.
The ‘White Cross’ lay on the western boundary line of the old town borough, at what is now the corner of West Bar Street and Beargarden Road. It was first mentioned in 1554, but little is known about it.
In the late 16th century Banbury’s inhabitants were recorded as being “far gone in Puritanism”. Consequently the ruling clique of the council ordered that the town’s crosses be destroyed. So, just after dawn on the morning of 26th July 1600 two masons began demolishing the High Cross, with the Bread Cross and the White Cross being pulled down in the same year.
Banbury was at the heart of the English Civil War (1642-51), when its ‘Puritanism’ made it a Parliamentary stronghold before the town surrendered to Charles I in 1642, following the Battle of Edge Hill (Oct 1642).
It was then besieged by the Parliamentarians (Roundheads) – led by John Fiennes – between 1644-45, after the nearby Battle of Cropredy Bridge (June 1644), and again in January 1646. This second siege, which finally saw the end of Banbury Castle as a Royalist stronghold, lasted until April 27th 1646, when the garrison finally surrendered on generous terms.
Following a petition to the House of Commons in 1648 the castle was largely, but not completely, demolished and the reclaimed materials were used to repair other buildings damaged during the fighting. A painting from the end of the 18th century shows two towers rising above houses to the north of Market Place, but these days nothing can be seen of the castle.
One legacy of the Civil War is still seen today in North Parade and South Parade where modern Woodstock Road and Banbury Road connect. Contrary to common sense, North Parade runs south of South Parade because when Charles I was besieged by Cromwell at Oxford, North Parade represented the Royalist North Front, whilst South Parade was the Roundhead Southern Front.
In 1608 a second Charter was granted providing that the chief citizen should have the title of ‘Mayor’.
1628 saw a great fire which destroyed many of the old buildings, although some still survive to the present day, including several old coaching inns in the town centre. Two of these are located in Parsons Street. One is ‘The New Flyer’ with its Cotswold Stone and Herringbone brickwork, which for many years was known as ‘The Flying Horse’ and more recently as ‘Ye Olde Auctioneer’ hostelry.
Just a few yards further along the street stands ‘Ye Olde Reindeer Inn’. With its heavy, wooden doors, leading through to the yard at the rear, it bears the inscription “Anno Din 1570”. It is said, that Cromwell planned his Edge Hill battle strategy in the Pub’s back room .
In the Market Place, and near the site of the original High Cross, stands the ‘Unicorn Hotel’. The original building included the impressive three-gabled and bay-windowed range now occupied by a building society. The entrance to the Unicorn, the town’s leading tavern throughout the reign of King Charles II, is under the archway and past the gateway bearing the date 1648.
The current ‘Cross’ gracing Banbury lies at the intersection of four major roads – those to Oxford, Warwick, Shipston-on-Stour and the High Street, which leads to the old heart of the town. This was erected in 1859 to commemorate the marriage of Queen Victoria’s eldest daughter Victoria Adelaide Mary Louisa to Friedrich Wilhelm of Prussia on 25th January 1858. It stands 52 feet 6 inches high to the top of its gilt cross and is of a neo-Gothic design. Originally six niches for statues were planned, but this was later reduced to three.
However, the town had to wait over fifty years until 1914 for statues of King Edward VII, King George V and Queen Victoria to be installed, in celebration of King George V’s coronation in 1911.
Near the present Cross stands the domed parish church of St. Mary’s, which was built between 1793 and 1827 to replace the previous church which burnt down in 1792.
The town is famous for its Banbury cakes similar to Eccles Cakes – which are still available in a few bakeries and restaurants locally. These delicious, flat pastries with their spicy, currant fillings have been made in the area to secret recipes since at least 1586.
Communications have always played a major role in the town’s prosperity and prevented it from being just a quiet rural market town. It was a notable stagecoach stop, when both the ‘Red Lion’ and the ‘White Lion’ evolved to become major coaching inns.
