Centuries of settlement uncovered in Oxfordshire

Ongoing excavations on the grounds of the Besselsleigh estate in south-west Oxfordshire are revealing a rich palimpsest of settlement activity spanning the Roman period through to the modern day, bringing to life a once-thriving place that had been forgotten over time.

Image Credit: Adam Stanford, Sumo Services

The team – led by Jane Harrison, along with students from the Department for Continuing Education at the University of Oxford and local volunteers, as well as those that cut their teeth on Archeox: the East Oxford Archaeology & History Project (see CA 245 and CA 371) – began excavating the site in 2021 as part of a larger project examining the settlement of this part of south-west Oxfordshire, which has been largely unexplored archaeologically. After returning this spring for a second season, the team have made even more discoveries.

The earliest hints of human activity on the site came in the form of some Mesolithic and Neolithic worked flints, but the first major deposits consist of significant amounts of Roman pottery, including Samian ware, as well as coins and a writing stylus from this period. Although no structures have been found so far, these finds are in vastly larger quantities than previous test pits dug in the surrounding areas have uncovered, suggesting that this site was probably settled during the Roman period.

The project’s early medieval finds, meanwhile, are too ephemeral to determine whether occupation for this period was continuous, although evidence of pits and semi-cellars, along with pottery, hairpins, and other small finds, suggest an Anglo-Saxon settlement was once located there. Things become clearer from the time of the Domesday Book onwards, however, as the site is relatively well documented as a manorial estate that saw several changes in ownership and usage over subsequent centuries. The archaeological record from this time has also been rich with discoveries, showing clear stratigraphy of at least three main phases of construction and renovation during the later medieval period.

The first substantial remains to be uncovered were thick stone walls, which associated pottery suggests were built immediately after the Norman Conquest, when the estate was part of Abingdon Abbey, before it was passed to a minor lord known as William the Chamberlain. There were then significant changes to the manor in the 14th century, probably done by the Bessels family who owned it at this time, including the installation of lead piping – a relatively rare discovery for a manor house from this period and possibly influenced by ecclesiastical ties.

Another refurbishment, probably in the 16th century, might reflect the time that the manor was owned by the Fettiplace family. The estate was then purchased by the Speaker of the Long Parliament, William Lenthall, in 1634, and the excavations have revealed that it was around this time that the footprints of the house and grounds underwent a major redesign, with the addition of landscaped gardens, including an elaborately laid cobblestone terrace. The associated village also appears to have been ‘relocated’ at this time, moved a kilometre north, with the original buildings probably demolished and covered over with sand to make way for these upgrades.

As the face of the Long Parliament, Lenthall’s properties drew the attention of the Royalists, and the Besselsleigh manor was attacked and badly damaged by a group of 200 Royalists from Oxford. While post-excavation analysis will hopefully be able to tell us more, there is some evidence of bullets and burning in these layers, which may be from this event.

In the 1690s, the manor then became a girls’ finishing school, where young men studying at the nearby University of Oxford could find ‘virgins of quality’, with masques frequently held there in the hopes of leading to marriages. Parts of the music that was written for one of these masques, ‘Orpheus and Eurydice’, still survives at the Music Library in Oxford. As for the archaeology, finds from this period reflect the site’s refined new occupants, including delicate silver thimbles and some fine and daintily decorated Chinese porcelain.

The manor reverted to a farmed estate in the 18th century, with some rare pottery found from this period, including ceramic chicken feeders and crucibles for laboratory-style experiments. It then burnt down in 1784 and was subsequently demolished before a new manor was built a couple of hundred metres to the west, where it still survives today.