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From Domesday to the 17th Century

Elsfield’s location

Elsfield is a parish of 1296 acres lying about 3 miles North-East of Oxford. The village lies at the centre of the parish with the western side taking in part of the river Cherwell, and it is here that the outlying Sescut Farm is situated. In 1957 the Victoria County Histories describes the geographical position of Elsfield village thus:

The cottages and farm-houses of Elsfield form a single gently descending street, with the manor-house halfway down and the church, the vicarage and the thatched school house at the bottom. The street runs at a height of about three hundred feet above sea-level, along a spur of the hills which circle round from Beckley and Stowood to Forest Hill and Shotover.

The school house was demolished in the 1960s but otherwise the description still stands. Clark points out that the village is not there by accident. It is a springline village. Rain falls on the areas of Corallian sands and emerges as a series of springs called ‘welle’ in Old English, at the junction with the Oxford clay, thus giving a reliable source of water. The term ‘welle’ still survives in the field name ‘Lockwell’, now ‘Lockels’ and Pennywell Wood. The lower fields in the clay drained by the Bayswater Brook, parts of which are also known as the Washbrook, are often waterlogged in winter, but the higher parts drain well.

There was also a source of stone for building – an outcrop of Wheatley limestone, which was exploited in the 13th century and sold to Merton College for building its library. There is an entry in the Bursar’s Rolls of Merton College dated 1373-6 referring to Elsfield stone:’“Item pro lapidibus emptis apud Elsefelde, 10s." (“Item for stones bought in Elsfield, 10 shillings") and the stone was used on the south side of Merton library, which was built 1371-9. There were and still are several wooded areas, which in the past would have been exploited for kindling and pannage (letting pigs loose to forage for food).

Romans and Anglo-Saxons

Although there are substantial Roman remains in the vicinity of Elsfield, the nearest being a smelting furnace at Drun Hill, just outside the parish, a temple complex at Woodeaton, a road passing to the east of Oxford and crossing Otmoor, via Beckley, there appear to be no Roman remains in the village itself or if there are, they have not been found. The name Elsfield is very likely to be Anglo-Saxon, of a standard form: a person’s name: Elle followed by ‘field’. The village is called Esefelde in Domesday. ‘feld’ was probably a term given by Anglo-Saxons to rough pasture, rather than the modern idea of cultivated enclosed land. The term distinguished it from forest, marsh or hilly land, though Elsfield village is approached via a substantial hill. After the Norman Conquest, the land was granted to Robert D’Oyley, but was actually in the hands of Turstin, another Norman, who probably lived at Water Stratford in Buckinghamshire. In the Domesday Book, Elsfield was assessed for taxation at five hides[1]. There was arable land for eight ploughs and in the demesne, the land kept for himself by Turstin, there were five ploughs.

There was a wood three furlongs long by three wide and 29 inhabitants listed: five slaves, eleven villeins[2], seven bordars and six others. This is not to say that this is all the people there were in the village. Women and children would not have been counted, and Clark estimates there were probably about a hundred people living here. He says, "At the time of the conquest Elsfield was worth £4 a year which had risen to £5 at the time of Domesday, the increase in value perhaps attributable to clearing of parts of the forest."


[1] A hide was approximately 120 acres.
[2] Villeins rented small houses with or without land from the lord. They were expected to work on the lord’s land. In the social pecking order they were above slaves but below freemen. (Wikipedia) Bordars were villeins who rendered menial services to the lord as rent for their cottage.
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