The Oxford canal reached Banbury in 1790 connecting Banbury with the industrial Midlands and this bought new wealth and growth. This continued with the arrival of the railways in 1850 when both the GWR (Great Western Railway) and LNWR (London & North Western Railway) reached the town within weeks of each other. This gave the town two stations – Bridge Street and Merton Street – side by side, although the latter closed in 1959.
The effect of this saw the town’s population increase from 12,061 in 1851 to 16,009 by 1911 as commuting to both London and Birmingham became possible.
Banbury experienced three periods of significant growth in the 20th century; the first was due to the arrival of the aluminium factory on the outskirts of the town in 1931 and the second due to overspill agreements with the Greater London Council and Birmingham City Council in the 1960s. This resulted in a housing boom and a population in excess of 20,000 by 1961.
This was followed by the opening of the General Foods (later Kraft) factory opened in 1964, which today is the world’s largest soluble coffee producing facility, making over 11 billion cups of coffee a year and provides the town with its signature welcoming aroma of coffee. Today the Plant employs over 1,100 people making it the town’s largest employer.
The third period of growth has been since the opening of the M40 motorway, which was finally completed in 1990 and brought Banbury within 60 minutes drive of London, Birmingham and the West Midlands.
The Borough of Banbury continued to be the centre of local government until the 1974 local government re-organisation when the Borough of Banbury became part of Cherwell District Council.
Since 2000, on the 400th anniversary of the destruction of the original Banbury Cross, the town has played host to an annual ‘Cock Horse Festival’. Celebrating the traditional hobby horse or ‘cock horse’, the festival is held during the first weekend in July and is attended by several thousand people from all over the world.
In April 2005 Princess Anne unveiled a large 13 foot bronze statue depicting the ‘Fyne Lady upon a White Horse’ of the nursery rhyme. It stands on the corner of West Bar and South Bar, just yards from the present Banbury Cross.
The Castle Quay Shopping Centre – opened in 2002 – utilises the entrance to the former Corn Exchange dating from 1857 and boasts over 70 shops, cafes and the town’s museum. Built alongside the canal, it has transformed the commercial centre of the town, whilst retaining an ‘olde worlde’ atmosphere with its traditional market (Thur and Sat) in the Square and narrow, cobbled alleyways featuring excellent shopping with small and independent shops as well as well-known High Street stores.
Continued expansion saw the development of the Hanwell Fields Estate (2000-2007) boasting 1,200 new dwellings to the north of the town, between the Southam (A423) and Warwick (B4100) roads.
In 2006 the Tesco supermarket on off Ruscote Avenue was extended to create the 2nd largest Tesco Extra in the UK, open 24hrs a day (except Sunday)
The main industries include car components, electrical goods, plastics, food processing, and printing, but it is also home to the world’s largest coffee-producing facility. This has all helped Banbury have one of the UK’s lowest unemployment rates (less than 1%), and has attracted a large percentage of Eastern Europeans since the expansion of the EU in 2004. Indeed these ‘new’ residents now make up 10% of Banbury’s population.
Although Banbury is a thriving modern town, even a short walk around the town centre will reveal much of the charm and character of years gone by.
Today Banbury – which is twinned with Ermont in France and Hennef in Germany – is a very attractive, thriving town of over 43,099 inhabitants (2011 census), although this figure is now expected to exceed 50,000 by 2020.
Famous residents have included at some time, Gordon Ramsey (the celebrated chef), Dermot Gallagher (the Football League referee) and Gary Glitter (born Paul Francis Gadd) the glam rock singer and convicted paedophile. The former Prime Minister, Lord North, was MP for Banbury and Larry Grayson (the camp comedian) was born in the town.
Banbury itself lies at the heart of ‘Banburyshire’, a unique term that describes the town’s ‘sphere of influence’ and includes an area roughly within a fifteen mile radius of the town to include parts of south Northamptonshire and south Warwickshire.
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