British Historic Towns Atlas – Volume VII: Oxford

Review by Graham Keevill

The Historic Towns Trust was established in 1965 as part of the International Commission for European Towns to publish analytical maps of our historic urban centres. The early publications in the 1960s-1970s were multi-town volumes covering the likes of Banbury, Bristol, Salisbury, and Coventry. In recent years, the Trust has turned to single-town (or -city) studies of York, Winchester, and now Oxford. It is no surprise that the editor and other co-authors of this remarkable undertaking are experts in the geology, archaeology, buildings, and history of Oxford (city and county). They follow in substantial footsteps, building on past scholarship such as H E Salter’s 1934 map of medieval Oxford – in effect a gazetteer of the medieval city based on extensive analysis of its original documentation. The current study is a magisterial survey and analysis of archaeological evidence from past observations and more modern excavations (Oxford was at the forefront of the Rescue movement), and historical sources including maps and illustrations.

The results are presented in a large-format book and a sequence of maps that are of generous proportion. Dealing with the latter first, the maps occupy 22 of the 27 detached A3 sheets, which all fold out to A2 format. The first six sheets (Map 1) reproduce the already-published Historical Map of Oxford (2021) – having this in a more-manageable format is helpful. The next nine sheets present the development of the city from its later Saxon beginnings through to c.1800 (Maps 2-10). The broad, schematic nature of the initial maps is perhaps inevitable given the relative wealth of the high medieval and later source material, and it is here that the graphical presentation of the city’s rich history really comes into its own. A comparison of the maps for 1279, c.1400, c.1500, and c.1578, for example, illustrates the growing influence of the University, while also demonstrating that the city’s abbeys and friaries were still a very strong presence. Their effective disappearance from the post-Dissolution map is genuinely dramatic.

The next map (11), a helpful illustration of Oxford’s medieval and later 19th-century parishes, is the last single-sided one. The following six sheets are double-sided, but such is the quality of the paper and printing that there is virtually no ‘bleed-through’. These sheets start with several thematic maps, which are followed by Salter’s ‘gazetteer’ and fine reproductions of Oxford’s well-known old maps from Agas (1578) and Hollar (1643) through to 20th-century OS editions. Many of these are available online now, but having good-sized print versions in one place is a real boon for researchers. The final five sheets present an excellent visual compendium of Oxford’s history and buildings, using archival images alongside a few modern photographs.

The text volume starts with some introductory notes, followed by short sections on the geology, physical setting, and earlier development of Oxford. These are excellent introductions to their subject, but the following chapters on the Anglo-Saxon, medieval, and later city inevitably form the bulk of the work. As expected, the authors have provided an authoritative and detailed account, some of which may challenge readers (especially on the Saxon burh) but never does less than provide a stimulating scholarly exposition of the wealth of available evidence.

Some might wonder whether the large-scale print format is appropriate in this day and age of scarce physical resources. Some, perhaps all, of the text and illustrations could be presented very well digitally online. Certainly the ability to overlay maps one on another, with varying degrees of transparency, is a remarkably powerful tool in its own right. It is also true to say that the large scale of the Atlas’ presentation means that its use requires a considerable area of clear physical space. I do not mind that at all: this is not a casual read. It is a serious work of top-quality scholarship for which we are all in debt to the Historic Towns Trust, their editor, and authors. I for one will find the Atlas to be of immense value for my own research, and congratulate all concerned on the production of this magnificent work.

British Historic Towns Atlas – Volume VII: Oxford
Alan Crossley (ed.)
The Historic Towns Trust in association with Oxford Archaeology, £70.00
ISBN 978-1789253269